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Jam Session Summaries

National Dialogue Jam 1 (April 2-4) Session: Key Findings


As part of EPA’s National Dialogue, a Jam Session was held on April 2-4, 2008 in an on-line forum.  Over 300 comments were collected during this jam session.  This document summarizes the key web jam findings resulting from those comments and describes the process used to identify these findings.  In addition to these overall jam session findings, daily findings summaries were developed during the course of the jam session.  These summaries are attached in Appendix A.  Appendix B demonstrates the number of comments received in each of the jam session categories.

Key Needs and Some Solutions

EPA’s customers have difficulty interpreting some environmental information.

  1. The public wants information in a context that fits their needs.  EPA’s outputs need to be put in a context that the public understands and that addresses their needs.  Often, this involves “plain English” descriptions.
  2. EPA should serve as an environmental solution broker.  EPA should be a source of raw data, answer questions about what the information means, and provide guidance about the quality of the data.  In addition, EPA should direct customers to intermediaries that interpret data for environmental decision-making.  EPA should engage communities, regions, and environmental groups as partners to solve environmental problems.
  3. EPA needs to engage non-native English speakers, especially from the Latino community.  EPA needs to reach out to underserved communities to fully understand their information needs.

EPA’s customers have difficulty locating and accessing our information.

  1. Lack of good metadata is a large part of the information management problem.  EPA has metadata systems in progress, but many EPA staff do not know the system typology or how to apply it.
  2. Information should be presented in ways that allow easy, clear navigation.  “Cleaning up” and improving website navigation would greatly assist customers.
  3. Lack of widespread, standardized tagging adds to navigation problems.  EPA has tagging systems in progress, which will allow for improved searching and navigation.
  4. EPA should focus on data access technologies.  Further implementation of data publishing and other data access technologies will give customers fast and reliable access to environmental information.  In addition, data should be made publicly available as quickly as possible to provide customers with up-to-date information.

Many of EPA’s customers do not have access to the internet or other electronic information tools. 
EPA has over 300 million customers that need environmental information, but technology tools are not accessible to all of them.  Collaborative partnerships with intermediaries—such as trade associations and environmental groups—may help alleviate this challenge.

EPA is not leveraging technology to the degree that is possible or desired.
EPA staff are exploring new technologies, such as wikis, blogs, web services, and other Web 2.0 technologies, to provide customers with better access to environmental information.  Staff suggest setting aside time on a regular basis to explore and implement new technologies.

In addition, staff want to take advantage of more flexible technology options —beyond Oracle and Lotus Notes—that fit their needs.  Staff suggest building flexibility into the Working Capital Fund to allow the use of innovative technologies, but note that it will be challenging to do so while ensuring data integrity, security, etc.

There is a lack of coordination and knowledge transfer between EPA offices.
EPA needs to emphasize collaboration across offices.  EPA has made some progress across the agency in breaking down barriers through the use of new technologies, but ultimately this will require upper management support through agency-wide initiatives.

  1. OEI should emphasize bringing offices together across EPA, enabling better internal collaboration.  As information managers, OEI should emphasize bringing together program and regional offices around information.  This would eliminate some redundancy and provide consistency throughout the agency.
  2. EPA staff should regularly explore new ideas.  EPA staff should be encouraged to explore research and ideas within their areas of expertise, and to communicate with experts in other offices, agencies, and external organizations.

The information strategy must be sustainable as information needs change.
There is currently no ongoing venue for deliberation of EPA’s information access needs and challenges. EPA needs to continuously monitor customer needs and adjust accordingly.

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EPA’s Roles

Based on the comments received during the jam session, EPA could explore one or more of three potential roles with regard to information access.

EPA as a direct provider of information and data to end users.  EPA provides raw data or interpreted information directly to the customer.

EPA as a wholesale provider of data and information to intermediaries.  EPA provides data to information intermediaries, such as environmental groups, who interpret the data for the customer.

