Learn to share

Recognizing all the difficulties associated with sharing data electronically across government boundaries does not justify shirking the work. But understanding all the incentives for undertaking the task doesn't make it any easier to pull off.

That, in a nutshell, describes the state of affairs for many agencies as they explore the opportunities created by the Internet. Federal, state and local governments frequently must share information in the course of regulating businesses or providing services to the public.

The Environmental Protection Agency is a perfect example. State agencies collect data about air and water to support the EPA's mission. Furthermore, other parties have an interest in viewing that data, including state and local agencies and businesses themselves.

But because of the lack of a uniform process and common network for reporting and exchanging data, information often gets muddled — not to mention the lack of access to the data. The Internet seems an ideal solution for sharing, but it's a complicated affair. Defined formats for transmitting data, security for protecting data and other rules of engagement for the parties involved are required. If it were simply a matter of making information sharing more convenient — such as using glorified e-mail — not many agencies would make the effort.

But, as EPA officials have realized, there's more to it than that. Done well, information sharing can go a long way toward helping an agency carry out its mission.

In this case, the EPA believes it can improve the quality of its data by using the National Environmental Information Exchange Network to streamline its collection process and get rid of multiple reporting requirements. The data also will be more secure, because it's managed in a controlled environment, and more accessible, because it can be made available selectively to the public.

We hope that the EPA's effort inspires other agencies to look for similar opportunities in their communities. It will not be easy, EPA officials will no doubt confirm, but the benefits should make it hard to be distracted by the work that is required.

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