Green Machine

National environmental information system seeks to change the world, one mouse click at a time.

by / November 21, 2002
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."

Nationwide Network
Before Warner's idea swept across the map, state agencies maintained their own information resources about recycling and hazardous disposal activities. This often included a staff to answer citizen inquiries, extensive printed directories and a confusing array of telephone numbers. These systems often were anything but user-friendly, and they did little to encourage environmental responsibility.

Earth 911's homepage, which offers a searchable list of more than 600,000 recycling and disposal sites, provides citizens with quick access to environmental resources. It also saves the government money by replacing scattered hotlines and Web pages.

In 1997, for example, California had 248 government hotlines for recycling motor oil - there were 52 in Los Angeles County alone. Tapping into the Earth 911 service had a significant impact on the state's bottom line, according to Winston Hickox, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"The reason I pushed for use of Earth 911 is they were able to eliminate a huge number of 800 phone numbers dealing with recycling," Hickox said. "I think there are exciting opportunities for even broader applications, particularly in beach closures, which are under development, and which I hope the [state] water board and regional water boards will consider, particularly given the budget situation that exists."

Earth 911's sophisticated electronic interface boosts efficiency while allowing state and local governments to retain control over recycling and toxic waste disposal information. Warner said his staff remains focused on operational matters because the data is the responsibility of the reporting jurisdictions. For example, beach-closure information is updated daily by jurisdictions that oversee a particular region, whether it is a local lake, state park or a federal recreation area.

Earth 911's technical infrastructure has proven so attractive that New Jersey chose the organization to host its new beach reporting Web site. For Irene Kropp, CIO of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, the decision was easy.

"They had everything ready to go. They had their services and Web site and GIS links and maps," she said. "To me, it was a no-brainer. Everything was there and ready."

Beaches and the visitors they attract make up a key part of New Jersey's economy, particularly during the hot summer months. The new online service has put a dent in the number of calls fielded by the Department of Environmental Quality, according to Kropp.

Locals are particularly interested in how to get to the 127-mile-long shoreline, she said. "We want to talk to Earth 911 about expanding information about access points. We'd like to list what facilities are available at specific beaches - be a one-stop shop for the public to get all the information they need."

Although it's early in the evolution of the beach site, Kropp said the service already is changing the way the department does business. "I think we have gained efficiencies, particularly from the perspective that we didn't have to rebuild what they already built," she said. "It works so easily with no down time. It's great from a public perspective because it creates awareness."

To make these public-sector Web sites even more effective, Earth 911 has done what few government agencies have the budget to do - create star-studded public service announcements designed to raise environmental awareness. The organization produces a series of TV, print and radio public service announcements featuring, among others, Steven Seagal, Kenny Loggins, Melanie Griffith, Mario Andretti and Ted Danson. Warner figures these announcements represent tens of millions of dollars in production savings for government, and far more in outreach investment.

Ironically, the free stuff sometimes slowed government adoption. Arizona, the first state to use the Earth 911 system, took nine months to issue a contract - not because of the technology, but because of policies. "They didn't know how to do it without charging a dollar," Warner recalled. "It was a philosophical block back then. It would have been easier to charge because government understood that." Massachusetts even had to issue an RPF to put itself out of business to pave the way for the no-charge service.

Expanding Focus
With an established network and operating technology, Warner quickly recognized the potential to support other applications. Pets 911, used by county animal control departments and shelters across the United States, went live in 1999. It features lost and found pets, adoptions, information about animal health care and other pet-friendly items - all keyed to a user's ZIP code. Like Earth 911, the site is bilingual in English and Spanish.

Andy Tunasek, a Maricopa County, Ariz., supervisor, said the service has been transformational. "Our county animal control was one of the worst in the country in terms of connecting people to their pets. [Pets 911] helped us turn around a very miserable function of government and make it something that we are actually proud of," he said, adding that Maricopa now boasts a "100 percent track record" of reuniting owners and lost dogs.

The Pets 911 site also educates people about pet overpopulation by providing access to information from dozens of sources. "It really helped out by connecting hundreds of animal welfare groups out there that started out with the best of intentions," Tunasek said. Many of these groups were cash-strapped nonprofits with limited ability to disseminate information. In addition, they frequently found themselves competing for funding and were loath to collaborate with each other.

