XML Goes Green

Federal and state environmental officials have quietly created one of the most comprehensive Web-based information exchange networks in the country.

by / November 16, 2005
A comment voiced repeatedly by enthusiastic state and federal environmental CIOs about the Environmental Information Exchange Network is that it's changing the way they do business. This Internet-based innovation provides vital data -- such as hazardous waste disposal, water quality and air pollution statistics -- to all levels of U.S. government, and does so accurately and quickly enough to foster an effective response.

The project is a collaborative effort between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), and is referred to as simply "the exchange network" or even just "the network." Its name isn't set in stone -- in the evolving technological environment, they're making it up as they go. Already, it is the largest network of its kind anywhere and reflects a fresh approach.

"The exchange network exemplifies the benefits of collaboration -- different parties working together to create a better solution for all -- in this case, a national environmental computer network," said Kim Nelson, the EPA's CIO and assistant administrator for environmental information. "The EPA needs timely environmental information to make informed policy decisions. The states and other partners require accurate data to monitor their progress toward cleaner water and air, and the American public is entitled to view the latest and best available data on their communities. By combining resources, all parties get what they need quicker and at less cost to the taxpayer."

The point of the network is to foster timely sharing of vital environmental data between states and federal government better, faster and cheaper than was possible even a decade ago. Replacing the old linear hierarchy of states sending data to Washington, D.C., the network enables universal exchanges between all levels of state and federal government, in almost real time.

And the information is critical. The country spends billions of dollars every year to protect the environment -- the EPA's budget for fiscal 2006 is $7.5 billion. Cleanup costs from past problems add up to billions more, in addition to costs from health care and the economy. The list goes on. Nelson points out that without good information -- and good information being exchanged in a timely fashion -- those costs could be even higher.

Clogged Information Arteries
It's no mystery how the arteries of environmental data became clogged.

The EPA was created in December 1970, by cobbling together a variety of programs from different federal agencies that all had different ways of doing things -- much like the more recently created Department of Homeland Security. Over the years, the EPA's mandates and consequent demands for data from the states increased.

Each state responded in its own way, collecting information as it saw fit. There was no uniformity. By the time data was keyed into the EPA system, it was often ancient history. "There was a lot of frustration getting data to the EPA," recalled Molly O'Neill, executive project manager of the ECOS Network Steering Board.

Moreover, by the late 1990s, states started moving away from the clumsy EPA system, desiring more advanced internal technologies.

In December 1993, 20 frustrated states established ECOS to improve the environment by asserting state roles in environmental management, by providing for interstate exchange of ideas and coordinating environmental management, and by dealing with the federal government.

With more states on board in 1995, ECOS opened a permanent office in Washington, D.C. Although it formed in response to EPA shortcomings, ECOS developed into a partner rather than an adversary.

Both the EPA and ECOS established mostly collegial relations in the mid-1990s, when information management issues came to the forefront. These practices developed haphazardly, and everyone agreed that the jerry-built system was incoherent and antiquated. As reporting requirements multiplied and missions crept, states responded on paper, by punch cards or on large floppy disks, as their respective systems permitted. As state agencies struggled to supply more data, more hands had to transcribe more, thus increasing the potential for errors. Deadlines varied from almost daily to every few years, further complicating the system. Each state responded in its own fashion.

To chart a better course, the states and the EPA initiated an information management work group to tackle major problems that grew in the past decade, including: burdensome reporting requirements; error-prone transcription of data from punch cards, paper and floppy disks; obsolescence of data by the time it became available; and high cost.

Information Release
Along came the Internet. In the late 1990s, the EPA and ECOS grasped the Internet's potential to resolve their nagging hindrances through a uniform system. The concept of an exchange network jelled. It would cost money up front, but the savings over time were promising.

In 1999, while this idea was advancing, the EPA created its Office of Environmental Information, which brought together diffused data, and has a mission of better managing information for the public. The office's key responsibilities included information quality, integration, infrastructure and partnerships, along with improving public access to this data. Mirroring the concerns of ECOS, the notion of an information exchange network found a nest. By 2000 there was a conceptual design for working with the Internet, ready for implementation by 2002.

In fiscal 2002, Congress helped get things going by appropriating $25 million for the Exchange Network Grant Program, sustaining it for a total of $85 million into fiscal 2006. These appropriations fund competitive grants to states so they change their databases to flow over the network. Participants use the funding to cover setup costs associated with joining the network, including getting their internal data fit to share, which is a problem in some of the smaller, more recently established agencies.

Over four years, about one-half of the state network applications -- or nodes -- have been funded. Two Native American nations recently joined the system, with one-third close behind. Thirty-eight states currently have operational nodes in the network, and another seven have nodes still in development. Five states and the District of Columbia have decided not to participate.

It is misleading, however, to read too much into states slow to enter the system. State environmental CIO offices are small -- sometimes one-person operations stretched to respond to their governors' priorities. Some must work to clean up their own data before they can share it. Many agencies are too new; others have been reorganized too many times. The District of Columbia doesn't even have an environmental department, although there has been talk of developing one.

Versatile Nodes
Exchange network nodes -- the exchange interface on the network -- enable two-way communication between individual states and the EPA, relying on a common set of data elements shared by all participants. As the system developed, states innovated using their nodes to communicate internally and with one another -- and possibilities multiplied. The system ballooned so fast that the EPA isn't yet ready to absorb all of each state's data.

