4 studies in collaboration — Case 3: Puget Sound Information Challenge

Good ideas come to government agencies that ask people to contribute them

The Environmental Protection Agency wanted to test how quickly it could get people to participate in a Web 2.0 project.

It issued an open call for submissions to a wiki. The results of the Puget Sound Information Challenge demonstrated that Web 2.0 applications offer benefits that government has not yet tapped.

The experiment took place in November. The agency’s Office of Environmental Information asked a group of 600 federal, state and private-sector employees for as many ideas as they could offer for cleaning up and monitoring Puget Sound in Washington.

They would offer their ideas during OEI’s mid-November National Symposium, which lasted 1 1⁄2 days. EPA did not advertise the experiment beyond an announcement officials made during lunch on the first day of the conference.

Molly O’Neill, OEI’s administrator and chief information officer, said EPA was curious to see whether experts from different professions would respond. The office approved the experiment late in the planning stages.

 “We worked quickly to just make it happen,” she said. “We really didn’t do a drawn-out technology assessment. Maybe that was a good thing.”

The challenge elicited 175 responses and about 17,000 wiki page views.

The wiki project “was enormously helpful to the Puget Sound Partnership,” said Bill Ruckelshaus, chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership and a former EPA administrator.

For example, a NASA employee contributed information to help interpret and read air quality data from space.

Members of the U.S. Geological Earth Observation Community offered guidelines for using remote sensing data indicators to measure water quality.

O’Neill declared the experiment a success. It “proved it doesn’t take a year to integrate information,” she said.

It was also successful because people “really got how the Internet is a platform they can [use to] come together virtually to share data and ideas and propose solutions,” she said. Many of the contributors were information technology professionals and not experts on the Puget Sound environment.

David Weinberger, research fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said the challenge worked because EPA had an enthusiastic audience whose members quickly spread the word.

Professionals who visited the wiki reviewed and corrected submissions and improved the quality of the information.

The wiki produced impromptu collaborations. In one instance, members of EPA’s science community put their heads together with employees from the Transportation Department and an estuary program and came up with an idea to equip Puget Sound ferryboats with environmental monitoring equipment.

Policy issues
O’Neill said EPA is working on several Web 2.0 projects, including a wiki it will use for peer reviews of regulatory documents and work products.

EPA is also working on using podcasts for training purposes, Really Simple Syndication feeds to issue alerts, and mashups to integrate geospatial and other data. O’Neill wants to create a forum for
employees to exchange ideas about the uses of search engines and geospatial data.

All are applications that will enable EPA employees to move information faster, collaborate more easily and generate innovative ideas, O’Neill said.

She added that she expects policy questions to arise as more agencies experiment with Web 2.0 applications.

“The government sector is just beginning the adoption process,” O’Neill said, “and policy issues such as privacy, security and official records are still evolving.” 

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