HERO saves the “dataholic” – On-demand data!

It was nearly three years ago when I met with scientists in EPA’s Office of Research and Development about “modernizing” their processes for producing science assessment documents. I remember that first meeting well — the table was piled high with huge documents with hundreds of word-processing tables representing data from published scientific journal articles, and many file cabinets full of associated paper reprints — and asked, “how do we make this into a database?”

My name is Ellen, and I am a “dataholic.” Although admittedly a dataholic, it was clear to even “non-dataholics” that this was a project ripe for an overhaul. With last week’s launch of the Health and Environmental Research Online (HERO) database,  scientists have an efficient way to identify the science available to produce these documents.

Modernizing the science assessment process had another bonus – it enabled easy access to the science used to inform EPA’s decision-making in a way not possible when the research was tucked in file drawers and buried in reams of tables. We threw in another bonus — thanks to the hyperlink model of the World Wide Web.

It took some adjustment to get used to those blue links throughout the documents. This paradigm shift highlights a major effort on the part of EPA to give open access to the data used. While reading an assessment, these direct links allow the reader immediate access to bibliographic information and summaries of the science used in each assessment. (Go to http://www.epa.gov/iris/subst/0286.htm to see an example.) Teams of expert scientists use expanded versions of this same information to distill the knowledge into a finished assessment. It’s like having a thousand documents standing right behind the assessments, with on-demand viewing capabilities, ready to be understood by other scientists and the public.

The project that was conceived to convert a paper process to a digital one has found a natural fit with the Administration’s initiative for Open Government. HERO is designed to put into practice this commitment to transparency by sharing the research, methodologies and guidelines that inform the risk assessment process. EPA uses risk assessments to characterize the nature and magnitude of health risks to humans and the ecosystem from pollutants and chemicals in the environment.

“Giving the public easy access to the same information EPA uses will help open the lines of communication, increase knowledge and understanding, and open the doors of EPA,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson when HERO was announced.

This is an exciting time to be a “dataholic” at the EPA.

About the author: Ellen Lorang is project lead for HERO (http://epa.gov/hero) in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment. This blog is part of an ongoing series about the EPA’s efforts toward the Open Government Directive that lays out the Obama Administration’s commitment to Open Government and the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration.