Earth’s 911: Nationwide Resource Puts Environmental Information At Your Fingertips

REDMOND, Wash., April 22, 1999 — In the past, when consumers wanted to know where to recycle used motor oil, or what to do with the leftovers from staining a deck, they had dozens of hotlines to choose from within each local community. Multiply that number by the number of communities in each state and by 50 states, and it added up to about 10,000 hotlines nationwide. Many of those resources duplicated information and functions. California alone had at least 248 oil-recycling hotlines, all publicly mandated and publicly funded.

Each hotline took a share of tax dollars and vied for the same education, promotion, and outreach media. This added up to hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide, and sometimes inconsistent and inaccurate messages.

The idea of having one nationwide environmental hotline, dubbed Earth’s 911, grew out of a unique partnership among the Environmental Protection Agency, National Governors Association, all 50 states, Bank of America, Edison International, America West Airlines, Microsoft, The Home Depot, and Sprint.

By using Microsoft BackOffice Server, Earth’s 911 has been able to consolidate those 10,000 state and local environmental hotlines into a single telephone and Internet network that provides callers all over America with geographically specific information on recycling, disposing of household hazardous waste, and other environmental issues. No matter where you live in the United States, you’ll get information specific to your community by calling 1 (800) CLEANUP or visiting on the Web.

Because BackOffice Server is designed to take full advantage of the directory, security, and application services of Microsoft Windows NT®
Server, it makes it much easier and quicker to create a comprehensive solution that includes networking, management, messaging, and database capabilities. This integrated multi-server solution allows Earth’s 911 to cost-effectively combine the thousands of environmental hotlines into one that can easily be customized for each community.

This BackOffice Server-based solution broadens the distribution of information that consumers need to help protect their local environment, while saving hundreds of millions of tax dollars and billions of dollars in pollution prevention. As a result, local communities will be able to allocate their money for more education and environmental promotion while using Earth’s 911 to reach their consumers.

Formerly known as the U.S. Environmental hotline, Earth’s 911 started in 1992 in Arizona and Texas. Originally it was set up on a UNIX-based operating system, and then migrated to OS2. Because organizers were planning to take the system nationwide but had limited financial and labor resources, they needed a system that could scale from where they were to where they expected to go, and that was still easy to set up and manage with minimal resources.

Adding Scalability and Minimizing Administration

In 1994, the organization chose the Windows NT Server version 3.51 operating system and Microsoft SQL Server
largely because they could be easily integrated into a seamless phone- and Internet-based solution. Because Earth’s 911 already stored information in a large Microsoft Access database, system administrators could continue to update the system through Access and then automatically replicate the information to the SQL Server database.

“We were able to start small and add functionality as we needed it, which was extremely important with our limited resources,” said Chris Warner, Director of Earth’s 911.

In 1997, Microsoft became a partner of Earth’s 911 and provided the organization with the complete Microsoft BackOffice Server family of products. By providing the organization with a complete application platform out of the box –including a high-performance Web server, core database, search and messaging capabilities, in addition to workflow, data transformation, and transaction processing — the organization was set for rapid expansion while maintaining a relatively small number of employees. Currently, the group has just 14 people working in the office and nine others across the nation.

The integrated setup of all components within BackOffice Server speeds up deployment. And fully customizable Microsoft Management Console-based taskpads make it possible to match management complexity to the administrator’s level of experience. The integration and management tools allow Earth’s 911 to manage the entire network with one full-time and two part-time employees.

“BackOffice allows us to run a lot of automated commands in Microsoft Exchange Server and SQL Server,”
said Chris Onslow, Systems Administrator for Earth’s 911.
“And with tools such as Performance Monitor in Windows NT Server and Systems Management Server, we can keep a close eye, from one computer, on what’s going on throughout the system. Plus the system does a lot for itself as far as maintenance and upkeep.”

“The BackOffice Server technology is what’s made it possible,”
Warner says.
“By giving us one unified system all the way from BackOffice to Internet Explorer, it has streamlined the way we gather and distribute information. There’s no way we could have handled this much capacity with a staff of our size without this technology.”

