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Summary of Educators, Researchers, Librarians, and Students Listening Session

National Dialogue On Access to Environmental Information
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
May 8, 2008

Quick Summary:  Educators, Researchers, Librarians, and Students Session

Participants tend to be intensive users of EPA data, and see a need for improved data acquisition and dissemination.

Participants are very familiar with many of EPA’s databases and information applications, but encourage the Agency to conduct outreach and utilize “push” technologies to make the college and university communities more aware of its information resources.

Researchers are strongly focused on establishment- and firm-level analyses, frequently integrated with economic, financial, or other non-environmental data.

EPA has opportunities to adopt aggressive “push” approaches to familiarize the university community with its full portfolio of data and information applications.

A key component of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information is a series of facilitated listening sessions to elicit input on the types of environmental and public health information that EPA’s stakeholders use, how they use it, and their preferred formats, channels, and venues for obtaining this information. This report summarizes inputs from a National Dialogue Listening Session with college- and university-level educators, researchers, librarians, and students from the Research Triangle Park, NC area. The Appendix at the end of this document provides information about the participants, including their job titles, affiliations, job descriptions, and how they use environmental information in their work and studies.

Types of Environmental and Public Health Information that Participants Use

As a group, academic researchers and educators appear keenly interested in facility and corporate-level data and information. Such data are basic to various types of research, including public policy, environmental and public health risk assessments, financial and securities analyses, and studies of environmental law and regulation. In terms of specific topical areas, participants mentioned climate change, drinking water quality, regulated facilities, and EPA internal process records dealing with regulation and decision making.

Far more than other sessions in the National Dialogue series, academic researchers and educators seem quite familiar with a wide range of EPA data and information products.  Even so, they sometimes cited a need for products and capabilities that already exist, including short summaries of environmental laws, topical summaries of EPA issues, lists of available models and analytical tools, and a terminology referencing system.

Educators, Researchers, Librarians, and Students are very familiar with specific EPA data and information products, including:

  • Toxics Release Inventory (TRI)
  • Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS)
  • E-Docket
  • Envirofacts
  • Aerometric Information Retrieval System (AIRS)
  • Facility Registry System (FRS)
  • Integrated Data for Enforcement Analysis (IDEA) System
  • Permit Compliance System (PCS)
  • EPA Web Search and Advanced Search
  • NEPA Scoping documents
  • TTNWeb Technology Transfer Network

When asked about data and information characteristics and attributes, group members stressed comprehensiveness of coverage over time and detailed, accurate facility level information.  Participants value TRI because it is published annually, providing a relatively constant basis for comparisons over time. Consistent with their perspective on long-term, comparative analyses, academic researchers also emphasized the importance of information product version control and documentation and an overall approach for improved archiving of electronic data and information. Participants expressed frustration regarding their inability to discern how EPA reports and grey literature (i.e., not controlled by peer communities or commercial publishing interests) – especially documents and data collections created by contractors – have evolved over time.  There was consensus within the group that EPA and its customers would benefit through improved citation and version control procedures for internally generated materials.  Consistent, agency-wide procedures would help researchers to stay abreast and track updates, version releases, corrections, and other changes.  Similarly, participants argued that EPA should provide easy-to-access, detailed “biographies” of its databases, scientific studies, and information products, enabling researchers and students to better assess the data’s suitability for a particular type of application.

Uses of Environmental and Public Health Information

Perhaps not surprisingly, members of this group are strongly research oriented, and as mentioned already, utilize EPA datasets in the quantitative analysis of environmental and public health issues.  In many cases, this research focuses on the actions and practices of specific corporations or industrial sectors, but there is also a frequent need to aggregate data to the national level.  Many in the group utilize EPA data in the context of spatial analysis.  Research on climate change, sustainability, and other overarching topics often involves the need to integrate environmental or pollution data with other types of data and information (e.g., economic performance, transportation systems, agricultural production).  Groups members see great opportunity for EPA to create portals to enable researchers, teachers, and students to more effectively locate and access data from other U.S. government agencies.

Participants recognize that many individuals and groups use EPA data and information for a wide variety of purposes.  While open access to data is important, they express concern that some individuals may misunderstand or misuse EPA data.  This prompted discussion of whether and the extent to which EPA has a responsibility to oversee the “appropriate” use of its data and information.  While there was little consensus on this issue, participants did agree that better, more accessible documentation of EPA data would help to improve its use in all contexts.

Members of this group also utilize EPA information in a teaching context.  For example, EPA product labels (e.g., Energy Star) are used as a basis for student exercises.

Formats for Environmental and Public Health Information

…there is no substitute for contacting a research librarian.

