Interstate exchange: Management was key to putting EPA network together

From the beginning, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Information Exchange Network initiative looked like a tall order.

“I don’t think we really appreciated what was before us in terms of the complexity of the project—and that’s a good thing because we might have been scared off,” said Mark Luttner, director of EPA’s Office of Information Collection.

But rigorous and meticulous management of the exchange network’s evolution has allowed the system to flower since it was conceived about six years ago and formally launched last fall.

Using Web services and Extensible Markup Language schema, EPA and state agencies are starting to share vital environmental data electronically, improving data quality and saving time and resources.

Luttner said 13 state environmental departments currently have Exchange Network nodes or Web servers, and are exchanging data on a regular basis.

He said EPA officials hope to have about 35 state agencies on the network by the end of this calendar year and all 50 states online before the end of next year. He also expects some Indian tribes on board in the next year.

The idea for the system had its genesis in 1998, when officials began to recognize a growing need to standardize information-sharing processes be-tween EPA and states.

At the time, states were developing their own automated systems for reporting environmental data. They also were required to report that data to EPA via its systems.

A hodge-podge of incompatible platforms, databases, languages and formats was impeding the ability to share critical environmental information.

Quality concerns

“States were frustrated at having to provide EPA with environmental data that goes into the agency’s legacy systems,” Luttner said. “There also were all sorts of data-quality issues that needed to be addressed. Another common problem was timeliness. Some data presented [to EPA] was two years old.”

EPA and the Environmental Council of the States decided to commission a forum, the Information Management Workgroup, to seek a fix for the problem.

In 2000, the workgroup created a joint EPA and state team to develop a blueprint for a national data network. The team came up with a network concept that would use the latest technologies to let EPA and state agencies share information more efficiently and effectively.

Two years later, the workgroup chartered a permanent governing body, the Network Steering Board, to oversee and guide the implementation of the exchange network.

Made up of eight members, four from EPA and four from state agencies, the board oversees and manages the framework, policies and procedural issues.

The board, co-chaired by Kim Nelson, EPA assistant administrator for environmental information, and Bob Zimmerman of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, also manages an assortment of action teams that design and develop technical approaches, and manage data-related issues for the network.

In developing the network’s management structure, the Information Management Workgroup also commissioned another oversight group, the Environmental Data Standards Council, which also combines EPA and state managers.

The council’s job is to ensure that common metadata definitions and data standards exist among partners on the network.

“One very obvious technical issue was data standards,” Luttner said. “You’ve got to have common data elements if you are going to merge them. The council has now developed about 15 data standards and the expectation is that if you’re a network participant, you will use the data standards where they apply in your information system.”

On the technical side, officials decided early on in the system’s development that XML was the way to go. They saw that using XML schema to package the data would let network users readily obtain and exchange data in a variety of ways.

“A part of the network concept was that it wasn’t just data coming into the EPA,” Luttner said. “It involved exchanges in multiple directions, including state-to-state exchanges. That really opened our eyes to XML.

“We began to investigate XML very early on and decided that XML was going to be a winner in terms of the technological solution,” he added. “We essentially made a commitment to use it. That turned out to be a good choice.”

In the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington have built a data warehouse containing water quality monitoring data. XML lets them easily exchange the data among themselves.

“Those four states are exchanging all of the water quality data pretty much real-time,” Luttner said. “So they can approach water quality issues now very much on a regional basis. That is an extension of the network.”

To help states develop their network nodes, EPA has provided about $65 million in grants over the last three years, Luttner said.

States on the network are already seeing savings. Michigan has automated its waste water discharge monitoring reports, sent from municipal or industry-run facilities to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and to EPA’s permit compliance system database.

Using the exchange network to streamline the reporting system is expected to yield savings of about $500,000 a year for Michigan and about $2 million collectively for the facilities, Luttner said.

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