EPA as a broker for information collected by other parties.  EPA collects data from multiple parties, such as other federal agencies, and makes this data available through web tools or data publishing technologies.  This could involve directing people to data from other parties

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Process for Developing Key Findings

During the three day jam session, EPA participants provided over 300 comments in 22 categories, ranging from current challenges to a future vision.  The categories were selected to catalyze discussion around a variety of topics.  (Note that comments about the use of the blog are addressed separately.)  After the comments were tallied according to category, it was found that some categories received significantly more comments than others (see Appendix B).  In addition, many comments did not fit neatly into a single category.  For example, a comment under “Challenges” might really be a solution to a challenge or a discussion about a customer.  In addition, comments did not always follow a progression from vision to trends to solutions.

With these observations in mind, we organized the comments into a few themes regarding needs, solutions, and roles for EPA.  These themes were developed into the findings discussed above.  As a final accuracy check, the themes were compared to the daily jam session summaries to ensure that their themes were reflected in the overall findings.

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Appendix A: Daily Summaries of the Jam Session

The National Dialogue Jam Session: What We Learned on the First Day

The opening day of the jam session was a resounding success!  More than 65 people participated and they submitted over 120 comments.  Most challenges focused on Challenges, Content, Customers, and Vision.

Here are some themes that emerged from the comments as well as some relevant quotes.

EPA should try to serve the public as a key customer.  Results of the survey question “What customers should EPA try to serve better?” display a strong belief that we need to increase our focus on the public.

The Public73%
Researchers and Students27%
Non-governmental Agencies and Communities24%
The Regulated Community16%
Other Government Agencies 14%
The Media11%

EPA should embrace new technologies like Web 2.0, yet ensure that they serve our customers’ needs.  New technologies allow many people to solve problems concurrently, but we need to ensure data integrity, security, etc. It will be a challenge to meet both of these needs simultaneously.

“Building effective, cutting edge capabilities on the web 2.0 will require a major reevaluation of our IT infrastructure and ... servers.”

EPA’s activities are often based on historical problems and approaches – but we need to adapt. Today’s problems, such as non-point source runoff, require that we look beyond our traditional regulatory approaches and encourage everyone to be stewards of the environment. We need to increase our flexibility regarding our approaches, who we collaborate with, and the technologies we use.

“…many of today’s outstanding environmental problems lie beyond the effective reach of federal environmental laws and implementing command and control regulations. … [V]oluntary programs… can address persistent human health and environmental risks that continue to burden communities around the country.”

We need to engage communities and regions as partners to solve environmental problems.  Communities and regions make many decisions about land use, which impacts the environment in many ways. These groups, by their nature, require the collaboration of multiple parties, take into account several perspectives, and yield potential solutions. EPA can play a major role in enabling these groups to be productive.

“…EPA is uniquely positioned to assess national or regional issues, and also can provide support for local decisionmaking.”

EPA should provide people with advice on what the public can do to address environmental problems. Many people come to EPA looking for ways to make a difference and we have the information to help them.

“EPA should provide the public with information about one's environmental footprint so that consumers can make more informed decisions about their environmental choices.”

“We need to have a set of pages for the general public that speaks their language and gives them specific actions they can take.”

EPA should provide relevant and useful information to the public. EPA can collaborate with public institutions to display information so it’s relevant to them.

“Customers want information - especially, complex information - in context so the information has meaning for the customer and can be effectively used by the customer. … Placing such information in context requires the provision of examples, explanations, and additional data that resonate with the customer.”

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The National Dialogue Jam Session: What We Learned – Day 2

Comments continued to pour into the jam session comment boards. The total number of comments for the first two days exceeded 240.

Here are some new themes that emerged from jam comments:

When using the internet, people rely on Google to find environmental information.  Results of the survey question “What is your primary method of locating environmental information? demonstrate a strong reliance on Google (82%).

EPA needs to expand its use of technology tools to fit a variety of applications. The tools EPA provides, such as Oracle and Lotus Notes, are often too powerful and require long development times for many applications. We need to target technologies that break this pattern. Open source may be part of the solution.

“Oracle is simply overkill for small to medium database apps that seem to comprise the bulk of our web application needs, and Domino isn't even a relational database.”

“We have a number of tools available to extract meaningful information from data and present it in convenient and helpful ways. We just have to use them… We've been able to build an application [using newer tools] in less than a month.”

