National Partnership for Reinventing Government
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.
INFORMATION TO THE PUBLIC
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
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 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. 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. 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
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
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
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.
1A Biological Survey for the Nation, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, National Research Council, 1993.