One of the keys to the success of this nationwide hotline was its ability to provide customized data for each community. All the data is stored in a SQL Server database that mirrors the same information for both the phone system and the Internet.

On the Web side, Earth’s 911 uses Microsoft Active Server Pages (ASP) as the interface between the database and the Web browser. “The database connectivity and Web page creation capabilities of Active Server Pages are really the key to success on the Web,” said Jim Haklik, Information Systems Director for Earth’s 911. “It offers a full set of features that give us great interactive capability.”

One example, currently being tested in California, is the ability for Web site visitors to build a custom “green” map of all the environmentally related resources in their neighborhoods just by entering their zip code.

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Customization was key to convincing the organizations with existing hotlines to tie in to Earth’s 911. By using SQL Server, they are able to tailor information to the state, county, city, and zip code level and even to communities within a community. For example, six Native American tribes in California wanted their own environmental hotline. Earth’s 911 was able to build a section customized just for that group. A request has now been made to the EPA to provide a similar section for every Native American tribe in the United States.
( /NativeAmerican/nativemain.htm )

In addition to providing geographically specific environmental data, SQL Server allows groups to promote contests and events for specific areas. For example, San Mateo, Calif., has run five contests on the system over the last four years. “You call into the system or visit the Web site, and can register for the contest right online,” Warner explained. “The system is set up so that we know where they’re calling from and only those with the zip codes provided by San Mateo get the information on the contests.”

The system can even recognize cities within a specific zip code. For example, if a household hazardous waste drop-off event applies only to residents within a city that shares a zip code with an adjacent city, the system will present the appropriate event information for both cities.

Although typically the Web site gets approximately 1,500 hits per day, there are times when several special events are going on all over the country and the system can be hit hard. On one such day, the telephone system received 60,000 phone calls and the Web site got approximately 15,000 hits. “The phones and Web site were going like mad, but the SQL Server database just sat there and hummed along,” Warner recalled.

Tracking Success

Because the system can track where people go on the system and the information they download, analysts can look at the time and dates that users accessed the information and get an idea of the response to specific programs. Analysts can then report those results to the local communities so they know what the public response was and how they can use it to improve their own outreach efforts.

“SQL Server receives information that allows us to build queries that look for a certain set of data for a certain set of zip codes, and automatically build these reports,” explains Dr. Kathryn Merrill, Director of Research.

Tracking results also allows the organization to expand or contract capacity to meet the demands of certain peak promotional periods. This capability is about to be put to the test. The Environmental Media Association, which includes luminaries such as Ted Turner, Michael Eisner, Warren Littlefield, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Harrison Ford, recently partnered with Earth’s 911 to help promote this international environmental call to action. They are volunteering their talents and resources to create and run public service campaigns, which can mean tens of millions of dollars’ worth of promotion next year alone. The hotline number and Web address are also starting to appear on oilcans across the country. This is bound to build volume on the system exponentially, but the organization isn’t worried.

“We have DS3 (24 T-1 lines) capability, which can handle about 200,000 phone calls a day and almost unlimited Web hits,” Warner said. “We can expand and contract the capacity of our system on demand by knowing what’s getting ready to happen. Since the system is scalable, we can increase our capacity in reasonable increments to meet growth in demand. And, since we use multiple servers for files and applications, the seamless networking capabilities of Windows NT and SQL Server are essential to our success. We are excited to be on the leading edge of integrating telephone and Web applications into one system. Our use of the 1-800-Cleanup phone number as the Web address ( ) illustrates our commitment to a fully integrated environment.


Meeting Future Growth

As Earth’s 911 gains momentum, the database doubles in size several times a year. As of October 1998, the database was at 15 gigabytes. “Our software and hardware costs remain pretty much the same because of BackOffice Server,” Warner observed. “And the system capabilities remain amazingly constant even though the system is growing exponentially.”

Despite that level of growth, Systems Administrator Onslow is confident that the BackOffice Server-based solution can grow with the organization. “We have a lot of system power and scalability here through BackOffice Server. Using integrated setup, we can have a server up and running in less than a day. It’s phenomenal where we can go with that. This technical environment is truly helping Earth’s 911 make every day ‘Earth day’,” he concludes.

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