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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks on EPA's Apps for the Environment Challenge, As Prepared

06/09/2011
As prepared for delivery

Thank you for having me here today. I’m happy to have this chance to see and hear so much about improving awareness of health concerns in our communities – especially through innovation.
Two of EPA’s senior managers who deal with information and innovation are here today: Malcolm Jackson, the Chief Information Officer and head of the Office of Environmental Information, and Peter Preuss, the Chief Innovations Officer in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. They’re doing some great work.

Some of you may know that I initially went to school to be a doctor. My mother has always wondered why I decided to be an environmentalist. As far as she was concerned, she sent me to school to be a doctor – though I think she got around to being okay with it once President Obama called.

I wanted to be in the health field because – like many of you – I wanted to help people when they got sick. I ended up studying chemical engineering, and I realized that – if I put my technical degree to work in environmental protection – I could help prevent people from getting sick in the first place. And that has been one of the great opportunities of working in environmental protection.
Now, not everyone will immediately connect EPA with public health. There is a perception that our job is to protect the wilderness and endangered species. Those things are important, to be sure. But the truth is that EPA’s protection of human health is the first priority of our agency – and has been since day one.

In fact, before EPA was created in 1970 the federal pollution-control authorities that existed back then were part of the Public Health Service. They dealt with air pollution, water pollution and chemicals like pesticides – challenges that had, and still have, a direct impact on our health and the health of our children. Those responsibilities were largely assigned to EPA when it was formed 40 years ago. Since then we’ve made significant progress safeguarding the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land where we build our communities.

The environmental standards we enforce keep millions of tons of pollution a year out of our air. They ensure that more than 90 percent of Americans have access to clean, healthy water, and they sustain thousands of cleanup efforts taking place in communities across the country. What those numbers really mean is that the buses that take our kids to school in the morning no longer spew dangerous lead emissions into the air. When you pour yourself a glass of water, you can be confident it will be free of harmful chemicals. And when you buy an apple at the store, it hasn’t been sprayed with arsenic-based pesticides – like they were decades ago.

These efforts have helped to prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, and provided the American people with tens of trillions of dollars in health benefits. They are all part of EPA’s mission to protect the health of our communities.

We want to make sure everyone has the knowledge they need to protect themselves from environmental threats to their health. That’s why we’ve put together a host of great resources on our website. From our air quality and UV indexes to a recent and very cool addition to our website: a national map that by “mousing over” your state, will tell you the two major local environmental initiatives taking place, and will lead you to more local information.

The federal government is filled with valuable data like this that – when packaged in innovative ways – would arm Americans with the knowledge they need about their health and environment. But Washington doesn’t have a lock on all the best ideas. We want to encourage people from across the country to unleash their talent by helping us come up with new ways to combine our efforts.

In the last two years, President Obama has asked agencies across the government to open up their data stores so that all Americans can access and use the data. We’ve been making this data available in easy-to-use formats on a website called Data.gov.

As you’ve heard from Secretary Sebelius, HHS has launched challenges that help people protect their health by using this data. These great ideas could be even more useful if we added information about the environment. So EPA wants to build on the success at HHS with our own challenge. We want to take the information that’s out there one step further and package it into usable formats to improve the knowledge Americans have about their communities. But we need your help.

I’m happy to announce something we’re calling Apps for the Environment. This is a challenge to develop accurate, easy-to-use apps that help put valuable environmental and health information into the hands of the American people so they will understand the many ways our air, water and land impact our health and what we can do to protect against environmental health threats.

Apps for the Environment is calling on American innovators to use publically-available EPA data to address one or more of our seven priorities for EPA’s future. We’re calling for apps that will be beneficial in our work to take action on climate change, to improve air quality, to ensure the safety of chemicals, to clean up communities, to protect America’s waters, to expand the conversation on environmentalism, and to build strong state and tribal partnerships.

There could be an app that shows the connection between high rates of cancer and proximity to chemical plants. Or that shows where you can buy an energy efficient refrigerator. Or whether there are environmental violations in your community. An app could draw from the environmental data EPA has on pollution and the health data HHS has on asthma and show a connection between where people live and what could be causing their asthma.

I recognize the importance of all these things through my work as EPA Administrator. But they come really home for me as a mother. My youngest son has battled with asthma his entire life. He spent his first Christmas in the hospital struggling to breathe.
Since his first attack, our family has been extra alert to any environmental conditions that might trigger his asthma – everything from a little extra humidity in the air on a hot day, to common triggers like dust mites, molds, pet dander and secondhand smoke. Like every parent of a child with asthma, I know how critical it is to increase awareness about potential environmental hazards – hazards that not only cause asthma, but a host of other challenges.

This is a chance to help people take a role in protecting their own health and the health of their children. That is what this app challenge is all about. But before you start thinking up ideas, we want to hear from you. What kinds of data do you want? What formats are most useful to you? What applications would help the most people? Tell us and we can help you by making more federal data accessible and easier to use. Apps submitted will be judged by how useful, useable and innovative they are. The winning apps will be featured on EPA’s website and the developer will be recognized at an event this fall.

Through challenges like this one, we can harness America’s cutting-edge thinking to help us understand the world around us. Together, the federal government and innovators - including software developers - can address the problems our nation faces.

Apps for the Environment is a first step in this partnership. But it is just the beginning of a long-term effort to engage this creative sector of our economy and use information in new ways that improve our environment and our health.

I look forward to seeing the ingenious ways our innovators and creative thinkers put information to use to strengthen environmental awareness and public health protection. And I look forward to continuing our work with all of you to use innovations and technology and data to better guide and inform our mission to protect human health and the environment. Thank you very much.