EPA could focus on data access and let others develop applications. Many people expressed the desire to make our data easily available and allow others to build tools for its use. However, this needs to be balanced with risk of misuse.

“…there are many willing partners who would like to work with EPA, and who can probably do things better and faster than we can anyway. EPA does not need to always build tools, others are building tools using open source software in a fraction of time and cost compared to…EPA.”

“Open and free presentation and access of EPA data, while a very good and noble goal, is a risky venture if the agency does not prevent the misuse of the data...”

We need better internal communication to create common knowledge within EPA. EPA needs to emphasize collaboration across offices. We have made some progress across the agency to break down barriers through new technologies, but ultimately this will require upper management support through agency wide initiatives.

 “We need to treat information as an Agency resource, not an Office resource. That has big political implications that would have to be addressed at the highest levels for a sustained period. The Agency-wide initiatives in information management technology are a good antidote to that…”

Lack of good metadata is a large part of our information management problem. We have tagging and metadata systems in progress. However, many EPA employees do not know what taxonomy and tagging tools exist at EPA, nor how to apply them.

“Everyone that complains about the search engine... needs to realize that it is the lack of good metadata (or the lack of any metadata) that is the root cause of a good portion of our data access problems.”

“[There is] a collaborative effort by EPA … focused on Metadata Management.”

Many of EPA’s customers do not access to the internet or other electronic information tools. We have over 300 million customers that need environmental information. New technologies will not reach them all. Collaborative partnerships may help alleviate this challenge.

“…I hope we think about information access for those who don’t have the same resources (IT or otherwise) as the more privileged, those who don’t have internet access. Do we need to go to them, instead of plopping data and tools on our servers and requiring them to come to us? Is it an IT solution?”

The information strategy must be sustainable as information needs change. EPA must look to the future while we implement new information strategies.

“OEI has a key strategic role in the Agency's information investments and processes, but we must identify a way for a ‘sustainable Dialogue-lite’ to continue informing EPA's information programs in future years.”

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The National Dialogue Jam Session: What We Learned – Day 3

On the third day of the jam session we received about 70 postings. Over the course of three days we received over 300 comments from more than 100 people.

People had mixed opinions about what OEI’s number one information management priority should be for the next 2 to 3 years:

The main themes emerging from jam comments on day 3 are:

EPA should serve as a broker of environmental information and solutions. EPA does not have all the data but people still come to us for answers and solutions. To be effective EPA needs to provide answers - or direct our customers to others who can help.

“…we shouldn't think that we have all the answers. And we shouldn't be afraid to refer people to someone who can better answer their question.

“[EPA should] develop partnerships with … environmental information retailers who … want to repackage our information for specific audiences, including the public.”

The public wants information in contexts that fits their needs.  EPA’s products need to address the public’s basic questions, like “Am I safe?”  And EPA should provide context for data in more raw forms.

“When [the public] hear[s] about scary issues like pharmaceutical compounds in the water…they want to know what it means, should they be worried, should they do something? …and they want to know what EPA thinks about it.”

“…our job should not be simply to hand over the data. If so, we should be [the Office of Environmental Data], not OEI. We have a responsibility to guide analysis and interpretation of the data. We should be partners with the users. Data needs are dependent upon the user.”

EPA’s information should be presented in ways that let people drill down from general answers to raw data. We need to provide information using common language so it’s accessible to everyone. Much of our information is too detailed for the average citizen but we can help them get more complete information.

“EPA also produces a good portion of scientific materials that would have little value to the generalist. But at the same time… it should address the question - why? - in a way in which the generalist would understand.”

EPA should make more data publicly available, thereby enabling external parties to interpret it – and improve its quality and dissemination. Much of the data that EPA posts was collected by others and it will be used by parties beyond EPA. EPA should release data faster and include qualifiers about data so it can be used.

“I don't think we should restrict access to information out of fear of misuse - we need to make sure we give users the information, with its pedigree, so they can use it (correctly).”

“…if we find ways to use newer technologies to make *more* of our information readily accessible and useable, we will find more resources and motivation to fix more of the inevitable issues that turn up. And with the newer technologies, we might be able to mobilize more free "helpers" who could help catch and fix errors.”

