Environmental Information Strategies at Work: A Joint and Shared View of the U.S. EPA and the EU's EEA
Environmental Information Strategies at Work:
A Joint and Shared View of the U.S. EPA and the EUs EEA
by Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán and Alvin M. Pesachowitz
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Environment Agency (EEA) are two distinct organizations with similar information concerns: how to manage the plethora of environmental information within their agencies for the benefit of users, decision-makers, institutions, administrations, and businesses, and how to disseminate that information to the public. In our mutual quest to provide reliable information to our user communities, and in the scenario of the Information Society, EPA and EEA look to Information Technology (IT) for solutions that must be demand-driven. We also look to expand the working relationship with each other in areas of common interest and concern to mutually support our mandates and programs. What follows are things we have learned about each other.
EPA, established 25 years ago to regulate and monitor activity that affects the environment, relies on information contained in its many databases to achieve its goals. The Agencys current challenge is to acquire, integrate, and standardize data scattered throughout a multitude of databases across the country and allow public access to these (publicly-owned) data.
Conversely, EEA was established by the European Union (EU) in 1993 to "orchestrate, cross-check and put to strategic use information of relevance to the protection and improvement of Europes environment". As a new agency, it strives to build relationships among member states in the EU and become the source for environmental analysis and information exchange. EEAs mandate is to furnish the EU and its member states with objective, reliable, and comparable information; its challenge is to collect, manage, and disseminate the information with the support of an extended European Information and Observation Network (EIONET), built up with the member states. EEA has begun to build an efficient information system to meet this challenge and hopes to use some of the strategies implemented by EPA.
While EPA is facing the challenges associated with reinventing information strategies, EEA is looking to develop a system to store and disseminate environmental information. Despite innate differences in their functionsEEA is an analytical, rather than a regulatory, agencythe agencies have similar philosophies concerning information management.
EPAs modern data management approach strives to make environmental information available and useful to the public through partnerships and infrastructure improvement. The Agency has shifted from the media-by-media approach to a more comprehensive approach to data management. Initial efforts to make cross-media data accessible have succeeded beyond expectations, as evidenced by usage from the World Wide Web, with millions of hits per month coming from users inside and outside the agency. The initial success has lead to the announcement of a major initiative by Carol Browner, the EPA Administrator. This initiative will extend the coverage and capabilities of the initial efforts and make them the foundation for greatly improved interaction between EPA, its regulated entities, and the public.
In 1995, EPA developed the Envirofacts Warehouse, an integrated system that provides access to information contained in seven major Agency databases through on-line queries and mapping applications. The database is accessed internally over EPAs Intranet as well as over the Internet. Users can access the Envirofacts Warehouse through the EPA Website to obtain a description of the type of information contained in the database. They can also retrieve data through on-line queries. Mapping applications within Envirofacts allow users to identify EPA-regulated facilities and perform limited demographic analysis. Additional databases and applications will be incorporated into the data warehouse to expand its capabilities.
The Environmental Data Registry is also accessible through the EPA Website. It is a source of information about data for EPA, a directory for finding the information, and a repository for capturing and disseminating critical information that describes the individual units of environmental data, called data elements. EEA is interested in adapting the data warehouse and data registry concepts to meet its mission goals.
EEAs responsibilities include assessing, analyzing, and monitoring the situation and trends of Europes environment, and reporting findings to EU institutions, member states, and the public. This information can be used by the EU and member states as they implement and refine environmental policy. The unique political structure of the EU and the additional burden of making formerly internal information public "Introducing openness where confidentiality was the rule"further complicate matters.
EEA, like EPA, relies on the World Wide Web to disseminate information. EEA, however, faces the additional challenge of offering information in many languages. Among the projects the agency has undertaken are development of the General European Multilingual Environmental Thesaurus (GEMET), a multi-lingual Information Locator Service, and a Catalogue of Data Sources (CDS). Each will assist in providing information to a multi-lingual user community.
EEA also established, and is the nucleus of, EIONET, a network of agencies and institutions working together to monitor environmental conditions in Europe. Like EPA, EEA plans to use an Intranet to communicate within the organization. Before it is fully functional, communication servers must be installed in all the member countries; these servers must be successfully integrated with the internal technology; and management, technical, and support staff must be assigned to administer the system within the various countries. EIONET hopes to fully implement its telematic services by the end of 1998.
As our organizations, EPA and EEA, work toward more effective management and dissemination of environmental data, partnerships will become critical. Each organization empowers its employees with Internet connectivity and a significant Website, which allows the agencies to disseminate information within their organization as well as to the public. Both EEA and EPA have used advanced data management to their advantage. Currently, our agencies are forming partnerships to share best practices, knowledge, tools, and environmental information where appropriate.
As EPA and EEA pursue strategies to accomplish their missions through use of innovative technology, the agencies will increasingly work together to share best practices and environmental information. Although the agencies have somewhat different goals and functions, EPA and EEA both look toward IT to assist them in creating, storing, managing, and disseminating environmental information in order to achieve the overall goal of an improved environment. Ultimately, a coordinated approach to information management will influence the activities of decision-makers, improve the ability to do comprehensive environmental analysis, and empower the public.
A main finding that both our Agencies share is that putting environmental information to work is a necessary foundation for supporting the process of progress towards sustainable development. The extreme importance of the decisions to be made, and the need for effective participation of the public, both require that the best available information (BAI) be accessible to all socio-economic agents and partners. EEA is committed to exposing and sharing BAI, which is also a fundamental tenet of EPAs public access program, as the best way to improve the quality and comparability of information. We at the EPA and EEA are willing to share our views and information capacities with others, beyond our immediate constituents, to face the common global challenges and turn them into opportunities by means of common information.