By David E. Meyer, Ph.D.
Have you ever stopped to think how your smartphone can find a nearby place to eat or reroute you to avoid a traffic jam down the road? It’s because your phone is able to simultaneously locate and retrieve relevant linked open data streams based on what you’ve told it, understand what the data means based on how it is stored, and ultimately help you with your decision. If EPA and other federal data sources were stored in a similar way, a computer could better manage the large amounts of data needed to evaluate the sustainability of chemicals.
In 2014, our team (pictured left) applied for a Pathfinder Innovation Project (PIP) to study the use of smart web technology and data mining to improve the process of evaluating chemical sustainability. The PIP program encourages EPA scientists to think “outside the box” to solve challenging problems and rewards them with the necessary time and resources to develop their visions into viable solutions. The goal of this work is to develop an automated application to gather and manage necessary life cycle assessment (LCA) data –how a product is produced, used, and handled at the end of its life—to evaluate the environmental sustainability of chemicals.
To do this, we first identified EPA data sources and developed a method to apply the data for use in LCA. We described what the data means through the creation of an LCA ontology. An ontology is a vocabulary that describes data within a conceptual model and enables a computer to understand why and how the data are needed. The resulting method has been peer-reviewed and holds the potential to identify and generate LCA data much faster and cheaper than what has typically been done. The PIP program has supported this work every step of the way based on its importance in advancing the way EPA applies LCA research to other environmental challenges. Private companies that are required to report this kind of data will also benefit from this faster approach by reducing the time they spend processing data requests.
We are now finishing the development of a prototype that automates the discovery and use of EPA data for LCA. Continuing work will focus on expanding the data discovery tool into a full life cycle data modeling system that is capable of automatically gathering data from a variety of sources, harmonizing (or matching) the data to be consistent with existing chemical life cycle models, applying the data to evaluate chemical sustainability, and sharing the data with anyone who needs it in the future.
Read the blog Transforming Science and Technology with Pathfinder Innovation Projects to learn more about the program.
About the Author: David E. Meyer, Ph.D., is a chemical engineer in EPA’s Sustainable Technology Division and Life Cycle Assessment Center of Excellence. David and the LCA team generate data, methods, and tools to support the widespread use of LCA in EPA. The LCA team supports decision makers in various Program and Regional Offices to develop custom LCA approaches for implementing EPA’s policies for sustainability.