USGS

Become a Civic Hacker

By Dustin Renwick

Blue circle with "Hack for Change" in the middleHacking has become a buzzword with negative connotations, but people across the country can use the same computer savvy often associated with security breaches for good. Civic hacking allows people to connect with every level of government, improve their communities, and test their talents for coding and problem solving.

This kind of hacking brings together people with different interests and skills who can tap open data sets and build technology-based solutions.

The National Day of Civic Hacking includes anyone interested in collaboration and community – from die-hard hackers to people with no technology background. This year’s event takes place on June 6.

EPA will take part via the Visualizing Nutrients Challenge – hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), EPA, and Blue Legacy International. But that’s just one of a collection of opportunities from more than 30 federal agencies who have shared social and civic problems that will benefit from public participation.

The civic hacking day brings together virtual and real-world communities. Last year’s event boasted meet-ups in more than 100 cities in 40 U.S. states and 13 countries across the world.

Look for an event in a city near you, or check out the challenge listings. Some of the themes for this year are climate and health. Nutrient pollution – excess nitrogen and phosphorus in our waters – remains a costly, complex environmental problem that affects communities and their local watersheds.

USGS, EPA, and Blue Legacy released the Visualizing Nutrients Challenge to seek compelling, innovative visual representations of open government data sources. These visualizations should inform individuals and communities on nutrient pollution and inspire them to take actions that might prevent excess algal production and hypoxia in local watersheds.

First place will receive $10,000, and the Blue Legacy Award will receive $5,000. Register for the competition and submit your entry by June 8.

Be sure to see if any other challenges fit your skillset for the national event on June 6, and join people across the world in hacking for change.

About the Author: Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Technology for Community Resiliency

By Paul Lemieux

This week I was honored to participate in the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day. From finding an open gas station to finding a safe place to sleep at night following a disaster or finding a vehicle you can rent by the hour, participants shared a variety of amazing technology applications to help make communities more resilient in the aftermath of disaster.

Me giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House's Old Executive Office Building.

Paul giving a presentation on I-WASTE at the White House’s Old Executive Office Building.

While there were some great private sector tools from big innovators like Airbnb, Google, Microsoft, SeeClickFix, and TaskRabbit there were just as many amazing tools from government innovators, too.

An example of some of the government tools highlighted during the demo:

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced GeoQ, a tool that crowdsources geo-tagged photos of disaster-affected areas to assess damage over large regions. Developed in coordination with NGA, the Presidential Innovation Fellow Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other disaster analysts, GeoQ improves the speed and quality of disaster-related data coordination by using a data crowd-sharing framework. Programmers can use the existing services and add features to customize the GeoQ code for their own community.

The U.S. Geological Service (USGS) highlighted ShakeMap and other post-earthquake information tools that offer rapid situational awareness for disaster response and recovery. Using data from seismic monitoring systems maintained by USGS and its state and university partners, ShakeMap provides a rapid graphical estimate of ground shaking in an affected region on the web within minutes of an event. The maps and underlying data, which can be downloaded in numerous formats for use in GIS and other applications, are also the basis for ShakeCast—which enables emergency managers at a growing number of companies, response organizations, and local governments to automatically receive USGS shaking data and generate their own customized impact alerts for their facilities.

And I showcased EPA’s I-WASTE, a flexible, web-based, planning and decision-making tool to address disaster waste management issues. I-WASTE offers emergency responders, industry representatives, and responsible officials reliable information on waste characterization, treatment, and disposal options, as well as guidance on how to incorporate waste management into planning and response for natural disasters, terrorist attacks and animal disease outbreaks.

It is clear that there are a number of public and private organizations working together with individuals and communities around the country to ensure that together we are prepared and ready to respond to the next disaster we might face.

Watch a video of how I-WASTE can help your community, embedded below, or go to http://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/homeland/clean-up.htm


Paul Lemieux, Ph.D. works on issues related to clean up after chemical/biological/radiological attacks and foreign animal disease outbreaks. Paul has also been working to develop computer-based decision support tools to aid decision makers in responding to wide-area contamination incidents. He is the Associate Division Director of the Decontamination and Consequence Management Division of U.S. EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms? There’s an App for That!

By Annie Zwerneman

Algal bloom covers a lake.

Algal bloom covers a lake.

I was recently on my favorite hiking trail, which passes by a beautiful lake. But this time hiking past it, I noticed a strange, dark scum creeping along the shoreline of the water. I learned later that this scum was actually an algal bloom: a population of algae increasing quickly over a short period of time.

