All in a day's work
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- May 14, 2001
It all started when a young Brand Niemann was earning his weather merit
badge in his successful quest to become an Eagle Scout. To attain the badge,
he met with the chief of the weather bureau in his hometown of Denver in
an encounter that piqued his curiosity and changed his life.
"He said I should look into a career in meteorology if I was interested,
and I took his advice," said Niemann, a computer scientist in the Data Standards
Branch of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental
Now Niemann is on another quest: to make it easier to access government
statistical information that is available from multiple agencies. In his
daily job, Niemann integrates Extensible Markup Language and peer-to-peer
technology into EPA systems and networks so the agency can easily exchange
data with stakeholders.
However, he may be better known for his "volunteer jobs." Niemann is
a member of the FedStats Interagency Task Force, where he has pioneered
work in the fields of XML and peer-to-peer technology. P2P enables the real-time
exchange of data among computer systems, with each "peer" having the same
His work has led to the creation of the FedStats site, which includes
statistical data from more than 70 agencies via XML and P2P technology.
Initially, Niemann was told there was no money for the project. Even so,
he continued to champion the idea, and he eventually found funding.
Within five weeks, the FedStats team had the XML-based FedStats site
up and running (www.fedstats.gov). And by November, fedstats.net which
enabled interagency searches and the online publishing of large federal
documents was capable of categorized searching of numerous government
reports. The FedStats team won then-Vice President Al Gore's Golden Hammer
Award last December.
David Berry, executive director of the Interagency Working Group on
Sustainable Development Indicators, said the undying effort that Niemann
puts into volunteer projects has inspired others to pick up the pace and
"I don't know how he does it with his regular EPA duties and juggling
these other projects," Berry said. "We're all volunteers, and Brand is enthusiastic
and tireless.... [We'd] have a very difficult time without him."
Niemann has always let his interests guide him. He earned degrees in
meteorology and air pollution science and was eventually invited to become
a personal assistant to then-EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus in the
Reagan era. He stayed seven years, serving a number of administrators, while
"specializing in start-up activities." Using only the original Lotus Development
Corp. spreadsheet, he developed a model to predict acid rain for which
he was nominated twice for the Smithsonian Computerworld award.
After stints with the Interior Department's National Biological Survey
and the U.S. Geological Survey, Niemann returned to the EPA in 1997 and
began working on unique projects, including FedStats.
It's not clear that the FedStats story carries a happy ending. On April
20, fedstats.net was taken off-line and now carries a message that says,
"The exploration of peer-to-peer technology in the "fedstats.net' environment
remains a proof- of-concept demonstration at this juncture." Explanations
to Niemann and others about the move have yet to surface.
But Niemann said he is not discouraged and looks to his family and other
volunteer jobs for inspiration. "Of all the awards I've gotten, my greatest
satisfaction was four years ago, producing a CD-ROM for the [Boy Scouts
of America] National Scout Jamboree," Niemann said. The CD included information
from the EPA, USGS and other sources to help the scouts meet their requirements,
as well as its most popular feature: an interactive flyover of the Jamboree
"It enabled me to give something back to something that had given so
much to me."