Bringing critical data into view

March 2006 » Feature Articles
Enhancement of EPA’s Window to My Environment website is expected to improve access to environmental information.
Jim Romeo

Enhancement of EPA’s Window to My Environment website is expected to improve access to environmental information

A residential real estate developer arranges financing and then hires architects, civil engineers, construction contractors, and a host of subcontractors to build a subdivision. Homes are built and residents move in. Suddenly, a swimming pool contractor discovers 50-gallon steel drums filled with what appears to be a hazardous substance. The local newspaper digs its teeth into the story and a series of expository articles reveal that the development rests on top of an old garbage dump.

There is risk of dangerous methane gas in the ground beneath these homes. How could this possibly happen? The above scenario played out in Chesapeake, Va., as a stringent environmental site assessment seemed to slip through the hands of too many players in the planning mix. The plot thickened from there.

Developers, lawyers, planning departments, state environmental authorities, the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), homeowners, and construction contractors all had a hand in the housing development, yet not all were on the same page about the environmental condition of the ground beneath their feet.

Enhanced access

Scenarios such as what occurred in Chesapeake may be avoided easily in the future thanks to a collaborative effort between the EPA and Cambridge, Mass.- based MetaCarta, Inc. The partnership will enhance an existing, online, map-based portal called Window to My Environment (WME) (www.epa.gov/enviro/wme).

WME provides through the EPA’s website a wide range of federal, state, and local environmental information on a particular geographic area of interest. Users input a zip code and select the parameters and information that they would like to view on a map.

With the click of a mouse, they are able to zoom and view locations of environmentally regulated facilities, environmental monitoring sites, and bodies of water, as well as topography, community demographics, streets, schools, and county boundaries.

Integration of MetaCarta’s technology, however, will enable WME users to search and retrieve additional information quickly and accurately—such as documents, reports, and other resources—for a specific zip code or geographic area. Lockheed Martin’s National Environmental Information Systems Engineering Center (NEISEC) is beta testing the enhanced portal and will spearhead its implementation.

EPA will first test it internally before it is deployed for public access through the EPA website.

It is anticipated that WME’s enhanced capability will provide tremendous value to the EPA, the private-sector, and the public.

In any environmentally sensitive project, there are many variables to consider, including demographics, surface and groundwater conditions, and hazardous waste, as well as physical information about the site. The one-stop shopping aspect of the WME portal under development appeals to many consitituents—policy makers, regulatory authorities, citizens, land owners, contractors, consultants, and subcontractors.

Search technology This one-stop portal is being developed and unveiled at a time when search engines are part of everyday life for most. According to a study recently released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, "Search engines have become an increasingly important part of the online experience of American internet users." On an average day, nearly 60 million people use search engines, and during the past year there has been a sharp increase in search activity.

From June 2004 to September 2005, the use of search engines on a typical day increased from 30 percent to 41 percent of the internet-using population, which itself has grown during the past year. At the same time, the total number of people using search engines on an average day jumped from roughly 38 million to about 59 million—an increase of about 55 percent." With MetaCarta’s technology integrated into WME, a user can search for information about air and water quality, watershed health, polluted waters, fish advisories, Superfund sites, and hazardous waste sites, as well as local environmental contacts and organizations using information from diverse government sources. The technology expands the application’s capability significantly, enabling access to a greater depth of information specific to the searcher’s interest.

According to MetaCarta, its technology addresses the problem that 85 percent of all enterprise data is unstructured—not stored in a database and not found easily using simple text searches.

Unstructured documents are stored in many information repositories in various formats, including intranets, shared drives, portals, and document management systems. About 70 percent of this unstructured information has some geographical context or "geofocus," however, traditional search engines cannot link geospatial information with text information from multiple sources simultaneously.

"Our technology solves this problem by leveraging unstructured documents to paint a more complete picture of a geographic area of interest," said Randy Ridley, vice president and general manager, Public Sector, for MetaCarta. "This includes relevant EPA proprietary and publicly available documents gathered from various sources such as local media websites, surveillance reports, and emergency management data. Basically, the technology identifies geographic locations in the EPA’s documents and plots those documents on a map for use by any user across the enterprise." The MetaCarta software uses several proprietary tools—Geographic Text Search, GeoParsing, and Geographic Data Modules—to automatically identify geographic references using advanced natural language processing in many types of unstructured documents in an enterprise, such as email, web pages, newswires, or cables. It assigns a latitude and longitude to geographic references identified in documents so that users can locate documents using a combination of maps, keywords, and time as filters. Query results are displayed on a map with icons representing the locations found in the natural language text of the documents and as a text results list. Both the icons and text summaries are hyperlinked to the documents they represent.

"Windows to My Environment’s collaboration with MetaCarta produces an excellent tool that allows greater disclosure in the design process," said William Knoetgen, P.E., a structural engineer in New York City engaged in structural and environmental evaluation of commercial real estate. "It gives all parties access to an active or living library of design information." For example, a civil engineering project is influenced by many environmental factors, which change over time. A system that monitors changes in data and information may have a positive impact on preventing failures before they happen.

The integration of MetaCarta’s technology will increase the efficiency of creating analyses for policymakers and other constituents and enable WME users to analyze and visualize information based on geographic references within reports, briefings, presentations, permits, and other text data. A user would be able to find data such as environmental impact statements regarding industrial runoff at a specific location.

They also may be able to rapidly discover discharge permits issued for a particular river.

"The main value is the bridging or integration of traditional text search with GIS," explained John-Henry Gross, senior product manager of MetaCarta. "Typically, a user not only would have to look at a GIS screen and perform some kind of text search, but also figure out how those two things work together. MetaCarta’s technology now brings both elements together on a single screen." "MetaCarta is proud to offer Geographic Text Search to the EPA," said MetaCarta’s Ridley. "We are dedicated to helping the EPA and all public sector organizations use geographic intelligence more effectively."

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He can be contacted at freelancewriting@yahoo.com.


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