Earth 911 site fills e-gov niche

Nonprofit sets up portal for environmental data collected by 10,000 local agencies

Earth 911

The bacteria count in the water at the Galveston, Texas, sea wall at the San Luis Resort just east of 53rd Street exceeds state standards today. Better not swim there.

Recycling Services Inc. of Pottstown, Pa., is the place to get rid of your old stuff, from old computers to used fan belts.

And the Jiffy Lube service center in Vienna, Va., will take used motor oil, transmission fluid and antifreeze.

You could search all day on the Web or by phone to find that information, but Chris Warner hopes you will simply use Earth 911 instead.

Warner is trying to turn his Web site, www.Earth911.org, into the nationwide — no, make that worldwide — source for practical environmental information.

It has taken 11 years, but Earth 911 now receives environmental information from 10,000 localities across the United States. Just enter your ZIP code and discover where to get rid of used oil and old tires, how to dispose of outdated medicines, where to find electric vehicle charging stations or how to recycle grass clippings.

"I'm just trying to save the world," said Warner, who gave up a lucrative career in real estate development in Phoenix to try to make a difference in the environment. In the process, he created a Web site that the Bush administration is citing as a workable model that could be widely used in e-government.

Stephen Goldsmith, an e-government adviser to President Bush, points to Earth 911 as the kind of public/private partnership that could save local, state and federal agencies "millions of dollars" while making information much easier to find for the people who need it.

It works like this: Earth 911 is run by the nonprofit Cleanup Inc. and is supported by corporate sponsors such as the Home Depot Inc., Microsoft Corp., BP PLC and AT&T. Localities can post information such as telephone numbers and addresses of recycling centers or special cleanup dates on the site.

The upside is that localities don't have to spend money operating their own Web sites, and people know there is one Web site where they can quickly find useful, local environmental information.

Goldsmith, who advises Bush on e-government matters related to volunteer service initiatives, is urging government agencies to make wider use of the Earth 911 model. "As we go forward, government should stop looking at the number of portals they can put up" and rely more on a few "private channels" to provide information to the public, he said.

In California, for example, before Earth 911, 248 environmental hotlines were providing information such as locations to safely dispose of motor oil. There were 52 just in Los Angeles County, according to Warner.

It is much harder — and more expensive — to keep so many hotlines operating and current than to maintain one Web site, he said.

The need for Web sites such as Earth 911 is obvious, Goldsmith said April 16 in an address to an e-government conference sponsored by Microsoft. He cited welfare reform as an example.

Under the old welfare system, the government's main job was to dispense benefits — a task suitable for a government bureaucracy. But under welfare reform, many recipients must work to qualify for benefits, and in order to work, they need access to a range of services, many provided by the private sector, such as transportation, child care and job training.

The government's job has shifted from dispensing benefits to arranging for the delivery of needed services, Goldsmith said. For that task, government agencies need access to a network of service providers. A Web site modeled after Earth 911 would be ideal, he said.

Goldsmith, who was an e-government innovator during the 1990s when he was mayor of Indianapolis, attempted something similar with an e-government company, Netgov.com. But the company was a casualty of the "dot-com collapse," he said.

Warner said he is aware of nine government agencies — federal, state and local — that are considering developing Web sites based on the Earth 911 model.

"The biggest problem is that government agencies don't want to give up control of their information," Warner said. "Every city wants its own portal," even though it often makes more sense for similar information from several adjacent jurisdictions to be in one place.

"We have information from 26 government agencies on one page. The public doesn't care who runs the page," they just want easy access to the information, he said.

NEXT STORY: OMB advocates J2EE, .Net for e-gov

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