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The EPA and Purdue University: Reinventing Government for the People

By Bridget Allen

What if the information needed to build a richer, cleaner, healthier environment was free, like air, water or sunlight?

It is, and it’s free to everyone, not just the environmentalists, lawyers, planners and engineers.

Results Americans Care About

"In September 1999, we had about 60,000 hits, 6629 extended user sessions averaging about 8 minutes, and 426 direct downloads (for the grant-writing software). The number of unique and repeat users has been growing rapidly, since Yahoo! began to link to us on any inquiry involving Federal grants."
Alfred Krause
EPA Region 5, Chicago

For more than 10 years, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 in Chicago and Purdue University have been partners, developing dozens of free computer software programs to assist the public, business and local government.

This effort, known as Software for Environment Awareness, has been overwhelmingly received by all sectors of the American public. More than fifty programs can be downloaded or run directly from the Software for Environment Awareness website.

Three recent programs have been the object of particular interest: The first is a tutorial on how to write grants for the EPA and for government in general. The second focuses on how to reduce mercury in medical facilities; it has led to an industry commitment to eliminate mercury from the medical waste stream by the years 2005. The third is a complete "one-stop" guide to environmental decision-making for small communities. Each has received a particularly powerful response. Each is a dramatic example of an idea for government whose time has come.

A "Meeting of the Minds"

Late in the 1980's Alfred Krause, an Environmental Scientist at Region 5, and Dr. Don Jones, a professor of agricultural engineering at Purdue University, conceived the idea of creating high quality graphic computer programs at a low cost for free public distribution. They proposed using government internship programs to fund graduate and undergraduate students to work on software projects that people would find useful.

Early products covered subjects like residential wastewater treatment, home water conversation, and agricultural pollution prevention. The students demonstrated considerable technical expertise and were excited about the environmental subject matter. It was clear that the programs could be of use to the general public, and they cost 75 to 90 percent less than commercial products.

Krause showed some of the earliest programs to his friend and supervisor, Michael Bland, and presented some ideas on how to expand on what the students had already accomplished. Bland immediately became enthusiastic about the students' work.

Getting the Project to the People

Bland didn’t want these projects to bog down in the bureaucratic processes, to never even be seen by the American people. He was a staunch advocate of reinventing government -- creating a government that works better, costs less, and gets results Americans care about. That meant cutting red tape and embracing a new style of management, encouraging staff to work together in a highly cooperative and mutually supportive way. He created a new "team," now known as the Software Development Section, to develop the technology, and do what ever it would take to get the project to the public. The rest, as they say, is history.

Grant Writing Made Easy

One major project of the past year , the EPA "Grant Writing Tutorial," answers the need of many grass-roots organizations and communities who want to apply for EPA funds, but are unfamiliar with the process.

EPA staff liked it and several community groups who were "walked through" the program agreed that it is very user-friendly. The tutorial, which is written in plain language — another Vice Presidential initiative -- focuses specifically on how to write a high-quality grant to apply for EPA funds. It even provides examples of complete grant packages. Because of emphasis on the broad underlying principles of grant writing, the tutorial is also popular with government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies, so much so that many agencies are linking to the site.

So, government insiders loved the product, but what about the public? It was a hit -- pun intended. "In September 1999 we had about 60,000 hits, 6629 extended user sessions averaging about 8 minutes, and 426 direct downloads," said Krause. "The number of unique and repeat users has been growing rapidly, since Yahoo! began to link to us on any inquiry involving Federal grants."

A Helpful Tool for Healthcare Facilities

Another software program is bringing about major long-term changes in environmental health through the United States by reducing the use and "spills" of mercury.

Mercury can pose a serious health threat for hospital workers, their patients, and to our environment if it is not properly disposed of by hospital workers. Until recently, many hospitals sent mercury-laden waste to their incinerators, from which they would be widely spread to air, land and water. Many animals in the food chain ingest the mercury in the air and from other sources, such as water sediments. Other fish or animals that prey upon them will accumulate the mercury in even higher concentrations. We consume some of these animals and breathe the mercury in the air. This can translate into a health hazard for the entire human population and for our environment, even in locations far from direct mercury discharges.

In 1993, the EPA started working on a plan to educate health care workers about the dangers of mercury. It wanted to assist health care facilities with the elimination and reduction of mercury in those facilities. In 1997 the Purdue students were called upon to create a tutorial that informs health care professionals about the hazards of mercury.