Unfortunately states not yet on the system are clustered in the southeast -- the area most impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi is operational, and its node was knocked out of action by the storm, and Louisiana and Alabama's programs are still in development. Consequently hurricane impact data will be rather old by the time it's available. If the state network nodes had been fully operational, data would be available from as recently as the day before the hurricane. Some southeastern states were late in receiving the EPA's grants -- too late for the recent disaster.

Ironically states getting on board late do it faster and cheaper than the pioneers, benefiting from their predecessors' experiences. Oklahoma got its node up and running in just one week.

The best technical decision, in retrospect, was the much-debated idea of sticking with eXtensible Markup Language (XML), a computer language uniquely readable both by people and computers. Five years ago, some observers feared that this was a dead-end technology, doomed to rapid obsolescence. Vendors marketed "new and improved" products persuasively, but the EPA and ECOS stuck with XML, which has helped overcome system incompatibilities.

Fortunately the risk was worth taking. While other technologies were initially adopted, they were quickly dropped. The central XML decision has paid off, but it might not pay off forever. "One design principle is [that] it's going to change constantly," said Mark Luttner, director of the EPA's Office of Information Collection. "We know it will be different five years from now."

Luttner works directly with Andrew Battin, director of the EPA's Information Exchange and Services Division, which Luttner said does all technical, administrative and support work that develops and maintains the network from the EPA side. Battin, who has been with the program more than two years, is regarded by the states as a key participant.

Evolving Exchange
As it's developed, the exchange program has pursued four objectives:
  • to improve the quality of data;
  • to improve timeliness by removing bottlenecks;
  • to lower costs and administrative burdens; and
  • to improve public and employee access to information.

    States own the data they generate, and provide additional data on demand. Since the information need not be transcribed, errors don't creep in casually -- this efficiency removes the traditional bottlenecks of merging data in various forms into the EPA's system. Naturally information arrives cheaper and faster, since it is immediately accessible through the Internet.

    "In the long run, it's going to change the way we do business rather than just simplify things," said Mitch West, information services manager of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. He cites relations with the state of Washington, which shares the same watershed in the portion of the network that deals with exchanging hazardous waste management data.

    Each state records its data in a slightly different format for internal purposes, but converting the information for intergovernmental sharing is a one-time process, and each state reformats its own data. Thus, Oregon regulates producers shipping hazardous wastes to receivers in Washington by providing access to balancing documents that show the materials arrived where they were supposed to. Much of Oregon's waste ends up in Arkansas, however, where such confirmation is not yet available. The exchange network's development promises to tighten that loose end, achieving the "cradle-to-grave" hazardous waste management optimistically mandated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976.

    As it developed, the network suggested other imaginative applications of its potential, such as the New Jersey Beach Monitoring System (NJBMS), a partnership pioneered in 2002 between the state's Department of Environmental Protection and Earth 911, a clearing-house for community-specific environmental information.

    Local monitors can record water sampling results on handheld PDAs, instantly transmitting them to the state's data management system through a completely paperless process, so it's ready for immediate laboratory analysis. The system provides recommendations on beach closings to local authorities, who make their decisions instantly available to the public.

    The NJBMS resulted from a grant to New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia and California to develop an automated exchange between the states and the EPA. In some ways, the program's growth and extension of its beneficial results parallel those of the exchange network itself. Health officials, the public and other states enjoy free and timely access to its data.

    The Garden State has been monitoring beach conditions since 1974. Its Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program (CCMP), with the participation of local environmental health agencies, provides a model for the EPA's Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act. Now technology allows it to work faster, and with better data. "Now historical conditions at monitoring stations can be documented and reviewed as necessary," said Research Scientist Virginia Loftin, manager of the CCMP. "The NJBMS and the exchange network have enhanced and streamlined the operations of the beach monitoring program, and automated data reporting to EPA."

    As New Jersey's program shows, the network already reaches beyond environmental agencies to address related concerns, such as those of health departments, which can now access environmental data. O'Neill points to the Centers for Disease Control Public Health Tracking Program as a complementary initiative to bring together data that environmental and health agencies must share to make well informed decisions. Such vital interagency sharing, forwarded by the exchange network, has emerged in Washington, Oregon and New Jersey initiatives, as well as some others. State agriculture or natural resource agencies are candidates to partner as well.

    The exchange is clearly evolving at a remarkably fast pace, spinning off applications as it develops in a kind of creative chaos.

    When the EPA's Nelson came into office in late 2001, she claims she was "given the ball on the 2-yard line," but observers think her claim regarding the exchange is modest. She helped create the exchange as a Pennsylvania state official prior to moving to Washington, D.C., where she is now working to bring it to maturity.

    But Luttner is puzzled by the lack of curiosity among other federal agencies to consider the exchange as a model. "It's the most advanced system of its kind," he said. "We'd be delighted to share our experience."

    So far, there have been no takers.

    In a way, success has been overwhelming. The problem now is keeping up with the growth and the avalanche of data, said O'Neill.

    The exchange network has become the poster child for how agencies can craft an intergovernmental solution. Its Web site is neither a federal nor a state Web site, but a site run by officials communicating "out of the box."

    Steve Ackerman Contributing Writer