EPA awards grants for info-sharing project

The Environmental Protection Agency has awarded grants to support an ambitious information sharing initiative that will simplify reporting on air, water, waste and toxics.

On Aug. 8, the EPA announced $25 million in funding for 44 states, 17 American Indian tribes and one U.S. territory to develop entry points, or nodes, to its National Environmental Information Exchange Network, a Web-based, work in progress that eventually will link federal, state and local governments, tribal communities and regulated industry.

The money, set aside in the agency's fiscal 2002 budget, will go toward projects that promote using common formats, integrating information, reconciling inconsistencies and creating nodes through which participants can input or access environmental data.

Of the four types of grants — one stop, readiness, administrative and challenge — the latter category has drawn the most excitement because of its focus on collaboration.

"I know of no other grant program that exists today where so many states voluntarily partner together to find a common solution," said Kim Nelson, the EPA's chief information officer. "States traditionally [act] independently. This really breaks the mold."

Although the EPA plans to have its own node, called the Central Data Exchange (CDX), up and running by this fall, the agency needs network participants to get moving to fulfill its ultimate vision of "a broad and diverse web of quality information," according to a blueprint for the network, updated last year.

"We want to get to the point where the environmental decision-makers in this country — at all levels — have the same quality, accurate and timely information," Nelson said.

Meanwhile, for those not quite ready, the old options remain: paper, diskette and CD-ROM. There's "a lot of paper [getting filed] whereas it could all happen electronically," said Irene Kropp, CIO for New Jersey's Environmental Protection Department. "All of the states are really excited because getting data from their systems to EPA has always been a problem. [There's a] huge disconnect."

New Jersey, for instance, invested millions in an Oracle Corp.-based data management system only to find that it was incompatible with the EPA's system. "We couldn't get our data out of our system and into their system," Kropp said.

The network will eliminate that problem by defining standards and creating a common terminology based on the Extensible Markup Language. So "it works if you've invested millions of dollars or if you're the little guy," she said.

That is crucial, according to John Cohen, a former police officer and federal agent and president of PSComm LLC, a consulting firm. "It's very significant," he said. "What the EPA is doing is actually creating a model [of] how you can link information collected by states, local [governments] and nationally." And the grants provide the necessary incentives for them to do it, he said.

The EPA doled out all the money it received for grants in fiscal 2002, including $2.5 million set aside for tribes. "In an era where budgets are clearly tight at all levels of government, [this represents the] best use of" federal resources, Nelson said.

The agency hopes to offer the program a second time; funding is included in the House, but not the Senate, version of its appropriations bill for fiscal 2003.

"There are a lot of budget cuts going on in all states right now, and information technology isn't an area that gets a lot of" attention, Kropp said. "And if there is, it's for those sexy things, not for air quality."

The EPA remains committed to the project and hopes to continue assisting its partners, Nelson said. The agency began work in 1998 on CDX, which already is operating for a handful of systems, including the Toxic Release Inventory. In March, EPA officials awarded a contract, estimated at $285 million for seven years, to Computer Sciences Corp. to manage the initiative.

"Our hope is that we can say by the year 2004 that we've made a major impact," Nelson said. "What we're going to find is that the data we all use to measure environmental [conditions] will be higher quality and more timely."

The network could also serve as an example to other agencies, particularly those related to public safety and health, Cohen said. "This type of system is critical in the post-Sept. 11 world."

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Granting access

The Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded four types of grants to participants helping to develop the National Environmental Information Exchange Network:

* Network One Stop Grants continue work done under the One Stop Reporting Program, which gave money to states that had committed significant resources to data management and reporting improvements.

* Network Readiness Grants foster participation through efforts such as creating nodes and assigning leadership roles.

* Network Challenge Grants support collaboration that advances the network.

* Network Administration Grants sustain technical and administrative functions.

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