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January 14, 2008


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When Molly O’Neill took the stage at the EPA’s Environmental Information Symposium 2007 in November, she had a surprise challenge for the 600 attendees.  Molly, the EPA’s CIO and Assistant Administrator of the Office of Environmental Information (OEI), gave meeting-goers 36 hours to contribute as much information as they could to a Wiki about Puget Sound’s delicate eco-system.  By the time the challenge expired, the Wiki had generated 175 contributions, some 17,000 page views, and one happy CIO.  (For those of you who aren’t sure what a Wiki is, look it up on, you guessed it, Wikipedia.) 

Molly is a self-described geek who this month missed the Consumer Electronics Show for the first time in eight years.  (Apparently, the geek gene runs in the family; the CES has become something of an annual reunion for Molly’s family.)  She oversees a staff of 400 at EPA’s OEI.  Here, we caught her talking on her Bat Phone (our term) to some staffers at EPA’s National Computing Center in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Molly conceived the “Puget Sound Information Challenge” as a way to test the usefulness of Web 2.0 applications to EPA work—they’re mulling the possibility of using Wikis and the like to collect public comment on EPA regulations—and also to determine whether the OEI is succeeding in its mission to make the environmental data it collects from states as accessible as possible.  (The theory being that if data migrated onto the Wiki in little more than a day, it probably wasn’t too hard to access.)

Molly is a Senate-confirmed political appointee who came to the job just a year ago.  Here she stands before some more cool technology—a screen in an EPA conference room that blends handsomely into the wood-paneled wall, showing the Wiki’s front page.

Molly says that once she decided to issue the challenge, she wanted to make sure it was a real test, with real-world usefulness.  She kept a tight lid on her plans—only a select few in her office knew about it ahead of time—and got together with the Puget Sound Leadership Council, led by former EPA administrator Bill Ruckelshaus, to come up with six actual environmental issues that the Council was seeking information about and will be addressing in a forthcoming strategic plan.  Molly is presenting the results of the challenge to the Council this month.

Meeting participants, including EPA staff and industry participants from ESRI, Microsoft, Google, and other companies, were encouraged to use mash-up tools to collect and organize whatever information they could gather in the compressed time frame.

Although she hasn’t been able to confirm it, Molly believes that she may be working in the very same office that her grandfather did as Deputy Postmaster General.  According to family lore, his office had an elevator and stairway that went down to the old Postmaster’s office, just like her office does.

One key to running a successful Web 2.0 project like the Puget Sound Information Challenge, Molly learned, is having a team of experts managing and tagging content as it comes in.  Molly says that the 8-10 who worked on the EPA’s Wiki in shifts over the 36‑hour period were barely enough to keep the information organized correctly.  To make things easy on those who weren’t tech savvy but still wanted to contribute information to the project, the EPA allowed them to email or phone in with contributions.  A sign of the times:  over the course of the 36 hours, they didn’t receive a single call.

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