‘Environmental justice’ tool links data from across government

Traffic in Seattle. The new tool integrates data about traffic proximity to help users see the environmental risks in a given community. (Oran Viriyincy/Flickr)

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A new interactive map, unveiled this month by the Environmental Protection Agency, lets users take a closer look at what communities face the biggest environmental health risks.

With EJSCREEN, users can zoom in on a particular neighborhood to see what kind of environment threats its residents might encounter — whether it’s from particulate matter, lead paint or proximity to traffic. At the same time, users also can take a broader view and see how different environmental threats are impacting minority and low-income communities across the nation.

“There’s a real intentional effort being made to elevate the concerns of environmental justice … but there’s been a gap in terms of how to find those populations and how to accurately assess where they are and those needs,” said Kevin Olp, environment protection special and the lead of public outreach for EJSCREEN. “EJSCREEN helps fill that gap.”

Officials worked with various offices within EPA as well as outside agencies like the Department of Transportation to gather environmental indicator data and laid that information on top demographic data from the ongoing American Community Survey. As they parsed the data, the team gave raw scores for different indicators and determined what percentile the scores fell in. Those rankings correspond to different colors on the map. Olp said that allows users to compare communities across the country.

Olp said the tool has changed how some offices handle their data. The Office of Air and Radiation worked with a contractor to create a service that updates EJSCREEN’s data soon after the office gets new figures for various environmental indicators. Without the new system, it might take six months to a year for the new data to appear in the tool.

“They’ve been very helpful in developing systems where, if they get new data, we can put it in the tool as soon as possible,” he said.

A technical advantage to opening this data, Olp said, is it allows the public to help catch errors or problems with the data sets. For example, if someone notices the agency is using the wrong coordinates for a Superfund site, the agency can update that data.

“This has actually been a good useful exercise in being able to provide feedback to the people who create these datasets,” he said. “When we put them out for the public and the public can access them, it can help us to correct those data.”

Still, the EPA has to manually update EJSCREEN. Olp said, after the office gets the newest batch of American Community Survey data in December, his team will re-release the map in early 2016.

Charles Lee, the head of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which championed the project, said EJSCREEN has aided his agency’s work.

“It’s the first time that we have a nationally consistent screening tool,” he said. “It makes our work a whole lot more consistent … accurate and efficient.”

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In this EJSCREEN-generated map of Riverside, California, orange and red colors indicate areas where there are vulnerable populations living near traffic. (Courtesy of EPA)

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Agencies, big data, data analytics, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Tech
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