EPA manager creates environment for data

BOSTON— On an afternoon in January, Mike McDougall, information resources manager for the Environmental Protection Agency's New England office, glanced out his 10th-floor office window at the traffic streaming along Boston's elevated Central Artery below. Road crews working on the nation's biggest highway construction project— the so-called "Big Dig," which will put this commuter highway underground— surround the building on three sides.

"The only thing I'm worried about is, will there be any cable cuts," McDougall said, gesturing toward the street, where workers have been digging inches from the fiber optic lines that connect the office with another EPA site a few blocks away. "I hope they don't hit a power line and take us out."

It is just one of the logistical concerns with which McDougall has contended lately.

He also is getting ready to launch a 30-employee telecommuting pilot and is in the midst of upgrading the office local-area network to support workers who are moving from the nearby satellite office into regional headquarters. "LANs are us," he quipped, taking a visitor through a computer room where new PCs were stacked on the floor, awaiting installation.

McDougall has spent almost his entire career at the EPA's Boston site, where he began as a systems analyst in 1972, shortly after the agency's birth. He took charge of information technology operations for the six-state regional office 14 years ago, and he has since then overseen development of one of the agency's first geographical information systems (GIS) centers, installation of the region's voice-mail system and the piloting of the EPA's new Envirofacts World Wide Web-based data warehouse.

Although he has served brief stints at the EPA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., and at the agency's national computer center in Raleigh, N.C., he has been content to call Massachusetts home.

"I have a big extended family in the Boston area," he said. "I haven't sacrificed a lot."

His 25-person staff and 40 contractors support 800 front-line EPA and contract employees responsible for preventing pollution and enforcing environmental laws from the New York state border to the Atlantic Ocean. These analysts, located mainly in Boston and at a laboratory in suburban Lexington, subsist on computer-based data such as color-coded depictions of ozone levels in the atmosphere and maps of area water supplies.

"A big push for us now is to deliver [GIS] to the desktop," McDougall said. "We've been pretty fortunate in having current server technology, but we're probably a couple hundred desktops short of having everyone have a Pentium."

Although McDougall has been working with other agency IT managers to integrate the EPA's stovepiped databases, he mainly supervises development of software applications needed by local users. "We don't always have to invent it here," he said, noting that he sometimes adapts programs developed in another region.

Right now, McDougall said, he is concerned as much about the data that goes into the region's databases as the tools employees have to manipulate it. Much environmental management work crosses state and local boundaries, and there are not any data sources that provide consistent information about animal habitats, wetlands and regulated pollution sites throughout the area.

So McDougall and some of his state-level counterparts invested in a project to develop data standards for the region, with similar efforts under way nationally. "The idea was to give both EPA and state folks something to go to as local decisions were made on land use and zoning,'' he said.

The region's mission includes sharing its data with state officials and the public. "More and more, I'd like to see my group get into data scouting," he said, referring to the job of collecting environmental data from state agencies, local governments and private companies that can help make regional data repositories more accurate.

McDougall said the task of managing the increasingly automated office library is also "a growing piece of business." He said the role of the library has become more essential as employees increasingly need to develop "a corporate sense of what's on the Internet" that can help their research. "There is more walk-up traffic to the library than anywhere else in the region," he added.

A long-distance runner, McDougall ran the Boston Marathon last spring for the first time.

He also is racing to keep abreast of the latest technology his office needs. "The organization keeps morphing," he said. "My work is to try to be the business agent, to scout opportunities."

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