EPA needs to improve the marketing of our information to broaden our customer base. We need to look for and engage a broader set of parties who will use information or present it to others. This will require altering how we present some of our information.

“We need [more] marketing savvy, overcome our fears of marketing, and overcome our own egos. If we wait for customers to come to us, we overlook large segments that truly need our information and assistance…”

“…a lot of EPA offices are used to dealing with a particular set of customers. In some cases, they don't realize that there are other groups that are potential customers, but who would need the information served up differently.”

OEI should bring EPA’s offices and regions together and enable internal collaboration. As information managers, OEI should bringing together program offices and regions regarding information and its management. This would eliminate some redundancy and provide consistency throughout the agency.

“OEI needs to, by example, show other offices that it is a partner and not a taskmaster… All of EPA's programs are highly dependent on information and data. It would be helpful if there were OEI staff dedicated to supporting every EPA office and/or there were liaisons in the various program offices who work with counterparts in OEI.”

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Appendix B: Count of Jam Session Comments by Category

Number of Comments
Percent of Comments
Challenges: What Has to Change?
Content: What Information do Customers Want?
Customers: Who Should We Serve Better?
Vision: Where Do We Want to Go?
Roadmap: How Do We Get There?
What Works: What is Working for EPA and Others?
Partners: Who Can Help Us Work Better?
Trends: What Are the Trends and Drivers for Information Access
Appetite & Mongolian BBQ
Changing the Course
Embracing New Tools and Technologies
Demand Versus Supply
Our Collective Strength
Environmental Information on Demand
Get Me To The Data
Machines and People
Let's Jam
What We Learned on the First Day
What Are the Trends and Drivers for Information Access?
Total Comments About Access
Comments about the use of the Blog

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National Dialogue Jam 2 (May 6-8) Session: Key Findings

As part of EPA’s National Dialogue, a Jam Session was held on May 6-8, 2008 in an on-line forum. This was the second jam session held this spring and was commonly referred to as “Jam 2”. The jam had participation from the Office of Environmental Information and information partners across the Agency. Close to 100 comments were collected during this jam session. This document summarizes the key findings resulting from those comments. In addition to these overall jam session findings, daily findings summaries were developed during the course of the jam session. These summaries are attached in Appendix A. Appendix B demonstrates the number of comments received in each of the jam session categories.

Key Findings from Jam 2 Session

The majority of comments focused on the following five topics:

Many comments touched on several topics.  For example, a comment might start out addressing how to find information and progress into a discussion of providing information in other formats besides the web.

Finding Information: How can we make EPA’s information easier to find or access?

Improving EPA’s web search capability continues to be a major topic of discussion.  Many commenters admitted to using Google when they couldn’t find what they wanted using EPA’s search.  Others suggested that EPA take advantage of Google and maximize opportunities to integrate EPA needs and information with Google’s capabilities.

EPA Internal Coordination: How can we work together and share our knowledge?

Participants suggested that we shift from personal networks to a community of collective expertise and knowledge. We continue to rely on informal networks when we should move increasingly toward use of established specialized electronic networks (e.g., Watershed Central).  Greater coordination is needed for improved data-sharing among EPA’s program offices which will in turn result in broader data access by EPA customers.

Understanding Information: How can we put EPA’s information into context for our customers?

Commenters indicated that our focus should always be on keeping our environmental information current and adaptable to internal and external customer needs.

Leveraging Technology: How can we make the most of technology?

We need to take EPA information and our EPA Web site to the next level.  We need to figure out a way to capitalize on available dynamic web technologies, but how can we make this happen with limited resources?

Going Beyond the Web: How can we reach people who do not have Internet access and those who may never use Web 2.0 technologies?

We have to make sure that the public has access to EPA data and information both on and off the web.  EPA must continue to utilize its non-web networks – NGOs, local environmental groups and individuals to continue to distribute environmental information in paper copy form.

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Appendix A: Daily Summaries of the Jam Session

Day 1 Summary: May 6, 2008

Jam 2 picks up where Jam I (April 2-4) left off with new capabilities.  For this session, commenters are able to post their comments anonymously – and many do so.  Participants can respond directly to another person’s comment and create a discussion “thread.”  Participants also can create and post new topics.

