Note: EPA no longer updates this information, but it may be useful as a reference or resource.
June 9-13 Partner Blog Summary
The National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information is the Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to examining how we can better meet our customers’ needs for environmental information. The goal is to assist EPA in enhancing access to its own environmental information, as well as for making EPA information more valuable and useful to EPA’s information customers whether used alone or in combination with information from other sources of interest.
During the week of June 9-13, 2008, EPA hosted an on-line discussion with interested members of the public, states, tribes, and other federal partners of EPA to share ideas on information access. For this discussion, EPA used a blog format which is a more interactive form of technology. Throughout the summary, the on-line discussion is referred to as “Partner Blog” or “Blog”.
The Partner Blog was open for comment for one week. On June 13 the Blog was closed. The comments can be view on the archive. Between now and June 30, you can still participate in the National Dialogue by visiting our comment board at www.epa.gov/nationaldialogue.
The Partner Blog focused on topics covering a range of information access issues. The five major topic areas were:
- Understanding Information: Putting environmental information into context for our customers.
- Finding Information: Making environmental information easier to find or access.
- What Works: What is working for your organization?
- Building to Share: How do we leverage our collective strengths and capabilities?
- Going Beyond the Web: Reaching people who don’t have Internet access.
EPA received over 120 comments during this one week Blog session. The comments were submitted by people representing a wide range of experiences and perspectives – from the federal through the state, local, community, and individual levels. EPA appreciates everyone’s participation.
Commenters were candid about the challenges of providing information that can be used for multiple purposes by people for different reasons.
“We have customers with a more scientific need – who may be trying to relate air quality data to health effects, validate models, or understand atmospheric chemistry. They may need very detailed data, with the highest spatial and temporal resolution we can provide. We have customers within the regulated community and within the environmental community some with fairly specific needs. And we have the general public, some of who depend on the data to make day to day life decisions. Because our customers are so varied, our data products need to be varied as well.”
“It’s about building relationships among the people who generate, use and need to understand data/information.”
Others commended EPA for its mission and efforts to provide environmental information and data.
“EPA is a valuable resource for this country’s environmental health. Making your data, information, and knowledge available to a broader audience will enhance your credibility as well as your ability to engage that audience when you say something important.”
Five major themes emerged from the comments:
The Value of Geographical Context
The Role of Libraries, Librarians and Communities as Information Intermediaries
The Need for Updating and Modernizing Existing EPA Tools
The Role of EPA in Sharing Environmental Data
The Continued Need for Better EPA Search and Metadata Resources
It is clear from the large number of comments about maps and geographic information systems (GIS), people want geographical details to put EPA information and data into context that are relevant to the user and location. Some commenters wrote about using EPA information or tools and asking, “Is this in my neighborhood? How does this affect me?” Commenters wrote that EPA needs to make geographical context an important part of environmental information.
“Much of the information and data that is gathered by the EPA relates to a specific geographic feature of some type (e.g. street address/city, a business/facility, a regulatory region, a sampling location, or an air shed or aquifer. In fact it could easily be argued that the greatest common factor found across the vast stores of EPA information is the locational descriptions that tie the pieces of information to a placement in the physical world.”
“Using geographic location as the central organizing principle for EPA information and data would greatly increase the accessibility of information to the public, the regulated community, and regulators, themselves.”
“Whenever possible, use of GIS maps to present data should be automated for finding information. For example, if I want to find out about one factor in a particular area, one should be able to call up a map, ask the question concerning that factor, and then reports displayed that impact that area and factor. Multi-factor correlation should also be available to be displayed on maps. If I ask about a particular watershed, it should be shown on a map with minimal effort by users.”
Commenters noted that even in this age of technology and Internet access, there is still a valuable and important role that libraries and communities play for providing access to information. Librarians pointed out the importance of the EPA libraries and the need to reopen the closed libraries. Libraries are not the only “information broker” or intermediary. Many people are involved in organizations or their community based on heritage and culture, personal interests, and common concerns or issues. It is these organizations and communities that some people turn to for help in finding, understanding, and using information. Commenters said that EPA needs to continue to work with a variety of organizations and communities to build relationships and put a “human to human” touch on the federal government.