Participants are heavily focused on the identification, acquisition, downloading, and subsequent manipulation of large data sets.  They see potential value in improved data acquisition interfaces to help researchers identify relevant data, extract data sets from large databases, and facilitate statistical and other analyses.  On a related front, the group spoke enthusiastically and extensively about the need for access to knowledgeable technical staff and/or other database users who could answer questions, help solve problems, or simply share experiences with regard to frequently used databases such as the Permit Compliance System (PCS), the Aerometric Information Retrieval System (AIRS), and TRI.  The critical role of research librarians was mentioned and acknowledged broadly by the group, with some participants going so far as to argue that all data or records released by EPA should include contact information for a person – or steward – who can answer technical questions or provide other informed assistance.  As one participant put it,  “EPA needs a dedicated staff for data interpretation.”  While such interaction would be best if provided in real time; other venues such as blogs and user group newsletters were also mentioned as potentially helpful.

Participants agreed that EPA should adopt a higher profile when it releases databases or dataset updates, arguing that such events are worthy of press releases and related outreach.

Consistent with their overall interest in corporate-level analysis, participants shared frustrations regarding the need for improved facility and/or corporate-level ID numbers.  Although aware of EPA’s facility registry system (FRS), participants nevertheless report problems when they attempt to aggregate from the facility to the corporate level.  While acknowledging that the issue is beyond EPA’s purview, several participants spoke of the need to assure that corporate/facility ID numbers are consistent across all federal agencies.  In this regard, it was recommended that EPA build upon systems and protocols already in use at the Department of Defense.

While mostly interested in datasets, participants spoke briefly about other information formats they find useful in their roles as teachers, including case studies, fact sheets, and decision guides to help students and other consumers with issues such as product selection and energy utilization.

Channels and Venues for Delivery of Environmental and Public Health Information

After a long and wide-ranging conversation, the group remained divided with regard to the value and efficacy of “traditional” and “cutting edge” information storage and distribution mechanisms.  Some argue that educational resources must be digital and web-based, while others clearly value hard copy materials and other items that can be placed on “reserve” in a college library.  Participants agreed that EPA should assure that educational materials are made available by means of both hardcopy and electronic channels.

While familiar with many EPA data sources and information applications, participants recognize that the Agency has information resources that they are not aware of, and suggest a more aggressive and varied effort to “push” data and information to applicable academic communities.  A suggestion was made that EPA utilize a capability similar to Google Alert to make target users more aware of relevant aspects of its information portfolio.  Participants urged EPA to visit colleges and universities in order to make students, librarians, and educators more aware of the Agency’s information holdings, but also to learn more about how EPA data and information can be utilized in a research and educational context.

Group members again explored the potential utility associated with data system user forums, with some seeing potential for multiple groups across a range of data sets or other information applications.  Others seized on the concept of “social networks,” and emphasized that EPA is well positioned to create virtual and/or actual workspaces through which individuals with similar (environmental and public health) interests can interact and share data and information.

Look for new ways to make data sing…

Participants counseled EPA to remain vigilant for new technologies that can be harnessed to add value to existing datasets.  In this regard, one member of the group shared his experiences integrating EPA data by means of Google Earth.

Participant Summary
Group V: Educators, Researchers, Librarians, and Students

The information in the following table, compiled from participant sign-in sheets, summarizes key data about the participants. As shown, the ten participants are primarily professors and researchers at North Carolina universities, but also include a research consultant, government librarian, and college student. Their environmental interests are applied to a wide range of areas, including corporate sustainability, business strategies, public policy, communication, urban transportation, land use, water- and wastewater-related issues, economics, and statistics.

Summary of Participants’ Organizations and Jobs
Organization Name Job Title(s) Job Description
Appalachian State University Student Studies sustainable development and agroecology.
Not applicable Independent Consultant Works in the areas of water; wastewater treatment; water reuse; sludge treatment, utilization, and disposal.
Duke University
Nicholas School of the Environment
Assistant Professor of Environmental Economics & Policy Conducts research on response to environmental information. Teaches courses on environmental economics and environmental statistics.
Duke University
Fuqua School of Business
Environmental Scholar
Conducts research and teaching.
Duke University
Fuqua School of Business
Associate Professor
Director of Corporate Sustainability Initiatives
Conducts research on public policies and business strategies.
National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences Biomedical Librarian Not provided
North Carolina State University Associate Professor of Communication Conducts research and teaching in areas of environmental communication, organizational communication, science/technology communication, and public policy discourse.
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Senior Research Associate Conducts research on urban transportation and land use issues in the U.S. and other countries. Teaches urban transportation planning.
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Knight Professor of Journalism Conducts teaching and research.
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Interim Director, Institute for the Environment;
Chair, Curriculum in Ecology;
Professor, Department of Biology
Conducts teaching and research.

Types of Environmental Information

The participants provided the following information about the types of environmental information they use:

Uses of Environmental Information

The participants indicated that they use environmental information in the following ways:

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