Account services

Development of the Eionet, the European Environment Information and Observation Network

Hannu Saarenmaa
European Environment Agency
Kongens Nytorv 6, DK-1050 Copenhagen

Introduction

In 1990, the European Council passed legislation establishing the European Environment Agency (EEA) as the environmental information centre for the European Union. At the same time it was deemed that the EEA be a small nucleus of a large network, which was named the European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet).

The main purpose of the EEA and the Eionet is to report on the state of Europe's environment so that the European Union and the Member States have a solid basis for developing legislation. Hence, the EEA's main customers are the EU's Member governments and their decisionmakers. The EEA regulation also charges the EEA with the responsibility to ensure that citizens are properly informed about the environment. The Dobris Assessment, the first holistic state of the environment report was published in 1995 (1), and its follow-up, Europe's Environment: The Second Assessment was released in late June, 1998. This and other reports are also available at the EEA's website.

Producing such colossal overviews relies heavily on the establishment of an effective telematic network - the so-called Eionet. This means that the EEA necessarily accumulates expertise and know-how on telecommunication and networking. These are now recognised as vehicles for further developing new kinds of products and services. Indeed, the first review of the EEA and Eionet made by the European Council in 1997 determined that it shall become an electronic reference centre for environmental information. With the rapid advances in Internet, such as push technology and powerful information locators, there are very good prospects for this. Beyond the horizon, new digital satellite vision holds a promise for totally new types of environmental information services.

The Eionet: an onion model

The Eionet has already evolved considerably during its short life. It consists of four main categories of nodes: i) A National Focal Point (NFP), which is typically a small unit in a Member State's environmental administration that coordinates European activities. (There are NFPs in all EU, EFTA, and Phare countries); ii) National Reference Centres (NRC), which are major research institutes that collaborate with the NFP to provide the information to Europe-wide databases; iii) European Topic Centres (ETC), which are special contractors to the EEA and coordinate activities in thematic areas. Currently there are ETCs for air quality, air emissions, soil, inland waters, marine and coast, nature, land cover, waste, and cataloguing of data sources. Each ETC has a number of partners; iv) In the Phare countries, Phare Topic Links provide the same function and extend the ETCs.

figure 1

Figure 1. The Eionet onion structure

The Eionet consists of layers represented by a core Extranet, an outer Eionet, semi-public networks, and open information dissemination. Figure 1 shows this structure (for abbreviations, see text).

There are no less than 600 nodes officially nominated to serve as part of the Eionet, though actually less than 200 actively participate. Mapping this diverse organisational network into an effective telecommunications structure, which takes into account the needs of users, working group dynamics, and the necessary security measures, has been a major challenge. As a result, a layered model, as shown in Figure 1, with different rules for the different zones, and the most widely adopted technological standards (i.e., Internet), have been adopted for Eionet.

The core of the Eionet is an Extranet that connects the NFPs, ETCs, and Phare NFPs with EEA. By definition (3) an Extranet is a username/password protected collaborative network of information suppliers and consumers on the Internet. The main functionality of the core Eionet is document management. The content is dominated by drafts and final reports on the state of the environment, information on project coordination, addresses, meetings, and meta-information. It has been built by the EEA and its contractor, Finsiel SpA., in 1995-98 with the support of European Commission's DGIII IDA Programme (4) and that of DGIA. The Eionet that now consists of 40 physical nodes is one of the pioneering Extranet projects among European institutions.

The outer Eionet, which also is an Extranet (see again Figure 1), has a somewhat different group of users and functions than the core. It mainly consists of working groups at the national level and within the partners of ETCs. Document management again is important, but the needs for database management, especially the opportunity to upload extracts from operational databases located at NRCs to data warehouses at NFPs and ETCs has become important. However, currently these services are still being shaped.

Eionet is also an Internet player, actively promoting Special Interest Networks (5) such as BALLERINA (6) on the Baltic Sea environment area, and collaborating with international institutions with their network-based efforts, such as the project on the Clearing-house of the Convention on Biological Diversity (7). Although all the finished documents that have been produced within Eionet are made available through public websites (2), the public dimensions of Eionet still await their full implementation during 1998-2000. Beyond the present Internet of passive web sites, Eionet is looking at emerging technologies for actively pushing and broadcasting environmental news to the widest possible audience.

figure 2

Figure 2. The layered architecture of Eionet's services.

Supporting group collaboration

The functionality of the Eionet is provided by the full range of Netscape server technology on Unix. In order to achieve a fully-functional network, the services will have to be built with a layered approach so that more advanced forms of communication build on top of the basic layers (see Figure 2). At the top of the services there is a groupware package called CIRCLE (Centre for Information Resources for Collaboration on Environment). It ties all the other services together, and provides shared group collaboration areas for projects, which are called Interest Groups. CIRCLE is a generic service that has been developed by European Dynamics S.A. (8) for the Interchange of Data between Administrations (IDA) Programme (4). It is being installed on all Eionet servers. Figure 3 shows the document management functions of CIRCLE.

