EPA plans data-rich situation room

The data-driven Environmental Protection Agency plans to create virtual and physical emergency response situation room to improve how it collects and accesses information.

The room will enable stakeholders to get to important data "faster, better and cheaper," according to agency officials.

The EPA constantly collects an enormous amount of air, water and land data, so-called indicators used to assess the health of the natural environment. In building its situation room, the agency wants to make sure officials can immediately access information that can help them prevent and react to a chemical attack or other emergency situation.

The goal is "to make sure we have the information we need, when we need it and where we need it, to react to terrorism, but also to be proactive," said Debra Stouffer, the EPA's chief technology officer. "It's all data access."

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the EPA re-evaluated its data management capabilities. The agency played a key role in efforts to clean the air at ground zero in New York City and, later, to deal with the anthrax scare.

"It's a matter of just being prepared so we could react timely and accurately," Stouffer said.

The situation room the EPA envisions will come in several forms. The first version, expected to be in place around October, will actually be a desktop computer application known as a dashboard.

Just as a car's dashboard includes a speedometer, odometer, gas gauge and other indicators in a small amount of space, an electronic dashboard is a graphical user interface that consolidates key application or data sources so an employee can find desired data with just a glance.

The initial room will package information "readily available, to give a feel for the capability," Stouffer said.

A more complete virtual situation room, which should be ready by year's end, goes further. Rather than simply make information available, it will integrate data that EPA employees consider important to monitoring environmental indicators and spotting trends.

"There are many agencies already doing this kind of thing to protect our nation," Stouffer said. "Most situation rooms enable you to react. We are proposing being able to identify trends. That's the big difference."

A physical situation room, which should be in place sometime next year, will provide a site where experts can gather during a crisis.

Take the following scenario. A scientist wants to track the nation's water infrastructure to detect any abnormalities. This scenario is built into the virtual room, telling the system to send an e-mail message when an indicator reaches a certain threshold.

"Alerts and notifications could even be wireless," said Brian Gentile, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Brio Software Inc., a business performance company.

The situation room will rely largely on geographic information systems, collaboration and decision-support tools. "It can be personalized," Stouffer said. "You can do whatever you need to do."

"What it boils down to is usually a control and command center," like those used by the military, said Ray Bjorklund, vice president of consulting services at Federal Sources Inc., a market research firm.

"It helps to mitigate the uncertainty in decision-making because it provides additional quality of information, improves the ability to keep up with the tempo of the situation and communicates a shared vision of what is happening and what needs to happen," Bjorklund said.

But first, the EPA has to get its enterprise architecture in place, he said.

Stouffer agrees and is leading the agency's architecture effort — "the foundation underneath," as she calls it.

With the situation room, she will start by keeping an inventory of dashboards that already exist. She then anticipates a roundtable discussion on best practices and lessons learned and finally, a product procurement.

The agency has found space for the room and recently assigned a program manager for the technology component.

EPA officials want to partner with several organizations on the project, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Exxon Mobil Corp., Stouffer said.

"It will definitely involve other agencies," she said. "I envision this as an e-government initiative." The project could land at the proposed Homeland Security Department, she said.

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Room with a view

The Environmental Protection Agency is developing an emergency response situation room that will rely largely on geographic information systems, collaboration and decision-support tools.

The room will come in three forms:

1. A dashboard, or desktop computer application, that packages readily available information.

2. A virtual room that integrates data EPA employees consider important to monitoring environmental indicators and spotting trends.

3. A physical room where experts can gather and collaborate during a crisis.

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