Some algal blooms are merely an eyesore, but others fall into a more serious category called “harmful algal blooms” (HABs): algae and cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae) that remove oxygen from the water, crowding their way along the surface and producing toxins that are harmful to animals. The toxins that HABs produce can affect peoples’ health, too.

EPA has been working to monitor HABs, including taking water samples to see where and how algal blooms may affect you. Unfortunately, taking such water samples is time-intensive, so EPA has been working alongside scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to find new ways to monitor the quality of inland water bodies, such as lakes and reservoirs. EPA hopes to monitor estuaries and coastal waters in the future as well.

A new Android app is being developed that displays imagery of cyanobacterial cell counts in freshwater systems, which can indicate the presence of HABs. Expected to be in beta testing this fall, the app will provide information necessary for locating and monitoring HABs. It’s primarily aimed toward stakeholders like health departments and municipalities (such as water treatment plants).

The app will display data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite. In the near future, EPA researchers hope to incorporate the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-3 and potentially the Landsat-8 satellite as well. They will work with their NOAA, USGS, and NASA partners to pull all these capabilities together once the app is ready for public use.

The way the app will work is a bit like the weather station. At the beginning of each week, the cell count will be updated based on the satellite information gathered the previous week. There may even be a prediction of the cell count for the upcoming week available. For example, you can get a cell count in Lake Erie for the current week, and then get a prediction of what the cell count may be next week.

Thanks to the collaborative effort of multiple federal agencies, those looking for information about freshwater quality and HABs won’t have to look far: there will be an app for that!

About the Author: Annie Zwerneman is a 2014 summer intern working for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Organizing the Ocean

coastal scene

The Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard is the first such system for marine ecosystems.

By Marguerite Huber

Do you like things alphabetized? In chronological order? Color coded? If so, you probably love organization. You probably have a place and category for every aspect of your life.

Well researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NatureServe, the U.S. Geological Survey, and EPA have taken organization to the next level. For more than a decade they have been working to organize the first classification standard for describing coastal and marine ecosystems.

This classification standard, called the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), offers a simple framework and common terminology for describing ecosystems—from coastal estuaries all the way down to the depths of the ocean. It provides a consistent way to collect, organize, analyze, report, and share coastal marine ecological data, which is especially useful for coastal resource managers and planners, engineers, and researchers from government, academia, and industry. The Federal Geographic Data Committee has already adopted CMECS as the national standard.

Organization at its finest, CMECS is basically a structure of classification, with the helpful addition of an extensive dictionary of terms and definitions that describe ecological features for the geological, physical, biological, and chemical components of the environment.

Using CMECS, you first classify the ecosystem into two settings, which can be used together or separately. The Biogeographic Setting covers ecoregions defined by climate, geology, and evolutionary history. The second, Aquatic Setting, divides the watery territory into oceans, estuaries and lakes, deep and shallow waters, and submerged and intertidal environments.

For both of these settings, there are four components that describe different aspects of the ecosystem, which are outlined in CMECS’s Catalog of Units. The water column component describes characteristics of, you guessed it, the water column, including water temperature, salinity, and more. The geoform component includes characteristics of the coast or seafloor’s landscape. The substrate component characterizes the non-living materials that form the seafloor (like sand) or that provide a surface for biota (like a buoy that has mussels growing on it). And finally, the biotic component classifies the living organisms in the ecosystem.

A benefit of CMECS’s structure of settings and components is that users can apply CMECS to best suit their needs.  It can be used for detailed descriptions of small areas for experimental work, for mapping the characteristics of an entire regional ecosystem, and for everything in between.  People reading scientific papers, interpreting maps, or analyzing large data sets can have clear and easily available definitions to understand the work and to compare results.

Additionally, it will be much easier to share data because CMECS allows everyone to use the same units and the same terminology. It is much easier to share and compare data when you’re using the same definitions and the same units!

Overall, with the use and application of CMECS, we will be able to improve our knowledge of marine ecosystems, while satisfying organizers everywhere.

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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SPARROWs, Lakes, and Nutrients?