“Having a well trained librarian to act as an intermediary between the information and the users is essential. And the information should be presented at different levels, so as to accommodate the range of users, from amateurs to experts, i.e., the raw data should be available as well as any and all compilations, or interpretations of the data.”
“EPA would be smart to take advantage of the role libraries traditionally play as information brokers serving public users. There may be unintended consequences when an agency closes a library.”
“The [EPA] web site should provide a sign-up mechanism, and all required public notifications should also be emailed to this list, filtered by the criteria specified in the sign-up. This is one of the most effective ways for the EPA to reach the affected communities, because of the unique role played by environmentally concerned community groups. While many residents may lack web access, the grassroots organizations usually have access to email. The organizations receive the notices and can then use the most effective means of reaching their community, which may involve word-of-mouth, telephones, postings in local papers, or whatever works best in their situation. The organizations are usually more capable and motivated to reach out to the people than the government, so that the EPA can best achieve its goal of public participation by enabling this work.”
“EPA needs to make more effort to understand the rest of the environmental community’s needs, interests, pressures through the honest building of relationships — technical, analytical, and most importantly, human to human.”
Based on the comments, it is evident that some participants were familiar with existing EPA tools. EPA has to modernize and keep its tools, information, and data up-to-date for easier use and personal context for the user.
“The tools listed on the EPA Home [page], Where You Live page are very useful tools if they are maintained, streamlined, and updated. Better explanation and presentation of the data…is key. Better translation of the data into “how this affects me”, “what does this mean to me”, and “what can I do”…”
“I think that Envirofacts is a great concept, and [EPA] indeed deserves praise for attempting it in the first place, but it suffers from an incredibly outdated interface. It’s really quite clunky. Besides the need to update the environmental data included in the tool, [EPA] should really consider updating the interface to something more in line with modern tools.”
Commenters noted that EPA is not the only environmental steward or source of information. There are other federal agencies that have regulatory and environmental missions. States and local governments have a key role in environmental protection as well. Researchers, universities, industry, organizations, etc. want to use EPA data as well as other environmental data for a variety of reasons and purposes. Commenters asked EPA to explore more opportunities to share raw data, build relationships to exchange data and information, and let people use data the way they want to use the data.
“Providing data in formats that allow cross disciplinary use, for instance making .shp files and data sets available with statistics for an area would encourage wider use of the data in the business and academic community. And as always, metadata makes everything easier to search for, archive and document in reports.”
“Raw data is useful so we can create charts or maps with the desired information and level of complexity. Being able to query data and specify parameters makes it easier to wade through. The Toxic Release Inventory Explorer is a good example of making information available in different formats. Maps and other graphics are useful also, especially if we can customize them.”
“One of the best ways for the public, community groups, and environmental justice organizations to understand environmental information is for them to be able to test out different ways to look at the data themselves, combine it with other information that they trust, and then use that new understanding in conversation with new partners…EPA should publish all of its environmental data in the open-source format and allow end users to decide how to make the most of the information, supplying context and comparisons, etc.”
“It would help if there was more involvement or open exchange of information between the EPA and local agencies as many projects have shared responsibility with cooperating agencies.”
“What good is information if people can’t find the information?” asked one of the Partner Blog participants. Some of the suggestions were creative and unique – posting information in the general stores of small towns or adopting Amazon.com’s approach (In EPA’s case, “people who looked at this information, also found this other information useful…”). Many comments focused on improvements that EPA should make to its search’s functions and the organization of information.
“When I type in a search on the site, it brings up thousands of hits. I am usually able to narrow things down but to someone who is less computer oriented (and I am not that savvy) perhaps something that mimics what people use in the real world, such as Google or Yahoo might make it easier. After awhile of browsing through all of the hits, even I give up, which is a shame because the site has so much good information!”
Thank you for your comments and participation in the June 9-13 Partner Blog! EPA hosted several forums throughout the spring and summer of 2008 during the National Dialogue, including the Partner Blog. Other events have included on-line and in person forums, stakeholder sessions, and special events. Based on the feedback and comments from participants, EPA is developing a multi-year strategy. The strategy will detail the steps EPA could take to ensure greater access to environmental information. For updated information about the National Dialogue, refer to www.epa.gov/nationaldialogue.