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What Do Light bulbs and the Shenandoah Valley Have in Common?

2008 April 24

About the author: Molly O’Neill is EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Environmental Information and Chief Information Officer.

Portrait of Molly O'NeillAs the Agency’s CIO, people ask me questions all the time. And some of the time they are questions that any good steward of the environment should know the answer to. Or at least, know how to find the answer.

Recently a friend of mine asks, “Molly, I wanted to support Earth Day, so I got some of those energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. What happens if it breaks? It’s got mercury in there!”

Off hand I didn’t know the answer, but figured a quick search on would get me the answer. After I popped in the search field “flourescent light bulb” my results started with the question, “Did you mean: fluorescent light bulb?” Why yes, I did… thanks for catching that typo! I clicked on the link and pretty quickly found the info my friend was looking for.

The good news is there’s a lot of information out there. Navigating through that information is the challenge. Thanks to some new search capabilities on, finding information has become easier. But we can do more.

And what if the “how do I” question isn’t so straightforward? I had a recent inquiry from a Shenandoah Valley community group leader asking how to find comprehensive environmental information to better assess their ecosystem. That question is a bit tougher and you’re not going to find the answer with a simple search engine inquiry.

I pointed my colleague to EPA’s Window to My Environment, Envirofacts, and the Toxic Release Inventory web sites; all great tools to help them get started with assessing the Shenandoah Valley. Also, I mentioned that states are important partners in our mission to protect human health and the environment.

Providing the resources to answer these complex questions is something I’m striving to do better with the Office of Environmental Information. For several weeks now, we have led a campaign called the National Dialogue for Access to Environmental Information to hear from stakeholders and our own employees about ways we can improve. Through this effort – and I’m inviting all readers of this blog to participate – we will be addressing ways to make information more readily available.

Also, come chat with me this afternoon from 2-3, where I’ll be taking your questions live in Ask EPA, our online forum where you can talk to senior officials.

I look forward to hearing your ideas!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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One Response leave one →
  1. deng permalink
    April 24, 2008


    Yes we can do more to access the relevent information for which the searcher is looking for in their context and terms. Most of the time, ordinary citizen may search with different terms other than EPA list of meta data terms.

    We hear so much on search the relevant documents based on meta data, Well its only the beginning. In order to ‘harvest relevant information from an USER’s prospective through search, we need to apply search by User/searcher’s context on a semantic level, which is hard to do on generic meta data based search. Today the craze is applying Meta data which is a good start on a three dimensional problem, but only with EPA’s search terms. The other two dimensions on the technology curve (beginning) are semantic and folksonomy, and user’s context with their profile

    We as humans do not think the same or as machines. As individual we all have different background, needs, experience and thoughts with words/language interpretation and communication. We spent millions on search without recognizing the human traits in acquiring and search patterns for information. My opinion is that we will never find the right search engine without applying the other two dimensions, semantic web/search and user profile. The suggested road map and technological trend on search and document rendering are a move toward dynamic searches with semantic and context search and document building from various virtual text sources. Compounded by generational experience, different terms are applicable to have different meaning and references to their own experiences.

    Remember relevancy is to the ‘eye of the beholder’ the user’s purpose, intent, reference, experience and in the user context.

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