A few aspects of these layered services are worth discussing here. Electronic mail has become a major contributor to information overload lately. Therefore, more structured forms of communication such as discussion forums and project homepages where documents are uploaded are being implemented. A full-blown distributed directory service across all the hundreds of Eionet organisations is also essential. In document management, the webmaster has been bypassed entirely, and users themselves upload documents to Interest Groups on CIRCLE servers.

Of the vertical applications being built on top of the Eionet platform, the most central is the Catalogue of Data Sources (CDS), which consists of a data directory, address database and a multilingual thesaurus (9). It serves as the key link to all the other data sources on the Eionet.

figure 3

Figure 3. A screen from Eionet showing the document management functions of CIRCLE.

figure 4

Figure 4. The distributed data warehouse architecture of the Eionet.

Dataflow automation - towards one-stop reporting

The current state of online databases on the Eionet is not very advanced - only a few are publicly available, such as prototype web front-ends for the CORINE land cover and biotope databases (see 2; also on CD-ROM). Unlike some services like the U.S. EPA's "Envirofacts" (10), there is not yet a central database located on Eionet. Instead, a distributed data warehouse system is being established (see Figure 4). This is done to alleviate the problem that in Member States, the same people will have to report the same or slightly different data repeatedly to various data collection systems, such as those of Eurostat, the European Commission, EEA, OECD, and various legal conventions. For historical reasons, overlapping dataflows have been set up on an ad hoc manner, but now need to be connected. The data warehouse functionality of Eionet servers should streamline this by making the Eionet server the single place for data reporting. The various users of data could then access it from there. This approach will give good possibilities for automating dataflows in small steps. The EEA is also working on projects that in future may employ intelligent agents to locate and retrieve data from the Eionet and to distribute this to its users (11).

Eionet - an integrative platform

Environmental issues are cross-cutting and the Maastricht Treaty demands that sustainability be taken as a guide for all economic activities. This means that users of the Eionet who study environmental impacts increasingly will need data and information from adjacent economic sectors such as energy, transport, forests, agriculture, etc. Lots of sectoral networks have begun to be created in Europe, and many of them are migrating to an Intranet/Extranet operational mode. These developments are particularly relevant to the Eionet, because if there is a well operating network on a sector adjacent to Eionet, it may be possible to tap into its dataflows instead of creating a redundant reporting system on Eionet. However, the danger that overlapping networks will be born will have to be monitored carefully, and for this reason, for instance, the new network for the Clearing House of the Convention of Biodiversity should be hosted on Eionet. The current convergence of technology to Internet will make it increasingly easy to integrate different networks. The solutions chosen for Eionet, Extranet and group collaboration on CIRCLE, are very generic and could easily be duplicated on other networks. In essence, we need to clone Eionet to other economic sectors.

Eionet also can provide a platform for new telematics applications. There is a large user base, well-developed authentication services, and shortly there will be a database that can be used for automatically generating state of environment syntheses.

Conclusion

Eionet started life as a closed network but is increasingly opening up to new partners. We are still taking the first steps in opening up the information sources on environment and connecting to the real sources of information. In future these connections will be reinforced and increasingly automated.

The best available environmental information is not always with governments, but with museums, research groups, NGOs, etc., for which a place must be found in the Eionet. Open access to environmental information is the best guarantee that improvements in the state of environment will be achieved. When information is released, it will create positive pressure from those citizens concerned for the environment towards those placing stress on environment. It will also lead to increased quality control of the information itself. New forms of electronic democracy are being created while discussing the state of environment.

References

  1. Stanners, D. & Bourdeau, P. (editors). 1995. Europe's Environment - The Dobris Assessment. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, 1995.
  2. http://www.eea.europa.eu/
  3. http://whatis.com/
  4. Europe's Environment Network (IDA Eionet). IDA Report 4, p. 7. 1997. European Commission DG III Interchange of Data between Administrations Programme, Brussels. See also http://www.ispo.cec.be/ida/ida.html
  5. http://www.csu.edu.au/links/sin/sin.html
  6. http://www.baltic-region.net/
  7. http://www.biodiv.org/
  8. http://www.eurodyn.com.gr/
  9. http://www.mu.niedersachsen.de/system/cds/
  10. http://www.epa.gov/envirofacts/
  11. http://www.mcc.com/projects/infosleuth/

The original copy of this document is held at http://www.rec.org/REC/Programs/Telematics/DETERMINE/EuroInfoSession/HSaarenmaa.html