EPA receives high praise for innovation with water data

Federal Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel challenged agencies and industry to make technology innovation a priority and a reality in 2014 and beyond.

“The bottom line is that our time is now to be innovative,” VanRoekel said Thursday at the ACT-IAC Igniting Innovation forum in Washington. “I spent a lot of time over the last few months formulating the fiscal 2015 budget. The prevailing theme is technology innovation. It’s a part of everything we do, and we want to drive impact at scale across the government.”

For a few dozen federal programs, innovation isn’t a future aspiration, but a way of thinking about serving citizens or meeting their missions today.

The American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council recognized 30 federal, state and local government programs as part of its first annual Igniting Innovation awards.

None of the finalists received more votes than the Environmental Protection Agency’s How’s My Waterway app.

EPA’s two-year-old effort to make water pollution data easier to understand and find won the “shark tank” competition against seven other finalists.

Other award winners:
Citizen impact award: FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System
Incubator award: Patient Buddy by Creative Information Technology Inc.
High risk, high rewards award: Customs and Border Protection’s IRIS pilot
Recycle, reduce, reuse award: The Small Business Administration and the Commerce Department’s BusinessUSA portal
Disruptive award: Mitre’s Full Motion Video Optical Navigation Targeting

The website and app received the most votes from the more than 400 government and industry attendees. EPA’s Doug Norton, the program manager for How’s My Waterway?, presented to a panel of industry and federal judges how the agency built the site and the benefits it provides to the public.

“How’s My Waterway? is really something that is designed to help people understand in plain English, what is the condition of their local waterways near their own communities,” Norton said in an interview with Federal News Radio after winning the top award. “This information has been available for a long time in scientific databases, but not in the types of common languages that people are able to understand. So our main effort was not to change any of the data, not to change any of the science or not to change any of the information that comes from states to EPA — rather, to make it more accessible and make it more understandable. And that’s what we did with this design.”

Norton said users choose a location of interest anywhere in the country and receive information about a 10×10-mile area with details about the health of the streams, lakes and rivers.

“You’ll see whether they’ve been assessed, and if they’ve been assessed, whether they are polluted or healthy,” he said. “What follows that initial search that just identifies the basics about each one of the waters and their conditions, when you choose one waterway for a little more detail, then you can go in there and find out, well, if it’s polluted, what are the pollutants? What kinds of things are the problems in this waterway? But not only that, which is unfortunately the bad news part, the good news that goes along with that is what’s being done about this.”

The application uses touch interaction and GPS technologies to help users zero in on the area they want to know more about.

Norton said EPA tested the app out with groups that work with citizens and others about water health.

“We tried to not only accompany that with all the plain English writing that we could do and vetted that with many different reviewers, both technical and non-technical,” he said. “But in addition, we made sure this was quick messaging as well. We could really boil this down and find out what people really wanted to know the most. They were things like, ‘What is this really? Can it hurt me? What does it do to harm the environment? And what can I do about it as a citizen?'”

EPA’s How’s My Waterway? stood out among the judges for several reasons.

“Water quality is a huge issue and this app is just fabulous,” said Dave McClure, the associate administrator in the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies at the General Services Administration. “It takes complicated data and makes it so the average citizen can use.”

McClure, along with Rick Holgate, the CIO of the Justice Department’s Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Bureau; Kay Kapoor of AT&T Government; and Andy Robinson, senior vice president at ICF International; judged the presentations of the eight finalists.

Kapoor said How’s My Waterway? is a “classic example of using innovative technology for citizen services.”

Norton said EPA plans on expanding access to the app by working with other agencies, including the Smithsonian and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to make the app available via a kiosk.

He said EPA made the kiosk version available publicly for the first time at the innovation event Thursday.

“It’s been well received and the idea has been really stimulating that we’ve been hearing at this conference. It’s been terrific to talk to so many other innovators and get additional ideas of where this could go from here,” Norton said. “We’ve been working on this with our partners at NOAA, the Smithsonian and some other museums about the idea of rather than just having something that you can pull up on your smartphone or desktop computer, but what if you were a visitor to a museum, and you could go in there, and you had just a minute or two to look at your waterways. That kind of demands a much more highly visual thing. We started with a map. We zoomed in quickly. We had more information that was more suited to a one or two or maybe three minute at max museum experience. That’s enough to get there quickly and still get that essential information about a very localized area and what the issues are.”


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