EPA puts wikis to work on ecosystem support

Puget Sound effort leads to an ongoing wiki on watershed management

Agency: Environmental Protection Agency

Project: Puget Sound and watershed management

Locations: www.epa.gov/region10/psgb, www.epa.gov/watershedcentral/wiki.html

Technology: MediaWiki, Google Maps

The Environmental Protection agency appears to be onto something with its use of wikis.

A spur-of-the-moment foray into using a wiki three years ago produced solid results, attracting input that supported the agency’s management of the Puget Sound ecosystem. And EPA has followed that up with another wiki as part of its Watershed Central Web site.

It started in November 2007 with what became known as the Puget Sound Mashup.

In an interview with GCN, then-EPA Chief Information Officer Molly O’Neill said she was looking to explore the use of new technologies while at the 2007 symposium held by EPA’s Office of Information in St. Louis. She wanted to try collaboration tools to address an environmental issue.

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The issue arrived with a request from the Puget Sound Leadership Council, which was created to revitalize the ecosystem. EPA had responsibility for Puget Sound but needed input from state and local governments in the region, other organizations and the public. So the agency decided to set up a wiki during the symposium to collect and aggregate ideas and information, O’Neill said.

The symposium featured a mashup camp, with demonstrations on how to do mashups of datasets, O’Neill said, and that became a natural staging area for the Puget Sound wiki.

Puget Sound water site

The experiment wasn’t limited to the symposium. EPA e-mailed invitations to take part, and some of the recipients passed the invitation along to others. “We invited staff as well as people from state governments, local governments, Indian tribes and industry to learn about new applications and to share what is going on in the agency,” she said.

During the next 36 hours, “we had over 17,000 page views and 175 good contributions,” she said.

EPA is taking a similar, albeit longer-term, approach to its Watershed Central wiki.

The Watershed Central Web site is intended to support watershed management programs, offering guidance documents, tools, case studies and datasets to help users share information, analyze data, and find ways to start or strengthen watershed efforts.

Since the wiki was launched in March 2009, it has drawn 800 registered users, with about 1,000 pages of information on about 150 watershed projects, said Stuart Lehman, an environmental scientist in EPA’s Office of Water. The site is a joint effort of the agency’s offices of Water, Research and Development, and Environmental Information.

A lot of people are involved in watershed management, from local, state and federal levels, and they have expertise in different areas. “There wasn’t one place where all of that was put in a single location,” Lehman said.

The wiki provides a way for users to share information and find other people and organizations involved in watershed management. Somone writing about the Great Lakes, for instance, can map the article so others interested in the same area can find it, Lehman said.

The site is primarily educational, he said, with the goal of improving watershed management by sharing information, ideas and best practices.

EPA offices, such as the Office of Pesticide Programs and the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, also make use of wikis internally, Lehman said. And others are joining the public discussion: The agency’s Urban Waters Initiative recently became part of the Watershed Central site.

Wikis might not work for every government endeavor. But in a case such as EPA’s, which involves complex ecological systems and commercial and recreational interests, they provide a good way to involve the range of people who play a part in managing an ecological system.

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