By Jeff Hollister

Dock extending into a lake with forested background.Based on the title above, you probably think I don’t know what I am talking about. I mean really, what do sparrows, lakes, and nutrients have in common? In this case, a lot. So much so, an inter-agency team of EPA researchers in Narragansett RI, and a colleague from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in New Hampshire have been working together to better understand how these three seemingly disparate concepts can be linked together. Some of the results of this work are outlined in a recent publication in the Open Access journal, PLos One

The sparrow I am referring to isn’t small and feathered, it is a model developed and refined by the USGS. Since the late 1990’s, USGS has been developing SPARROW models which have been widely used to understand and predict the total amount of nutrients (among other materials) that streams are exposed to over the long-term. This is known as “nutrient load.” The models are important because they provide a picture over a very large extent of where nutrients might be relatively high.

However, when it comes to lakes, SPARROW doesn’t directly provide the information we need. For our research on lakes, we need reasonable estimates of the quantity of nutrients in a given volume of water (i.e., nitrogen and phosphorus concentration), not long term nutrient load for the year. This is important, because the higher the nutrient concentrations at any given time, the greater the chance of triggering algal blooms—and more blooms mean a greater probability of toxins released by algae reaching unhealthy levels.

In order to better estimate the nutrient concentrations, we needed to use the SPARROW model for total load, but also account for the differences between load and concentration. Our solution: combining field data, data on lake volume and the SPARROW Model.

In our paper “Estimating Summer Nutrient Concentrations in Northeastern Lakes from SPARROW Load Predictions and Modeled Lake Depth and Volume,” recently published in PLoS One, we describe how we combined modeling information from SPARROW, summertime nutrient concentrations collected during EPA’s 2007 National Lakes Assessment, and estimated lake volume (see this and this for more).

The end result of this effort is better predictions, by an average of 18.7% and 19.0% for nitrogen and phosphorus, respectively.

What is the meaning of this in terms of our environment, and importantly, the potential human health impacts? If we are able to better predict concentrations of nutrients it will hopefully also improve our ability to know where and when we might expect to see harmful algal blooms, specifically harmful cyanobacterial algal blooms. Cyanobacteria have been associated with many human health issues, from gastro-intestinal problems, to skin rash, and even a hypothesized association with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (for example, see this). So, in short, better predictions of nutrients, will, in the long run, improve our understanding of cyanobacteria and hopefully reduce the public’s exposure to a potential threat to health.

About the author: Jeff Hollister, a co-author on the study outlined in this blog post, is a research ecologist with an interest in landscape ecology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the statistical language R, and open science. The focus of Jeff’s work is to develop computational and statistics tools to help with the cyanobacteria groups research efforts. Jeff is also an outspoken advocate for open science and open access among his colleagues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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The Missouri River in 1894

By Jeffery Robichaud

Missouri River Basin

Map created from DEMIS Mapserver and USGS data, which are public domain.

I always enjoy receiving cool links to data and information that I can use in my work especially older maps.  As you can tell from the name of our blog title, The Big Blue Thread, we are always interested in information about the Missouri River.  A friend of mine passed on to me a website run by the United States Geological Survey that has wonderful maps created in the late 1800’s by the Missouri River Commission.  According to the Corps of Engineers,

Congress created the Missouri River Commission (MRC) in, or shortly after, 1884, to accomplish a continuous, progressive development of the river. The commission consisted of a five-member organization which was charged to make surveys and devise plans to “maintain a channel and depth of water … sufficient for … commerce” and to carry out plans of improvement the commission deemed necessary. The commission went out of existence in 1902.

The Area Around Downtown Kansas City in 1894

The maps go from the mouth of the Missouri to the headwaters.  You can view these online, or download them in either Raster or Vector formats.  If you live along the Mighty Mo give it a go!   I combined them in Arc GIS with some current aerial imagery and showed my kids what the river area looked like over a hundred years ago.  We quickly noticed a bunch more “character” in the river in the form of points, cutbanks, and islands.  Time changes all things and it is fantastic comparing a map from 100 years ago with what we can easily see today.

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7’s Environmental Services Division.  According to the Missouri River Commission Maps, he lives along a ridge that used to be in a forest.

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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A Road Map for a Road Map: New NAS Study on Spatial Science

By Jeffery Robichaud

The National Academy of Science’s Committee on Spatial Data Enabling USG Strategic Science in the 21st Century (whew a mouthful) just released a report entitled Advancing Strategic Science: A Spatial Data Infrastructure Road Map for the U.S. Geological Survey.  I don’t know any of the professors that were on the committee, so I’m not sure if the use of “Road Map” is tongue in cheek but it certainly sounds like the groan-eliciting plays-on-words that I am known for. 

