This geospatial data manager spreads the wealth of EPA data

This geospatial data manager spreads the wealth of EPA data

By Kevin McCaney

GCN Staff




David R. Wolf

With EPA's site, he wants to put GIS functionality onto every desktop PC.


David R. Wolf came to the Environmental Protection Agency nine years ago because, he said, "This is where the action is in geography."

But he wasn't hired as a geographer'at least not officially, despite his degree in the science and 15 years with the Geological Survey under his belt. EPA doesn't have a job under that title. So, Wolf said with a shrug and a smile, "I'm a computer specialist."

In fact, he's the geospatial data manager for EPA's Enterprise Information Management Division, part of the agency's Office of IRM. And regardless of the job title, he was right about the action.

From a windowless office at the end of a narrow hallway at OIRM, Wolf is putting EPA's world into a far-reaching geographic information system, an online atlas of maps linked to extensive environmental information and accessible not only to EPA employees but also to the public.

The focal point of Wolf's work is EPA's EnviroMapper Web site, which he describes as an effort "to deliver real GIS functionality through an unencumbered thin client'the Web browser."

Users who go to the EnviroMapper site, at maps.epa.gov, will find easy paths to maps of any community in the country, either searching by name or by clicking a map to zoom in on.

Once there, users can tailor a map to include specific information, such as waterways, railroads or population areas. They can focus on watershed indicators or Superfund sites, and link from the map location to detailed information, such as the history of a Superfund site.

Wolf's enthusiasm for the project is hard to miss. Once he starts talking about it, he steadily picks up speed as he describes EnviroMapper's inner and outer workings and the complexity of building a site that is simple to use. For all the details, though, his ultimate goal for the site is stated in just a few words: "GIS on any desktop, anytime, anywhere."

"The piece I'm most interested in is the geographic interface" as the window to a wealth of geospatially relevant environmental data, he said. "The interface has got to be flexible; it's got to be something you don't have to have any training to use."

Global information systems have increased the accuracy of maps, Wolf said, but the unifying link in the site's development has been the Internet.

The Internet has made it possible to link to Web servers for other databases, increasing the amount of data available, Wolf said.

"The public has not been the only beneficiary. EPA people have access to EPA data they could not get before," he said.

"As an application developer, my goals are: One, to get our applications out to the whole world, and two, to never [have to] apologize for not having all the data," Wolf said.

Stovepipes gone

It's a far cry from the stovepipe systems the agency had when he arrived in 1990. EPA's programs, created in pieces from environmental law, operated separately, and the Internet did not really exist. Creating the site was more than just a technical challenge, Wolf said.

"One of the things we're trying to do with EnviroMapper is cooperatively develop it and we're learning how to change the culture, not just the technology," he said.

To Wolf, the idea was a natural extension of his work with the agency's EnviroFacts Warehouse team, which was combining EPA data into an open-architecture Oracle Corp. database running under Unix. And once it got started, things happened quickly.

He went to the agency's Executive Steering Committee for IRM with the idea for EnviroMapper in August 1997. In May of last year, the first version appeared. At the same time, he also proposed an open data access project to get away from using centralized databases. That project is under way.

Wolf credits the committee, made up of EPA officials, with quickly recognizing the potential of the projects and providing support. "There is probably not another agency that has tried so hard to get information out to the public," he said.

The site has developed steadily since its inception. A team at EPA's Systems Development Center came up with the initial design and has continued to work on development. EnviroMapper is a Visual Basic application running MapObjects software from Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands, Calif. Wolf's team has Web-enabled the application with MapObjects Internet Map Server, which communicates with Netscape Enterprise Server. The entire package, with 22G of data in what is called the National Shape File Repository, resides on a 200-MHz Compaq ProLiant running Microsoft Windows NT.

The site is managed at EPA's Enterprise Technology Division in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

That vision is one of the things that keeps him where he is. "I absolutely love enabling the agency employees and citizens to access and retrieve environmental data," he said. Like other federal employees, he is aware of the lures of the private sector, but he said he is committed to his career choice: "I'm in government and I'm going to stay."

Besides, there is a lot of action yet to come in geography, particularly with GIS, mapping and data links. So what does the near future look like?

"Five years? It's going to be on the Internet'or whatever they call it then," he said. "And the concept of open data access will no longer be a concept."

"To me," he said, "the sky will be the limit."

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