EPA Improves Public Access to Geographic Information Systems Tools

5/1/2012

On April 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly released a collection of web-based tools to enhance access to environmental information and encourage public participation in taxpayer-funded projects. This is part of a White House pilot program to encourage innovation in federal agencies and could empower citizens to improve their communities.

Background

Signed into law in 1969 by President Nixon, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the government to determine and disclose the environmental impact of taxpayer-funded projects, consider alternatives, and respond to public comments. The law is often cited by environmentalists as a critical tool for improving American quality of life. For example, the NEPA review process gives communities the opportunity to insist that highways are constructed away from local drinking water sources and that truckers who ship waste route their toxic cargo away from homes.

On Jan. 1, 2009, in honor of the law's 40th anniversary, President Obama affirmed that "my Administration will recognize NEPA's enactment by recommitting to environmental quality through open, accountable, and responsible decision making that involves the American public." In response, the White House office in charge of monitoring federal NEPA compliance, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), began a broad effort to improve the implementation of the law, open its processes to the public, and encourage more public participation.

As part of this effort, CEQ invited the public and federal agencies to nominate projects related to environmental review so that innovative techniques for completing such reviews could be explored. NEPAssist, a collection of web-based tools, is one of five projects that CEQ selected as part of its pilot program.

NEPAssist: Key Features and Uses

The NEPAssist website provides tools for users to analyze environmental and geographic data and evaluate the potential environmental and public health impacts of proposed federal projects. More specifically, the website displays environmental and demographic data from many locations and sources on an interactive map. Site visitors can, for example, use the tools to assess the impact of highway projects on local communities, including effects on their parks and schools. Visitors can also identify the specific names of aquifers and water bodies to assess the status of compliance with the Clean Water Act in their communities.

Users can map more than 25 types of locations, such as schools, hospitals, churches, flood zones, aquifers, Superfund areas, industrial facilities, or critical habitat for plant and animal species. The location of these facilities and their position relative to each other in communities may surprise many users. In addition to mapping locations and facilities, visitors can map socioeconomic data for a selected area, including population density, per capita income, and race and ethnicity. Such functions could make it easier for environmental justice communities to identify objectionable projects. Site visitors can also generate summary reports to accompany the maps.

NEPAssist also offers its users various options for searching and viewing data. Visitors can search for a location by address, county, airport code, watershed, congressional district, or latitude/longitude coordinates. Once an area is selected, users can view data in 2D or 3D, and with various overlays, including road, aerial, bird’s eye (i.e., low-angle, high-resolution aerial map), or label (i.e., an overlay of streets, highways, and landmarks).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) originally developed NEPAssist to provide federal, tribal, state, and local decision makers with accurate, timely maps of project areas, location of infrastructure, and data that could help address environmental compliance issues before project and permitting approvals were issued. Thanks to its inclusion in the pilot program, however, the site is now available to the public, and EPA plans to expand the number of datasets available on the site and improve its user interface.

Next Steps

Though NEPAssist provides many benefits to its users, there is room for improvement. For one, it would be useful to expand the information that is available on the interactive map. For example, NEPAssist provides links to environmental justice reports, which include health statistics, such as asthma prevalence and cancer mortality rates, but this information currently cannot be mapped.

Also, the site provides hyperlinks to background information about the data, some of which then may be downloadable from external sites. However, NEPAssist does not currently allow users to download data in Excel files. Allowing site visitors to download data would allow them to conduct further analysis. In addition, some of the datasets included on the site, such as data from the U.S. Census, are significantly out of date and need to be updated.

The NEPAssist site does not have any mechanism to collect feedback and suggestions for improvements from the public. In the past, the EPA sought input from federal, state, and local agencies and other NEPA practitioners to refine the tool, and the agency should establish a similar process for the public. The feedback mechanism should also encourage users to explain how they used the site and what benefits they received from the information they found. Too often, the actual use of government information goes largely untracked and unnoticed. This knowledge would foster the refinement of existing online tools and provide a guide to agencies for future efforts.