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EPA Simplifies Multistate Data Exchange with XML

EPA Simplifies Multistate Data Exchange with XML

A massive government agency isn't the first place you'd think of to find leading-edge use of XML. But then that's just the type of setting where the emerging standard for cross-platform data exchange is needed most.

Picture this: in each of the 50 states, there is at least one environmental agency responsible for enforcing state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. From the corner gas station to the local manufacturing plant, thousands of businesses and organizations nationwide are responsible for meeting strict environmental guidelines and reporting their compliance regularly to these state agencies. On a monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly basis, they send data in hard-copy reports with details such as their air emissions, pollutants discharged into bodies of water, hazardous waste disposal - any activities that could affect environmental integrity.

In turn, states must pass that data on to the EPA in Washington, DC. Traditionally, data exchange between states and the EPA, and vice versa, has been a painstaking, resource-intensive manual process. That's because the EPA and state environmental agencies all have different legacy database systems, from Oracle to SQL to DB2.

Because the systems can't easily communicate with each other, environmental organizations nationwide have resorted to rekeying information or translating data into another format to send to the national office. Forget exchanging data among states. That too demands manually translating information into another format that the requesting state can understand.

But an ambitious movement within the EPA and state environmental agencies has led to a surprisingly simple, yet innovative, solution to this complex data problem.

States and the EPA Join Forces for Pilot Project
In 2000, a group of information technology managers from a handful of states put their heads together. At the time, each state was translating environmental data on thousands of facilities into batch cards to send to the EPA. A considerable amount of staff time in each of the 50 states and at the EPA was devoted to the exchange of data.

"We'd put time and resources into getting the data into our system, then have to spend time managing a translator to format data to send to the EPA," explained Dennis Burling, information technology manager at the Nebraska Department of Environment Quality.

A number of states and the EPA began envisioning a process whereby information from diverse platforms could be easily transferred through a network in a common XML format. States or the EPA could simply enter a query or make a request over the network and immediately retrieve their desired information, a process that would eliminate the need for staff to manually rekey or translate data into other formats.

The primary environmental agencies for Nebraska, Utah, Delaware, and New Hampshire; the EPA; and an EPA contractor began exploring ways to simplify their data exchange. The group knew from studying industry trends that other organizations and the private sector were employing XML to accomplish cross-system data exchange.

"XML kept floating to the top as the best way to exchange information. Others outside the environmental arena, in the private sector, had already demonstrated that you could exchange information with it," Burling said.

The four states and the EPA decided to launch a pilot project to prove the feasibility of using XML to accomplish their data exchange. Among the test states, Delaware was using a SQL server on Windows 2000, Nebraska was using DB2 on IBM/AS400, New Hampshire was using two Oracle databases on Windows NT, and Utah was using an Oracle database running on Novell. The diverse mix of systems made this a perfect group for the pilot.

The goal would be to exchange basic facility information, such as names, addresses, contact people, and other general information. A server at each state would be mapped to this back-end data. The next step was finding a developer experienced in writing these types of applications.

EPA Finds an Out-of-the-Box Solution
Colorado Springs-based XAware answered the call. Instead of a developer, XAware offered ready-made, out-of-the-box data integration middleware. The XAware XA-Suite, a development environment and virtual XML server, provided an easy way to create bidirectional data exchange among diverse systems. Essentially, the technology aggregates data from multiple back-end systems into a single XML view that all systems can read.

"With a virtual XML database, they could retain the data in its existing format with no changes to their existing infrastructure or additions to staff," said Rohit Mital, vice president of engineering and cofounder of XAware.

The EPA Network Node Project, as it was named, enlisted XAware during the first phase. Using the virtual XML database, the pilot project required absolutely no software development at the state agencies. The solution was essentially deployed at the click of a button. A single XAware developer simply created a business process to communicate with each legacy database. This configuration, the only real customization needed, took less than one day for each database. In only three days, the XML database was ready to go to each state. As an additional service, XAware created the Web services-based user interface that would allow the states to search each other's databases.

Additionally, because the data remained in its existing format, environmental agencies didn't have to worry about errors creeping into data when it was translated into another format, as was the case previously.

Since this was a pilot project, state IT departments had few internal resources to devote to the initiative, and limited funds to spend on consultants. For Nebraska, the project involved just 40-60 hours of staff time.

The virtual XML database performed just as expected. When it was queried to search the three databases, the search results came back in a single XML file. It was one solution for all three states - at a fraction of the cost and time expected.

"We were able to successfully show that we could generate an XML file and push it over the Internet to another location and display it through a Java test application," Burling said. "Once in place, this will save us a lot of time because we will enter information into our system only once and have a fully automated exchange of information to the EPA."

On the heels of that success, representatives from the four initial states got together with other states at a meeting in New Mexico. From there, in August of 2001, they began a second phase that included the EPA and six states: Nebraska, Delaware, Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Utah. Once again, Nebraska, along with New Mexico, counted on the XAware XA-Suite. And again, the six states proved their ability to query each other's systems and return information.

A Cookbook for Other States
Currently, Mississippi, Maine, and Virginia have joined in, forming an eight-state project, called Node 1.0, in which the states hope to actively exchange facility information and air emission data by early 2003. At that time, these trailblazing states and the EPA expect to have a completed template that the rest of the environmental agencies nationwide can adopt. Burling calls it "a cookbook for other states to go by to build their nodes." Each state will have a node, or location, on the network.

"Our goal is to create a model that other states' environmental organizations can easily adopt and implement quickly," Burling said.

In the meantime, states are using funds from EPA "network readiness" grants to prepare their data and systems for this network, now called the National Environmental Information Exchange Network (NEIEN).

Going forward, Burling said that Nebraska plans to engage XAware's XA-Suite and Web services as it exchanges more data across the network and looks to change the reporting process, which is currently in hard-copy format.

As state budgets shrink, and states and the EPA increasingly need quick access to data, particularly on hazardous materials, rolling out XML in all states becomes more urgent.

"In these times, state governments are having shortfalls, so this process, when implemented, will enable states to put those resources to use in other areas and do more important environmental work," Burling said. "Ensuring the quality of the environment is really what our job is."

More Stories By Casey Hibbard

Casey Hibbard is an independent writer based in Santa
Fe, New Mexico. For more than five years, she has
written news, features and customer case studies on
emerging technologies and companies. Additionally, she
formerly served as the technology columnist for the
Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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