All in a day's work

FedStats

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 Information.

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 capabilities.

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 meet deadlines.

"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 site.

"It enabled me to give something back to something that had given so much to me."

MORE INFO

The Brand Niemann file

Title: Computer scientist in the Data Standards Branch of the Environmental

Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Information.

Education: Bachelor's degree and master's degree in science and doctorate

in meteorology and air pollution science from the University of Utah.

Family: Niemann and his wife, Shirley, have four sons, three daughters

and "six and three-quarters grandchildren," with their first granddaughter

due soon.

Personal: In addition to his involvement in scouting — all four of Niemann's

sons are Eagle Scouts like their father — Niemann helped put himself through

school by playing timpani and percussion in the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

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