EPA buy to unite diverse databases

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to purchase new database technology that would allow users to obtain up-to-the-minute geographic information from disparate applications.

Among other functions the software would give users access to multiple geospatial databases with a single query including information maintained by state or local governments other federal agencies and EPA regional offices. It would extend the capabilities of two current Web-based EPA applications: the Envirofacts data warehouse and a subset of the data warehouse called the Maps on Demand service.

With Envirofacts the EPA has begun to integrate many of its databases but the application is not always up to date or as detailed as information maintained by EPA regional offices or state and local agencies.

"We often develop data out here and have better information than in our national repository so for that kind of data we need to develop mechanisms to upload it to the national system " said Noel Kohl deputy chief in the Office of Information Services for the EPA's Chicago office.

Ray Peterson a geographic information system (GIS) project coordinator with the EPA in Seattle where the first Maps on Demand application was developed about three years ago said existing databases "were not really set up to handle spatial data they were set up to handle columns and rows of data."

So while it is easy to search for particular attributes of a location such as a name or address it is harder to retrieve all the data that relates to a specific set of boundaries on a map especially from different sources.

But new "spatially aware" databases will make this type of search easier by drilling in more precisely on the data users request he said. By returning smaller files transmission time over the Web will be quicker making searches of multiple sites more practical.

"The integration of all GIS databases is the way our technology is evolving " said Dana Paxson federal marketing coordinator with Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. whose Arc/Info GIS software forms the basis of the EPA's geospatial databases. "EPA has collected huge amounts of data and now they are looking at more of an IT tool" to manage the information she said.

Steve Cooperman director of spatial solutions with Oracle Corp. which provides the EPA's database platform said that in the past maps and other geographic information had to be stored on a separate system but today such data can be included in the relational database along with any related information.

"What's on the Web with mapping now is just a picture " Cooperman said. "There's no further intelligence."

Among those who regularly tap EPA databases in addition to government employees are students teachers regulated companies and environmental watchdog groups. "The vast majority of users out there just want some quick and easy way of looking at a map of information " Kohl said.

According to a recently issued request for information from industry the EPA wants to buy commercially available software that supports industry standards for GIS. The agency's requirements include database management software compatible with Oracle's Spatial Database Option for storing all of its geospatial data and conversion utilities which can translate data from many sources into a common format.

Peterson said that for the Maps on Demand application one new capability the agency hopes to offer is interactive maps that could deliver more details about specific locations with a click of a mouse. He said he expects the EPA to begin testing available software packages within six months.

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