Access America Initiatives
BRING ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION TO THE PUBLIC
Imagine this: A publicly owned tract of land in a Midwestern community has become a trash-filled eyesore. A team of local citizens wants to restore the area to a native prairie, similar to how it was 150 years ago. By using a computer with access to the Internet, the team is able to quickly find the information it needs. Some of this information comes from a natural history museum in New York, some comes from a university in California, and some comes from the Department of Agriculture in Washington. In a short time, the team is able to retrieve and combine this information to learn what plants and animals lived on the site in the past. They can begin to plan how they could restore much of the original habitat and return the site to its former state as a healthy natural ecosystem. The restored prairie becomes a source of community pride and also helps to raise property values of nearby homes.
Practically everyone in today's society is interested in finding information about the environment. For example, home buyers with small children could search for an environmentally safe location for their first home; science students examining a geographical area could get data on statistical probabilities of floods, earthquakes, or major storms; a business owner contemplating expanding her construction company to a waterfront area could find data on the environmental issues and potential environmental hazards she must address.
Citizens can find out all kinds of environmental information. The data are available in government and non-government files, publications, computers, libraries, botanical gardens, and museums around the country and the world. Federal, state, local, and many private sector organizations monitor the environment continuously. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in cooperation with states, collects water and air quality information. The Department of the Interior collects information about floods, biological systems, earthquakes, and geological formations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collects vast quantities of oceanographic atmospheric and geophysical data.
The amount of information on the environment is incredible. Information about the Nation's biological resources ranges from the specimens collected by some of the first explorers of the U.S. (specimens which still exist in natural history museums today) to environmental data collected daily from satellites orbiting the earth. Much useful information, such as that describing museum specimens, is only available on paper, not in a computerized format, and therefore is not easily accessible to anyone outside of that institution. Even the data that could be accessed electronically is spread among hundreds of databases, some of them enormous national files. Much of this information is tied to specific geographic areas and categorized and indexed using different methods -- zip codes, street addresses, or longitude and latitude.
NEED FOR CHANGE
In many cases, the individuals and agencies seeking certain information may not be aware that the information already exists in some public database. Even if someone successfully traversed the government information maze, the information gathered might be difficult or impossible to use because it could be out of date or measured with unknown methods.
Finding the right source of the information can be challenging. For example, one agency collects real-time data on stream flow while another provides information on emergency management in times of flooding. One department collects data to manage our National Parks and another acquires similar information related to National Forests.
Environmental Information Should Be More Accessible
There are already many federal agency programs and activities aimed at making environmental information more broadly accessible for different applications. For example, under President Clinton's Executive Order 12906, federal agencies, in cooperation with state, local, and tribal governments, are developing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The NSDI is the technology, policies, standards, and human resources necessary to acquire, process, store, distribute, and improve the integration of geospatial data. A distributed network of geospatial data producers, managers, and users linked electronically through the National Geospatial Data Clearinghouse has been growing since the Clearinghouse began in 1994.
In addition, EPA reorganized its home page (http://www.epa.gov) to make environmental information more accessible to a variety of users, such as kids, teachers, and realtors. Since September 1996, there has been an explosion of use of EPA's home page, increasing from three to five million hits per day. EPA's on-line Envirofacts database allows users to obtain and combine data from up to six environmental databases. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has extensive information on lead hazard control available on its home page (http://www.hud.gov). Not only can parents find basic information on lead paint hazards, but state and local governments and community development groups are downloading the information and distributing it to their constituents.
Work is also under way, through the National Biological Information Infrastructure, to improve the accessibility of biological information. Here the efforts are designed to provide access, cross-linkage, and coordination of this information among federal, state, local, and non-government organizations. However, there is no formal interagency mechanism for the communication, coordination, and leveraging of federal activities in this area. Coordination would involve defining common goals and objectives, agreeing on common interests and priorities, and promoting efforts to pool or share agency resources.
A potential solution would be to assign the Office of Science and Technology Policy's (OSTP) Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) responsibility for this task. This would also serve to link biological information with other related environmental science and conservation programs and policies. Additionally, the committee could also coordinate outreach activities with non-federal partners.
Better Tools To Search For Environmental Information
The Data Management Working Group within the OSTP CENR Task Force on Observation and Data Management has provided oversight for a prototype National Environmental Data Index. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did the development. The prototype index uses the World Wide Web (http://www.nedi.gov) and provides a sort of "yellow pages" to environmental data and the search tools that link the information available on a designated subject to the databases that contain the information. The coverage of the prototype should be expanded by adding other partners to the Data Management Working Group such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Transportation, and Education, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Most agencies are currently developing separate indexes of their data holdings. Expanded common indexes would provide a comprehensive mechanism to integrate the individual agency data holdings into an easily accessible and understandable structure. By using electronic data interchange (EDI) or the Web, users requiring the data would be able to locate and access information easily.