"Pets 911 gave them a medium - a venue - in which they could come together around one cause. I think that's what turned the situation around here in Maricopa County," he said. As a politician, Tunasek noticed yet another benefit. He recalled many board meetings in which animal advocates would decry the high rate of euthanasia in county animal facilities. "Now some of those same groups are rallying around and seeing that there is positive movement," he said. "And they don't come to our meetings anymore."

Tunasek said the infrastructure provided by Earth 911 and Pets 911 puts government on the cutting edge. "It's a much better system for putting out information that the public needs to know than the government could ever produce on its own," he said. "Earth 911 helps engage the general public in protecting the environment. People do want to live in an ecologically sound world - breathe clean air and drink clean water."

In August, U.S. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman announced the award of $25 million in federal grant money to 44 states, 17 tribes and a U.S. territory to create a National Environmental Information Exchange Network. In several of those states - California, Georgia, Delaware, North Carolina, Texas, New Jersey and others - Earth 911 is the infrastructure partner. The network will allow the EPA, states and other participants to seamlessly share environmental information and updates on the Internet. Information about air and water quality, and the disposal of waste and toxic materials will be available through a central repository managed by Earth 911.

Powerful Partners
Earth 911's sponsors have contributed heartily to the organization's technological success. Microsoft supplied software such as SQL Server as part of its sponsorship. New applications are being built on Microsoft's .NET platform, enabling interactions between users, contributors and databases that previously were unavailable, according to Shawn Reed, Earth 911's chief technology officer.

Compaq (now HP) provided multiprocessor database servers that form the foundation for mapping applications from ESRI. The entire system has disaster recovery features similar to those found in the banking industry, the current gold standard for business continuity. AT&T is Earth 911's telecom partner and Intel provided the dialogic boards for the busy phone system.

For corporate partners such as Microsoft, the return on investment in Earth 911 has been gratifying. Pete Hayes, vice president of Microsoft's government sector, said the program matches his company's objectives. "One of our key strategies is to do what we can to help governments improve the lives of citizens," he said. "Earth 911 fits with what we are trying to accomplish - to use technology but also to develop large-scale government data sharing applications, along with a wonderful presentation to the end-user."

Earth 911's technology would be at home in a Fortune 500 company, but in this case, it resides in a nonpartisan organization fueled by ideals about personal responsibility, the power of e-government and the interrelationship of living things.

"When you are enjoying the environment, you need to know how to protect it," Warner said. "We have a passion, and we care about what we are doing." Consequently, the organization's mission became more important than politics. Warner posts only those items that gain the greatest consensus, so there are no links to some of the nation's more controversial environmental or animal rights organizations on any Earth 911 sites.

"We've found that people agree on 95 percent of the issues," he said. "We just leave the problematic 5 percent out of the equation. We work with conservatives and liberals, and have approval from both sides. We fight to stay neutral."

Warner also appreciates government's central role in his mission: bringing the trust, credibility and reach needed to legitimize Earth 911's message. Although current state portals provide significant public service, Warner thinks their true power has yet to be tapped. "What is going to be the model that truly engages the public with real-time information?" he asked. "That's the conundrum for everyone."

Portals that open the doors to nationwide data will make government more relevant and empower citizens, Warner said. "It's a little Pollyanna, I know. But I was put on this planet to make a difference," he said. "We have to re-engage people. That's what's going to save our environment - and save the 5 million pets that are euthanized every year."

There is mounting evidence that Warner's quest is making a difference. For example, companies such as Phillips Petroleum and Circle K now print Earth 911's phone number and Web site on containers that can be recycled or taken to disposal sites. Although Earth 911's ultimate goal is to change the habits and attitudes of average Americans, government and nonprofit organizations are links in the chain of engagement. "You can find a better system of technology than ours, but not a system that empowers people at the very low end of the technology curve to have access to high technology," Warner said. "We are pushing the envelope and it's fun."

The effort also is reaping rewards. Earth 911 earned a 2001 Stockholm Challenge Award - widely regarded as the Nobel Prize for IT applications. And the U.S. Postal Service issued 250 million stamps in September bearing the Web address for Pets 911. The honors fuel Warner's irrepressible enthusiasm. "It is so cool to be rewarded for simply doing the right thing," he said.
Darby Patterson Editor in Chief