Lessons from the EPA Apps for the Environment Forum: How Can We Build Innovation Through Partnerships?

This afternoon I attended the Apps for the Environment Forum, hosted by the EPA in Rosslyn. The forum honored the winners of the recent Apps for the Environment Challenge, hosted a variety of speakers from the EPA and executive office, and offered breakout sessions on how to use the Internet and open data space better in government agencies.

Nancy Sutley, the Chair of the US Council on Environmental Quality, put it best with a quote from President Obama – “we dream even when times are tough, especially when times are tough”. The US is at a turning point and needs to out-innovate the world in the environmental sector. These apps have given her hope that the public can reconnect to the initiatives occurring in the federal government, and have access to the information that the EPA publishes.

To make this happen, Malcolm Jackson, the Assistant Administrator of the Office of Environmental Information in the EPA, asserted that we need the public, developers, and statisticians to work together in order to bring this environmental information to the public in a meaningful way. Clearly, it is impossible for this work to be successful without people working together.

Over 100 ideas were submitted to the Apps for the Environment Challenge in the form of games, dashboards, maps, and more. Here were the 5 winners and a brief description of their function:

  • CG Search – gives information on how many “code red” days for a given city over a period of time
  • Environmental Justice Participatory Mapping – provides citizens in the Navajo nation a map of the region, and tips on how to avoid abandoned uranium mines and bad water sources
  • Earthfriend – games to teach about the environment with EPA data
  • Hootroot – Google maps matchup, shows relative impact of all different modes of travel, pulled data from several agencies
  • Light Bulb Finder – put in type of fixtures, apps give recommendations of what to buy, can buy from the app

The EPA is not the only agency creating app challenges in order to gain new ideas. Aneesh Chopra, the CTO of the United States, announced a new challenge dealing with big data solutions. He also addressed a new job search function for Veterans that was launched yesterday, thus proving that apps are becoming increasingly integrated in the future of our government. He believes that the US is entering a “quiet revolution”, and that a culture change is occurring in Washington DC where people are beginning to work together again for the common good.

My biggest take-away from this forum is that there is ample room for innovation, and that the best way to foster this innovation is to create partnerships with cross-agency collaboration. The problems that people have with interpreting and consuming data is now unique between agencies, so it would be ideal to work together and move forward.

How can we build innovation through partnerships?

How can we get the public to act and get involved?

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Ethan McMahon

Allison, thanks for raising these important issues. Here are some personal observations. I think it’s important for federal agencies to partner with each other, especially when they play the role of data provider and work in the same topical area. But agencies can also play the role of convener and bring together the other essential parties in this system: users, developers, and funders. Users are important because they’re the ones who will derive benefit from the data. Agencies can ask users to describe ideas for potential apps, as EPA has done in this discussion forum (), and share those ideas with developers. Developers are important because they transform data into products that users need. Agencies can learn what data services developers need and provide experts to ensure that data is used in its proper context. Lack of funding is a problem with the current arrangement. Most developers I speak with say that they would like to be compensated for their effort and that seems fair. I think we could use more discussion about how a funding system could be organized and who should provide funds to make the system sustainable. In any case, agencies could convene all of these parties to find an arrangement that works for everyone. Let’s hear some more ideas!