There Is Also a Need for a National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII)
The NBII is a broad cooperative effort led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to establish a distributed network of biological information and new computer tools to help users anywhere more easily find and retrieve the biological information they need, combine information from different sources, and apply biological information to actual resource management decisions. The NBII effort has already begun to provide greater access to biological information for its users (http://www.nbs.gov/nbii). This concept is a significant component of the recommendations made by the National Academy of Science's National Research Council in their 1993 report entitled "A Biological Survey for the Nation."1
An element of the National Information Infrastructure, the NBII is already working to increase access to many important automated sources of biological information, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey, a major national database showing population trends and distributions for 400 species of birds over the last 30 years. Another data source provides information on outbreaks of wildlife diseases and wildlife mortality incidents across the U.S. There is also biodiversity information from each of the state natural heritage programs in the U.S. Another, the Flora of North America Project, covers the physical appearance and distribution of all North American plant species for the first time.
An additional goal of the NBII is to increase access to museum information on plant and animal specimens via the Internet. These data present a picture of changes in biological resources going back as much as 150 years.
Providing effective access to this data and carrying out the entire NBII concept will be easier, and in some cases only possible, if common information standards are developed. The Interagency Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) is one example of a cooperative effort among federal agencies to develop the needed standards. The agencies are: the Agricultural Research Service, EPA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, and USGS. ITIS is providing access to the first standardized set of scientific names for every U.S. plant and animal species. In electronic form it acts like a biological telephone directory with basic information, and as a "spell-checker" to validate different scientific names.
Similarly, as a result of an earlier National Performance Review recommendation, the USGS is working cooperatively through the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) to develop a standardized format to use in describing geographic databases. Besides providing formats for subject matter, this "metadata" standard will spell out how the data were collected and by whom, as well as addressing data accuracy and quality.
Obviously, many agencies are working on tasks relating to the NBII concept and the USGS is providing leadership, but there is no formal interagency mechanism for coordination. Again, the OSTP CENR could perform this role by forming an interagency coordinating committee at the federal level.
There Is a Need for an Environmentally Oriented Electronic National Atlas
An electronic National Atlas of the United States could be a visual front door to the wealth of information the federal government collects on the physical, historic, economic, and socio-cultural characteristics of this country.
This electronic atlas would show roads, county boundaries, lakes and streams, towns and cities, and population distribution. It would guide Americans to the best and most current information available for their areas of interest.
To succeed, it would require collaboration among numerous government agencies and other public and private organizations that regularly collect U.S. regional and local information. The Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce, as well as the EPA would be key players. Agencies would continue to collect and maintain their data, but would agree to use a common format to present that data in the Atlas. Overlapping collection efforts would be easy to identify, which would allow agencies to reduce their collection and maintenance work. Serious outreach and collaboration would avoid duplication of private sector efforts.
1. Establish a federal interagency working group to coordinate the continued development of a National Biological Information Infrastructure.
By April 1997, the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Board, working with the CENR, should establish a federal interagency working group to coordinate all efforts to develop aspects of the NBII. This interagency group should include, but not be limited to, the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and Interior, EPA, and the National Science Foundation. USGS should be designated as the lead agency in this effort. The group should further interagency cooperation and coordination to create an NBII. It should build partnerships with the non-federal sector and provide a focal point for non-federal agencies and organizations to contribute to the NBII.
2. Implement the national-level standards that are needed to support greater sharing and use of biological information.
The federal ITIS partners should continue to look for opportunities to enhance and expand the ITIS through partnerships with the non-federal sector and in the international community. By June 1997, the Interagency Taxonomic Information System should be broadened to include the participation of, at a minimum, the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and additional bureaus within the Departments of Agriculture and Interior.
3. Expand the existing federal standard for describing geospatial data to include elements for describing biological information.
Adoption of a descriptive standard by all federal agencies involved in the collection and use of information on biological resources will make it easier for users of this information, including citizens, scientists, resource managers, and private industry, to find the specific biological information they need. Good, easy-to-access descriptions of existing sources of biological information also mean that federal agencies can save taxpayer dollars by avoiding the unnecessary collection of information that may already exist in the holdings of another agency. The Federal Geographic Data Committee should ensure that the elements for biological data are added to the existing standard by January 1998.
4. Initiate a broad effort to develop an "electronic national natural history museum."
The federal interagency NBII work group should initiate a national level, cooperative effort to create a distributed electronic database on the biological diversity of the U.S., as represented in our natural history museum collections.
5. Promote the development and partnerships for the National Environmental Data Index (NEDI).
The Data Management Working Group within the CENR Task Force on Observation and Data Management should work to advance NEDI's continued development and increase federal agencies partnerships with NEDI.
6. Develop and maintain a National Atlas of the United States.
The USGS, as a member of the Federal Geographic Data Committee, is leading the development and maintenance of the National Atlas. The Chair of the FGDC should encourage the active participation of other FGDC members in this effort.
The GITS Board should work with USGS to identify opportunities to collaborate with the business community in support of a National Atlas. An electronic atlas should be on-line by January 1999.
1.A Biological Survey for the Nation, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, National Research Council, 1993.