CSC heads up EPA info-sharing initiative

The Environmental Protection Agency late last month selected Computer Sciences Corp. to manage an information-sharing initiative that eventually will link federal, state and local governments, tribal communities and regulated industries.

The EPA's Central Data Exchange (CDX), a portal for receiving and retrieving environmental reports, is the agency's entry point for its National Environmental Information Exchange Network, a developing Web-based system that connects the federal government with states, which all collect environmental data.

Participants will format data using Extensible Markup Language and post it at agreed-upon intervals to Web sites that serve as nodes, allowing the agency and, eventually, other partners to access the information directly.

The Paperwork Reduction Act is driving a lot of these efforts, said Dale Luddeke, vice president of resource and environmental services at CSC. "And this is EPA's step in that direction. We want to take what everybody's doing and create a common area."

The contract, estimated at $285 million over seven years, was awarded as a task order through the General Services Administration's Millennia program.

The EPA and state officials envision benefits that include lower-cost, higher-quality data, improved information management and better environmental policy.

"We have struggled since the inception of the national databases [to achieve] accurate, timely and usable [information], and the network gives a mechanism to deal with all three of those needs," said Dana Bisbee, assistant commissioner for New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services and co-chairman of the EPA/state working group.

The EPA received $25 million for fiscal 2002 — with $2.5 million set aside for tribes — for a grant program in support of the network. The money will go toward state data modernization and integration efforts.

"We seem to be a little bit on the bleeding edge in terms of federal/state networks," said Mark Luttner, director of the EPA's Office of Information Collection. "That seems to be the way to go."

In the beginning, the system will be limited to information already being shared. "It will expand to other participants as their interest and the capacity of the network allow. The ultimate vision is a broad and diverse web of quality information, but the design begins small," according to a blueprint for the network, updated last year. CSC and the EPA plan to have CDX fully operational by the fall.

The EPA began work in 1998 on CDX, which is operating for a handful of systems, including the Toxic Release Inventory. Of the approximately 22,000 firms reporting data, about 2,000 did so via the Internet in 2001.

"It's not theoretical or hypothetical," Luttner said. "It's a real function at this point."

For instance, the agency designed its drinking water standards program to be electronic, and about 5,000 drinking water laboratories submitted information through CDX last year.

The EPA plans to bring in more programs, such as its permits compliance system, in coming years. For those still at the gate, the old options remain: paper, diskette and CD-ROM, he said.

"It's not going to happen overnight," CSC's Luddeke said. "There are a lot of opportunities to share technology and business processes."

CDX next enters a transition period as CSC assumes control of the project from the Logistics Management Institute. About 140 employees will operate and maintain the portal from New Carrollton, Md. The company has teamed with Concurrent Technologies Corp., Creative Information Technology Inc., Digital Signature Trust Co., Grant Thornton LLP, InfoPro Inc., Lexign Inc., SeeBeyond Technology Corp. and the Systems Integration Group Inc.

"We're still very pleased with the coordination and cooperation EPA and the states are demonstrating on this venture," New Hampshire's Bisbee said.

The EPA isn't alone in its quest to share information electronically.

As part of a new approach to program evaluation, the Education Department plans to create an electronic data system on student achievement and educational outcomes.

The Bush administration is asking Congress for $10 million for Education in fiscal 2003 for the Performance-Based Data Management Initiative.

"The federal government's old approach of issuing and collecting voluminous reports that had little utility for decision-makers or the public will be replaced by a new system that uses the latest technology to make the performance information readily available," the administration wrote in its budget request.

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Nuts and bolts of data exchange

The following technologies will play a role in building the Environmental Protection Agency's Central Data Exchange:

* Electronic data interchange.

* Public-key infrastructure and signatures.

* Extensible Markup Language.

* Virtual private networks.

* Firewalls and intrusion detection.

* General Services Administration's Access Certificates for Electronic Services.

* Remote access tools.

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