The "Mercury Reduction in Hospitals Tutorial" explains the full scope of the impact of mercury, from the healthcare facility to the environment. It includes a "virtual hospital" (or, a simulated example of a hospital), which allows the viewer to see the sources of mercury in the healthcare facility and alternative sources of eliminating it. There are surveys to determine a facility's success rate in working to reduce and eliminate mercury. The tutorial also includes case studies on how various health care facilities tackled the effort.

Software Produces a Quantum Leap in Eliminating
Mercury from Healthcare Waste Stream

The software program was well received by the healthcare industry. In fact, it led to lively cooperation among EPA, the American Hospital Association, and various environmental organizations on a national program of mercury education for healthcare professionals. This culminated in a 1998 agreement among the parties that commits them to the elimination of mercury from the heathcare waste stream by 2005. This is being done immediately on a volunteer basis, sidestepping years of costly legislation, litigation and regulation.

Leveling the Playing Field for Small Communities

The interactive software can do great things for whole communities, as well as individuals and businesses. Small communities face a particularly difficult set of problems, having to cope with nearly as many environmental needs as large cities, but with more limited resources. They lack the numbers of planners, lawyers and engineers, so that a single inexperienced employee may have to do the work of all three.

Since 1991 members of the Software Development Section had dreamed of creating a printed or electronic product that would bring together the best of Federal and state guidance on environmental regulation, self-evaluation, planning and finance for small communities. In 1997 funding was obtained from Region 5, and the Purdue students were turned loose on a selected assortment of guides and manuals; these they translated into a logically organized electronic form, with user-friendly notebook features to guide uses through the evaluation of their own wants and needs.

The resulting product "Environmental Planning for Small Communities" is available for free downloading from the Region 5 website or on nominally priced CD-ROMs from Purdue University. It combines more than 3000 pages of material, but leads the user on a simple logical path to deciding the community’s wants and needs.

The product has been very well received, and has recently led to another major partnership, one between USEPA and the International City/County Management Association. ICMA is one of the largest and most prestigious cooperative organizations for local governments in the world. ICMA has begun to use the "Environmental planning" software as a major feature of its Local Government Environmental Assistance Network website and has already distributed hundreds of free copies of the program to interested communities.

There’s No Stopping Now

EPA’s Region 5 and the interns at Purdue have been on a 10-year roll, and they are not about to stop now.

"We have a wide range of new programs," said Krause, " including a complete pesticide applicator course that can take the place of a week of classroom instruction, a graphic tutorial on beneficial lawn care, and a complete environmental audit and risk assessment for hotels."

New programs under development include a complete course in children’s environmental health, a survey of the upper Mississippi basin with 3-dimensional "flyunders" of the river, and home pesticide management for the inner city, according to Krause.

The largest program under development may be a "killer" application.. It’s a free Internet-based universal planning engine. "We have already completed its Phase I," Krause said. "It will allow any small community planner to do things in an hour that would have taken months of work a decade ago."

The EPA: Going Where No Agency Has Gone Before

The response from the public to the Software for Environmental Awareness project has been overwhelming. Why is this particular government effort a huge success?

The folks at EPA and Purdue who developed this project are passionate about their work. They have one overriding vision — to give people free environmental products they need and can use.

They are succeeding. Other agencies can learn from their passion, their focus on people, their use of technology — and change government forever.

For More Information

You can visit the Software for Environmental Awareness Website: for further information and to download the software programs.

You may also contact Alfred Krause at USEPA Region 5, 77 W. Jackson Blvd., P-19J, Chicago, IL 60604-3590. E-mail:; phone: (312) 353-5787; fax: (312) 353-3433.

About the Author

Bridget Allen is an attorney and free lance writer with assignments in federal agencies in the Washington, DC area. She is an associate member of the Federal Communicators Network and the Plain Language Action Network. You may reach her at or (703) 553-9110.

Author’s Note:
I would like to thank all of the contributors to this article for their information and cooperation and contributions: Interview Participants: Michael H. Bland, Alfred E. Krause, Glynis M. Zywicki, Ethel L. Crisp, Christine J. Urban (EPA) and Don D. Jones, Ph.D. and the students at Purdue University.