Brand's new day
- By Michael Hardy
- Aug 25, 2003
It was the simple but wise words of a Denver scoutmaster spoken just shy of half a century ago that led a teenager curious about the weather to become a government computer scientist now known as one of the foremost champions of Extensible Markup Language for storing and using data.
The story of how Brand Niemann turned a fascination with clouds and snow patterns into a facility and talent for computers is a complex but traceable series of bends and turns. The drive that gives him the urge to take those turns may stem from the scoutmaster's words to 16-year-old Eagle Scout Niemann: If meteorology interests you so much, give it a try as a career. Ever since, he has followed his interests, even when they took him down completely new roads.
"I just fell in love with weather, predicting the weather. I was 15 or 16, and this was a pivotal moment in my life," said Niemann, 62, a computer scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency and chairman of the CIO Council's XML Web Services Working Group.
Inspired by his scout leader's encouragement, which came while Niemann was working to earn the meteorology merit badge, he left Denver for Salt Lake City to study weather at the University of Utah. "It was the closest school with undergraduate meteorology courses," he said.
Niemann minored in air pollution science, with an eye toward working for the EPA. But first he took a job with the Deseret Test Center, a top-secret government test facility in California. Its mission was testing biological and radiological warfare materials, and it needed meteorologists to study the effects of wind, rain and other weather elements on the substances.
After a year at Deseret, he went to work for the private Meteorology Research Center, where he stayed for eight years. Only then did he begin to move east, toward Washington, D.C., and the EPA job he wanted.
That move came when he went to work for another California company, Teknekron, in Berkeley. It won an EPA contract to study air pollution and how it spread through the Ohio River Basin.
The project was a bridge between Niemann's career so far and what was to come. It was there and on subsequent projects that Niemann began to learn about computer modeling, the then- burgeoning science of using computer programs to predict where pollution would spread under specific weather conditions.
After getting a job with the EPA in 1980, he became more deeply involved in the science's computational side. Administrator William Ruckelshaus wanted the agency to become more aggressive in fighting acid rain. Niemann was asked to create the computer models, using only an IBM Corp. Lotus spreadsheet. In 1983, he was made special assistant to Ruckelshaus.
"I was very fortunate because Bill Ruckelshaus changed the policy on acid rain," Niemann said. "Before, it had been just research. Now it was to be research and control. We then had the only [computer] model that worked. We were able to evaluate almost every acid rain proposal before Congress very quickly."
Niemann worked for the EPA for about 10 years in acid rain control and related areas before his work began to shift toward computer innovation in other, nonmeteorological fields.
In 1989, he was asked to turn the EPA's massive "Guide to Federal Environmental Information and Statistics" into a structured document using markup language. "That was 1989, before the Web," and also before either HTML or XML had been derived from Standard Generalized Markup Language. Niemann used SGML to create a searchable CD-ROM for the statistics document.
From that point on, he has been seen as something of an authority on the use of markup languages. However, he said his interest in environmental science and the weather has not diminished.
"In my digital library work and other work, I still maintain close contact with the content," he said. "I've always had an interest in the content and the subject matter as well as how to structure and deliver it with computer science. You can't help but learn the content and keep current when you're repurposing documents. You're reading them at the same time you're structuring them."
It was Mark Forman, former administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of E-Government and Information Technology, who started Niemann on his present course with the CIO Council. Forman initiated the formation of the XML working group last fall.
"No sooner did I start the working group than I started getting requests, one of which came from Mark Forman himself, to start working on XML for electronic forms," Niemann said.
Although viewed as a change agent, Niemann believes the critical change is less in technology than in thought.
"I find more enjoyment in creating an environment in which people with energy can thrive," he said. "All of this is more of a cultural change. Technology is quite simple and straightforward in most cases."
The Brand Niemann file
Title: Chairman, XML Web Services Working Group, CIO Council.
Education: Ph.D. in meteorology, University of Utah.
Family: Niemann's first wife died in 1981. He has since remarried and has seven children and 11 grandchildren.
Other passions: He plays drums, timpani and other percussion instruments with the Mormon Choir of Washington, D.C. He used to play with the Utah Symphony. "I love music," he said. "I find that the discipline of music is a major influence."