Most comments focus on Finding Information, Leveraging Technology, and Understanding Information.  Here are some themes that are emerging from the comments so far, as well as some relevant quotes.

Take EPA’s information and Web site to the next level.

“if we don't go the extra mile and present our information and data in exciting and visually compelling ways then we'll be irrelevant and so will our web site.”

“More effort needs to be spent providing real information and interpretation of environmental information on the EPA web site. What is needed is staff that not only knows how to take advantage of new technologies, but who also know how to communicate with other offices and regions.”

“We need more folks at EPA whose full time job is working on web stuff. We don't have the proper skill sets that we need in a lot of our existing staff, in order to take advantage of new technologies, web 2.0, etc.”

To Google or Not to Google?…the search dilemma continues.

“…we don't need to waste money on a search platform. No body uses search engines within websites anyways. Instead they just go to Google or some other larger search engine.   I think we should focus more on getting our data onto Google Earth…”

“EPA should work out an enterprise license with Google Earth to put it on every desktop in the agency. This is a universal intuitive tool that every staff scientist, manager, and other staff should know how and why to use.”

Keep our strategy and our information current and adaptable.

“Blogs can be used for all of the sources of information to provide additional insights and understanding. Let's try it and see where it takes us. I suggest we use Web 2.0 to get feedback on the Report on the Environment. Was it helpful to people, what would they have liked to see in addition, etc.”

“We need to grow and sustain a social network in the hierarchal government structure to continue the growth of Web 2.0.”

Reach people who do not have Internet Access.  People still need environmental information in paper copy form.

“Now we have a stove pipe system where each program or office has there own “outreach” materials that one has to search for…We need to invest again in hard copy publications that can be sent to public libraries and schools…The current Report on the Environment is a step in the right direction, and the highlights document should be one of those sent to libraries and schools across the country.”

“Establish a volunteer program here in EPA and a lot of folks in the program would rotate to several sites to share their learning about environment.”

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Day 2 Summary: May 7, 2008

Comments continue to come in!  Most comments posted on Day 2 focus on the Future of Information Access and Leveraging Technology.  Here are some themes that emerged from today’s comments along with some relevant quotes.

Focus on EPA’s internal coordination and processes in order to improve information access.

“EPA lacks a single comprehensive environmental information system...Our programs operate in terms of individual laws and statutes, but environmental problems rarely involve issues that fall entirely within a single program - they are usually multi-media problems that can only be properly solved with a multimedia approach. A common platform to store all information would make it easier to address environmental issues in a comprehensive manner.”

“We need a better search engine to find environmental data and a blog to submit comments for when people can not find the right information. I also think that some of our tools in accessing environmental information are not consistent across the different types of data. I would like to be able to select the tool I like and be able to have access to any type of data I need regardless of program.”

We know we want to improve information access, but how do we make it happen on limited resources?

“We hear the message from on-high that OEI wants us to be better at info sharing and utilize Web 2.0 technologies, but the reality is, getting money or current technology to use for these efforts just seems impossible. The phrase I keep hearing from our own senior managers is that we need to do more with less. But at the same time we need to be cutting edge. If the technology we need to do this isn't funded by the Agency, it's a hollow message. Bottom line, it's almost useless to discuss how we can communicate better with the public and each other when we simply cannot get our hands on the latest technology we need to do that.”

“I'm confident that our current meta-analysis of customer needs will directly inform the development of our current Strategy, and that this will in turn inform our near-term investment priorities at the OEI and perhaps EPA levels. But how do we keep this going? Will the Strategy become another of these reports that -- eventually -- "nobody did anything with?" We need to determine how to gather feedback on a regular basis from our stakeholders, both inside and outside EPA…somehow we need a venue and a process for continually updating our needs assessment and investment priorities to serve changing priorities and changing customers.”

The younger generation is the future of information technology, but the rest of us could be left behind.

