EPA mapping work aims for more readable data

The Environmental Protection Agency, currently confronting criticism for withholding information from the public, says its data will be more readable and interactive when available through Microsoft's Virtual Earth 3-D service within the next six weeks.

"The performance of our servers for hosting visualization tools has always been lacking," acknowledged Pat Garvey, EPA manager of the facility registry system, a database that tracks locations the agency regulates.

When EPA's water office asked for a computer program that could overlay water-quality data on imagery of the Gulf Coast, EPA realized it needed to upgrade its mapping operations. "We obviously haven't been able to fly the country and capture satellite imagery," Garvey said. So the agency began considering 3-D mapping services like the popular Google Earth -- currently used by NASA and the Defense Department.

Microsoft offered EPA a package that best suited the agency's mission, Garvey said. For example, the license came with unlimited access.

"God forbid we had another [Hurricane] Katrina, [the package] wasn't bound by the number of hits," Garvey said. Virtual Earth also lets users easily retrieve latitude and longitude coordinates of locations if they enter street addresses -- or vice versa, he said. "One of the painful lessons of Katrina: not all signs withstand water and wind."

The EPA work marks Microsoft's first federal-level Virtual Earth contract, said Jerry Skaw, the company's marketing communications manager for the product.

Garvey said "one of his very first priorities" will be visualizing an EPA online, public database that lists the quantities of toxic chemicals produced annually by businesses and facilities. Congress created the program after the 1984 Bhopal, India, disaster, where a Union Carbide facility leaked toxins, killing thousands of people. Ever since industry was forced to submit reports, toxic releases have been curbed dramatically.

Garvey said he hopes to get the inventory on the Virtual Earth platform by mid-November.

Sean Moulton, OMB Watch's director for federal information policy, said he would hope that a tool like Virtual Earth helps communities gain better access to EPA information, including other EPA databases. But he said the EPA loosened its toxic-reporting requirements for companies last year.

"The public is going to get a lot less information about toxic releases in their neighborhoods," Moulton said. "Unfortunately, while [Virtual Earth] may make the information more understandable, with the Bush administration's policies the way they are, you're still not going to get the full picture."

Jeff Ruch, executive director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said: "In the past few months, EPA has shut much of its library system, denying citizens effective access to information. ... This appears to be more of a gimmick than a genuine advance in environmental education of the public."

"For EPA to invest in digital mapping claiming [in a press release] that it wants to expand 'citizen-facing applications around a geospatial core with the ultimate goal of better connecting Americans with their government' is hard to take seriously," he added.

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