Running Oracle Corp.s Database 10g on hardware ranging from high-end workstations to field workers laptop PCs, the Region 5 Superfund Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is integrating terabytes of images and measurements into efficient, comprehensive support tools for a growing range of tasks.
Whether theyre analyzing pollution or developing responses to possible terrorist attacks, EPA analysts praise Database 10gs openness to standards-based application development as the Chicago-based Region 5 Superfund Division expands its capabilities in the office and the field.
Region 5 Superfund Division staff members said the expanded image data storage and querying options on the 10g platform are crucial to their growing list of missions.
“The application that were working on will really open peoples eyes to what this stuff can do for you,” said Brian Cooper, Region 5 Superfund Division technical manager. “Our Rapid Assessment Tools application, in any emergency, aids collection of data in the field and also has data that can be helpful, such as locations of hospitals and schools. Analysts will be able to ask for a region or feed coordinates from a [Global Positioning System] device, and [Rapid Assessment Tools] will extract whatever data the database has to answer that.”
The Region 5 Superfund Divisions transition from Oracle Database 9i to 10g began last year, during the divisions beta tests of the new platform.
The division was won over by the capability of the Oracle Spatial option for Oracle Database 9i. Oracle Spatial let the division store vector data, such as the routes of roads, pipelines, and political or geographic feature boundaries. Oracle 10g expands these spatial data capabilities to include a broad range of efficient operations that can be performed on raster data such as images.
At the same time, the growing power and storage capacities available on desktop-replacement laptop systems—supported by the Oracle Personal version of the 10g product—open new possibilities for taking these functions into the field.
The Region 5 Superfund Division migrated the Rapid Assessment Tools application, initially developed for server and workstation environments, to laptops running Oracle Personal, at a license cost of about $700 per machine.
EPA Research Associate Larry Callant said the move has made it much easier for field personnel to find pertinent data. “Were in the middle of testing an external [Universal Serial Bus] hard drive with terabyte capacity that will have aerial photos of an entire area,” Callant said. “A field analyst wont need to flip through a collection of CDs to find the needed image; its now just an automatic thing.”
Crucial to these efforts are the image-querying tools of the 10g platforms Oracle Spatial GeoRaster option, enabled by the object/relational design of the platform and its ability to process extremely large collections of data. In addition to the existing ability to store vector data, GeoRaster 10g prepackages pixel-by-pixel data for efficient extraction of specific regions or the neighborhoods around specific points.
Two-dimensional map locations, three-dimensional locations tagged with depths or altitudes, and four-dimensional locations tagged with time stamps or other attribute data can be inspected in an accessible ASCII format, Callant said. “You can write a Select clause, and you can actually view it; its not just stored in some binary format,” he said.
Callant and Cooper said they hope that the power of the GeoRaster platform will motivate many parties—including industry and other federal agencies—to contribute to a unified database that will consolidate information thats currently stored in diverse formats.
“Right now, you have to funnel through thousands of different-shaped files, data in many different formats,” said Cooper. “Its very difficult to weed through it—nothing is standardized, and thats what were trying to sell with this stuff. If you had one centralized database, that would be really powerful.”
At the same time, said Callant, the rigor of working with the new GeoRaster has exposed some issues with source data that previously went unrecognized. “Some of the data that seemed great with 9i was not as great as I thought it was,” said Callant, describing ways in which data consistency and other characteristics needed to be refined for best performance in the 10g architecture.
Callant said that it was also a challenge to understand the new coding for GeoRaster, but he said he appreciates that he can use the development tool best suited to a particular task.
“You dont have to use [Oracles] JDeveloper” to take advantage of the 10g platforms capabilities, Callant said. “You also can write with C or Java; Oracle gives you the APIs.”
Callant said he and his team have found Oracle developers to be responsive to their questions, not only during the 10g beta program but also since the product release. Cooper agreed, saying, “We actually get to talk with the people who know this stuff.”
The grid computing capabilities of the 10g platform are still a future prospect, said Cooper, given the current lack of data homogeneity and application capability among federal agencies. The cost-effectiveness of x86 blade computers, however, looks to him like the wedge that could open that door: “Now that Intel [Corp.] and others are making small and affordable computers that can run these intense models, we can start to share models and share the work effort.”
Callant and Cooper described their goals of moving data from regulatory agencies, sources of geographic data and industry participants in cleanup efforts into a unified coordinate system, as well as a common framework for analysis in the lab and rapid action by EPA and other personnel.
Taking advantage of continuing infrastructure improvements, such as GPS and wireless communications networks, theyre optimistic about the prospects for dramatic improvements to EPA mission effectiveness.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at [email protected]