Reengineering Through Information Technology

Recommendations and Actions

IT07: Create a National Environmental Data Index

Finding Out Which Way the Wind Blows (and the Rain Falls, and the Earth Quakes)

Imagine this: A prospective homebuyer is looking for a location for her home. She goes to an information kiosk at her library, where she gets a printout of statistical probabilities of floods, earthquakes, and major storms in various geographic areas. She is particularly pleased to note the information provided about relative heat, humidity, and pollen counts, since she suffers from various allergies.

Environmental data and related information are created by several federal agencies. For example, the Department of the Interior has databases developed from biological surveys; the Environmental Protection Agency collects information through the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration collects satellite data; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collects vast quantities of oceanographic, atmospheric, and geophysical data. The data collected from these various systems are usually acquired for a particular purpose, but frequently have multiple uses, such as the use of weather data to investigate global climate change.

Innovative use of these available environmental data through integrated data analysis and interpretation can be facilitated by knowing what information is available and the source. There are many potential government and nongovernment users of these databases in addition to the agency collecting the data. Among these users are the general public, the business community, the international scientific community, and researchers and government policymakers concerned about the global environment.

The nation's investment in environmental data collection is very high. For example, NOAA spends approximately $350 million a year to support its satellite observing systems.[1] Similar high-dollar amounts are invested in the satellite observing systems of other agencies, as well as those on the ground and at sea.

Need for Change

In spite of the amount of dollars invested in the observing systems, it is difficult for a user to find out what data exist, where they are located, and how to gain access. For example, ocean temperature data are critical to the study of climate, but there is no central focal point where researchers can determine where the primary data are located and where related data reside for correlation. At least 4 agencies and 10 data centers are involved in holding and archiving environmental data.[2] One report concluded: "Scientists face major obstacles in finding out what data are available."[3] Additionally, most data have been collected without the benefit of data standards and existing data may be of poor or unknown quality.[4] NOAA is the major holder of federal environmental data. Its weather satellites, for example, have collected over 150 terabytes (150,000,000,000,000) of data.[5]

Since most agencies are currently developing separate indexes of their data holdings, integrating the information into a common index of systems should avoid duplication and not be difficult. This common index would provide a comprehensive mechanism to integrate the individual agency data holdings into a cohesive system in the future. By using electronic data interchange, users requiring the data would benefit from easy location and access to the data. The index would allow citizens, industry, and academia to locate and access needed information.

The creation of a unified environmental data index--an environmental data "yellow pages"--will result in substantial progress toward making environmental data acquired by the government available to the many users that require or desire the data.


Organize the implementation of a National Environmental Data Index. (2)

By July 1994, the Government Information Technology Services Working Group should direct NOAA to organize the implementation of a National Environmental Data Index. An implementation plan, including the establishment of data standards, should be completed by November 1994. This plan should recognize environmental data as a public resource to be shared and not treated restrictively as the property of the scientific community. The plan should address the frequency and method of updating the data index.

NOAA should coordinate closely with the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and the Departments of Energy, Defense, Interior, and Agriculture to ensure unity of purpose. To implement the index, these agencies should provide descriptions of their databases to NOAA. These descriptions should include items such as type of data held, geographical area, data elements available, and access arrangements including methods for automating access.

The first phase in implementing this index is to coordinate the development and use of environmental data gathered by government agencies. The second phase will be to coordinate the indexing of non- federal and international environmental data.


1. Telephone interview with T. McGunigall, Program Manager, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite and Polar Satellite Systems, NOAA Systems Program, August 17, 1993.

2. Telephone interview with W. Turnbull, Executive Officer, Environmental Information Services, National Environmental Satellite Data Information Service, NOAA, August 17, 1993.

3. National Research Council, Committee on Geophysical Data and Committee on Geosciences, Environment and Resources, Solving the Global Change Puzzle: A U.S. Strategy for Managing Data and Information (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1991), p. 24.

4. Ibid., p. 4.

5. Telephone interview with W. Turnbull.

Return To Report Index

Who We Are |||Latest Additions |||Initiatives |||Customer Service |||News Room |||Accomplishments |||Awards |||"How To" Tools |||Library |||Web Links

Reinvention Comments
Technical Comments