EPA taps Microsoft for mapping help

The Environmental Protection Agency wants to help people connect the data dots so it is turning to online 3-D maps to improve its ability to plan, direct emergency responders and communicate with policy-makers and the public.

Microsoft announced last week that EPA has licensed Microsoft’s Virtual Earth geospatial mapping platform. The agency hopes that all employees, from planners to public affairs specialists, will be using it soon, said Pat Garvey, manager of the EPA’s facility registry system, a centrally managed database that identifies facilities, sites or places under environmental regulations or of environmental interest. The license for Virtual Earth permits EPA to use it on as many applications as the agency chooses.

The agency could start releasing products with Virtual Earth within the next four to six weeks, he added.

“We had been using maps off the Web since 1995, and they were fairly basic maps that I don’t think had much excitement from them so we knew we wanted to go into a more 21st-century visualization tool,” Garvey said. “Anytime we can give better and more accessible information to our emergency response community for planning, actual recovery, as well as in briefing or debriefing, especially to the public as well as the administrator, Congress and the president, we’re much better served.”

The Microsoft mapping program works with several partner companies that design and build solutions that work on the Virtual Earth platform. The company’s partnership with ESRI, a geographic information system (GIS) software company EPA works with, was central in the agency’s decision to license the Microsoft product, Garvey said.

EPA hopes to have a host of environmental data including GIS overlays on hazardous liquid waste, wastewater discharge, air releases and the Toxic Release Inventory represented geospatially on the Virtual Earth platform by mid-November, Garvey said. Virtual Earth’s bird’s-eye view feature and accurate elevation representation were also big selling points to enhance the agency’s work on air dispersion models in urban areas.

Furthermore, the agency hopes to use the Microsoft product to geocode, or assign geographic coordinates, to all the facilities it monitors nationwide.

“We learned an awful lot of lessons from [Hurricane] Katrina when we had the name and the address of gas stations and chemical companies and other places that might store hazardous waste on a major natural disaster or maybe even explosion,” Garvey said. “Geocoding means being able to give our emergency response community a full set of facilities and places of environmental concern with latitude and longitude is going to help them locate those kind of places in a natural disaster when the street signs are gone.”

The agreement, which was originally signed in late June, is for one year, with the possibility of a one-year extension.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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