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) plays an important role in geospatial activities across the country, and at EPA we rely heavily on their work, especially GIS professional fan favorites such as the National Hydrography Dataset, the National Land-Cover Dataset, and the National Elevation Dataset.  We work closely with USGS both at the national level as well as here at the regional level.   Because of this relationship and some of our overlapping goals, I was interested to read the report and understand what we at EPA could take away.  Like all National Academy of Science works, this one will take several reads to fully sink in, but I did glean some overarching themes which resonated with me especially for geospatial activities within the public sector.

The importance of quick and meaningful data sharing and data discovery – In a world as fast as ours, decisions must get made all day, every day based on the information one has in hand.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that getting data into the hands of decision makers (either through sharing or ease of discovery) will lead us to more informed and hopefully better decisions, especially in emergency situations.     

Maintaining data over the long haul – All technology, including GIS, seems to move at such a rapid clip, that we as a society seem to love and covet the next big thing.  However, data doesn’t go bad…unless we let it by not maintaining the systems and the access to historical information.    

The importance of partners – It can’t be stressed enough that going it alone on a project may not yield the best results.  Strong partnerships can bring more resources to bear, tap into numerous specific and unique talents not accessible to a sole entity, and aid in the discovery of new markets for data and information.  

I encourage you to read the report as it is a thoughtful catalogue of the spatial data infrastructure challenges facing USGS as they move forward.   And please feel free to post your thoughts below, especially as the relate to road maps for infrastructure of environmental data.     

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

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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The Water Quality Portal

By Jeffery Robichaud

For more years than I can count, accessing water quality data has been  a somewhat arduous task.  Many different organizations have data.  Unfortunately this data is usually in different formats and requires different methods to access.  It is tough for a scientist to get the information they need, let alone for a school kid wanting to find out information about the creek down the hill.

It hasn’t received a lot of publicity but the US Geological Survey and the United States Environmental Protection Agency through a partnership with the National Water Quality Monitoring Council have brought the two biggest sources of water quality data, EPA’s Storage and Retrieval (STORET) system and USGS’s National Water Information System (NWIS) together into one place, the Water Quality Portal.  In November of last year the system provided access to over 200 million records at over 5 million locations throughout the US.

Map of Water Quality Portal Results Coverage by County

At the portal you can browse for data based on numerous queries, download data in multiple formats (including kml for use in Google Earth), and even take advantage of web services using  RESTlike (REpresentational State Transfer) techniques,  so that your own applications can consume the data. 

Go ahead and give the Water Quality Portal a test drive.  It even provides a link to show you how to upload your own water quality data  using EPA’s WQXWeb template.  Next week I hope to show you  a similar effort we have going on in the Kansas City area.

About the Author: Jeffery Robichaud is a second generation EPA scientist who has worked for the Agency since 1998. He currently serves as Deputy Director of EPA Region 7’s Environmental Services Division.

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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For the Love of Maps

By Nancy Grundahl, EPA Region 3

Every time I see a map I get a warm, fuzzy feeling. It brings back memories of my childhood. When I was young, my mother thumb-tacked a map of the United States to the wall next to my bed. I often stood on my bed in my jammies staring at it. I wondered what “outside” looked like in faraway states like Arizona and Mississippi and Oregon. Were their trees and flowers the same as in my yard? Was their dirt the same as mine?

Little did my mother know that the map would help prepare me for a career in environmental science. Knowing how to read a map is important in many of the jobs we do at EPA. Maps give us information about the slope of the land, the location of streams and lakes, land use and municipal boundaries. Maps are typically included in permit applications, environmental impact statements, and grant proposals. Here’s an example.

My favorite maps are the U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps. They cover the entire U.S. in great detail. On-the-ground surveys, aerial photographs and satellite data have improved the maps over the years. These maps, now called U.S. Topo maps, are available on the web. While it is always fun to put a paper map on the floor and get down on my hands and knees to look at it, today’s on-line versions allow users to turn data layers on and off, to zoom in and out, and to print the maps, all free of charge while sitting comfortably in a chair.

If you’ve never looked at a topographic map, give it a go. You’ll be able to figure out where that stream that runs near your home starts and where it ends. You’ll be able to see about how many feet you are above sea level. You’ll also be able to figure out your latitude (your north or south location in relation to the equator) and your longitude (your location east or west of Greenwich, England). Philadelphia, Pa., where my office is located, is at about 39° N and 75° W.

Maps can open up a whole new way of learning about your environment! It did for me.

About the author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created. Nancy also writes for the “Healthy Waters for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region” blog.

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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