What do a three-legged dog, four stray cats and two parakeets have to do with saving the world? They are officemates with the humans who run Earth 911, an innovative organization that serves government in all 50 states.

Headquartered in Phoenix, the organization is supported entirely by contributions from a stable of corporate sponsors. One of the enterprises under parent company Cleanup.org, Earth 911 is a one-stop shop for a healthier environment through recycling, safe disposal of toxic materials and environmental awareness. From anywhere in the United States it takes just three clicks of the mouse to access a comprehensive list of disposal sites, all keyed to the user's ZIP code. And governments don't part with a taxpayer dime for the service.

Earth 911 operates a sophisticated database accessed by thousands government users. Using XML and Web services technology, users submit environmental data - everything from recycling locations to beach closures and water quality alerts - in real time to the Earth 911 system. Earth 911's staff does the rest, such as from managing and maintaining the database, and promoting local recycling services.

Government employees use a secure Web interface to track their own information, create reports and provide alerts to local media outlets. Citizens access the data through a user-friendly Web site or via links from state or local government Internet sites. Most government Web sites provide direct links to Earth 911 from either their homepages or from department pages dealing with environmental matters. Other jurisdictions post Earth 911's data directly on their own Internet sites.

Furthermore, the organization recently began hosting certain services for state and local governments, primarily in environmental management.

Different Kind of Startup

Earth 911 was launched in 1991 by CEO Chris Warner, a high-octane baby boomer with a passion for the environment. It is, in many ways, the opposite of the dot-com mentality that was driven by ambition, hype and desire for a quick buck. "We are doing good things for all the right reasons," Warner said. "It's a win-win for everybody - for government, for citizens, for the environment." His organization has "gone through $12 million in 11 years," in contrast to the two-year $60 million burn of the now-defunct GovWorks profiled in the documentary film "Startup.com."

Earth 911 began as a nonprofit, but changed its status seven years ago when Warner became convinced governments were more likely to do business with a company showing a sustainable business model. Corporate partners such as Microsoft, IBM, ESRI, AT&T and others provide financial and technology support to Earth 911. No traditional display advertising appears on the organization's Web sites; partners are acknowledged only with a corporate logo, minimizing objections governments might have to private-sector sponsorship. In addition, the business model keeps Earth 911 from competing with nonprofits for coveted charitable donations, Warner said.

Although the organization changed its status, its ideals remained firm. Driven by the belief that government is the appropriate vehicle to create civic involvement, Earth 911 built a solid technology infrastructure to support a nationwide information system. In doing so, the organization overcame hurdles that have historically blocked intergovernmental cooperation.

"Eliminating fear is a huge part of making e-government successful," Warner said. "Very few people in government are willing to be risk-takers - and we could take the risk."

The organization also battled its share of slow-paced government bureaucracy. "Governments can spend a week just trying to figure out the color of the background on a Web site," Warner joked. "That's a kind of paralysis." That's why early adopters such as Arizona and Texas - the first states to feed information into the Earth 911 system - have won Warner's respect. "It took a lot of gutsy people - visionaries and risk-takers - to stand up and say they believed in what we were doing."

Darby Patterson  |  Editor in Chief