“The question here is “How do we serve those without Internet access?” This is a valid question and deserves our attention. But the related question is “How do we serve the segment of the American population that will never get into Web 2.0-like technologies (wikis, blogs, mash-ups, Google Earth, tagging)?” I bet this segment of the population is bigger than the non-Internet segment. The proportion of people using Web 2.0 technologies is only growing, but we're leaving many people behind if our Strategy is only focused on serving younger generations through technology.”

Day 1 Poll Results
The breakdown of the responses to yesterday's poll question, “What’s the biggest barrier to partnering with parties who repackage EPA data?” follows:

Other 34%
EPA should get its own house in order before partnering 24%
It’s difficult to package our data 24%
People may blame EPA for the portrayal of the data 18%
There’s resistance to establishing partnerships 0%

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Day 3 Summary: May 8, 2008

Day 3 was the last scheduled day of the Jam 2 Session.  Comments continued to come in, including postings from senior EPA management.  Most comments posted on Day 3 centered on Internal Coordination, Finding Information on and off line.  Here are some themes that emerged from today’s comments along with some relevant quotes.

Shift from personal networks to a community of collective expertise and knowledge.

“The Agency can and should do more to encourage the concept of 'communities of practice.' There are communities of biologists, toxicologists, QA experts, statisticians, geospatial experts, IT professionals, human resources and budget specialists, etc. Some have established their own informal networks but, as a whole, little has been done to weave these threads together. Information sharing is still a personal 'who you know' network, not an electronic network of shared knowledge…”

“We need to identify all the EPA staff both at HQ and the regions who are the key players and collaborate together somehow. We need to provide access, training, and the tools necessary for these identified EPA staff to become skilled employees who can be proficient with the new technologies, fully understand the IT policies, and IT project management certified to document the life cycle of the tools they develop. This group can also collaborate to identify agency wide needs and develop or manage agency wide solutions.”

Help others find EPA data and information on and off the web.

“We may need an "information ombudsperson", at least for a while. People are getting really frustrated in not being able to find information or for that matter to find anyone in EPA who can just answer a question or provide data that may already be in the public domain. People are using FOIA in some cases because they don't know what else to do. While ultimately IT solutions may solve some of these problems, the biggest concern right now is the appearance of EPA non-responsiveness.”

“With all the technology we have today, organizations have lost sight of the fact that not all information problems can be solved by the web. EPA needs to think organizationally rather than technologically first and determine if our current information menu (web, hotlines, press releases, public service announcements, etc.) are reaching the people they need to reach - either directly from EPA or from intermediary organizations like the press, NGOs, and other groups. Second, we need to have people, real people, in place to provide timely answers to questions about where to get information, and we need to be effective marketers to let our key customers know about the service. Then finally see what we need to do technology-wise to make difference in how we deliver information environmental information.”

“It's important to use infrastructure (people and organizations) that already exist. This may be tribal networks, NGO's, community groups, state and local governments, church groups, etc. EPA awards huge amounts of grants for things like research, but grants and cooperative agreements can also be used to help groups learn about environmental issues, and start to develop their own solutions. The CARE program is an example.”

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Day 2 Poll Results
The breakdown of the responses to yesterday's poll question, “What role should EPA play in interpreting environmental data?” follows:

EPA provides raw data and metadata and works with others to interpret it  50%
EPA provides raw data, metadata, and interpretation 33%
EPA provides raw data and metadata, others interpret it 8%
EPA provides raw data, others interpret it 8%
Other 0%

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Appendix B: Count of Jam Session Comments by Category

Number of Comments
Finding Information: How can we make EPA’s information easier to find or access?
EPA Internal Coordination: How can we work together and share our knowledge?
Understanding Information: How can we put EPA’s information into context for our customers?
Leveraging Technology: How can we make the most of technology?
Going Beyond the Web: How can we reach people who don’t have Internet access?
Innovative projects: What projects show us the future of information access?
New Topics: What new topics should we be talking about?
Sustainable Strategy: How can we keep our strategy current and adaptable?
EPA's Roles: What’s our role in information access?
How can we make watershed information more accessible?
The Inside Story
Crossing the Valley of Death
The Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) - Get with the Program!
Barriers to Partnering
Better Access Makes for Happier Stakeholders… and Even Kittens!
Total Comments*

* Does not include comments for technical or login help. (10 comments)

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