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Environmental Protection Agency

Helping a modernization program chart a new path forward

Summary

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needed an independent consulting review of the state of their Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) modernization initiative, including their development contract. We were brought in to facilitate a health-check assessment workshop in order to help the EPA chart a smart path forward.

People standing around a really large glass and inspecting it.

The challenge

The EPA's Safe Drinking Water Information System contains data about public water systems and violations of EPA's drinking water regulations. In 2017, the EPA launched an initiative called SDWIS Prime to transform the data architecture of SDWIS. Under the old architecture, U.S. states maintained separate distributed tracking systems for data. The EPA wanted to migrate this historical data into a new, centralized architecture maintained by the agency.

The EPA was concerned about the progress of this architecture, as well as the viability of migrating large volumes of historical data to their new system. Among the concerns they faced, there were several complicating factors:

  • High degree of complexity due to an overreliance by states on data tables;
  • A lack of transactional records for much of the data, making it difficult to audit or track changes to the data pipeline; and
  • A new and completely unfamiliar data schema for SDWIS Prime, which made importing and exporting the data difficult. Transformations would have to be routinely performed to ingest data, and it'd have to be undone again every time the system exported information to a state due to the custom application of the output format.

In addition, difficulty with DevOps practices such as delivery cadence, non-uniform environments between systems, and a lack of comprehensive testing strategy slowed down the SDWIS Prime development.

The solution

We worked with EPA technical staff to lead an assessment workshop where we conducted a comprehensive review of the state of the SDWIS Prime initiative, including existing technical practices and technologies. During this workshop, we worked with the team to understand and ingest all available information, as well as synthesize this knowledge into a discrete set of concerns that we could use to present recommendations. Over the course of a 4-hour consultation, Skylight charted:

  • The background and history of the SDWIS program
  • The team's understanding of the progress of the new data system
  • The known pain points and obstacles to successful implementation

We synthesized this information into an analytic technical and recommendation report that we delivered to the EPA two days after the consultation.

The results

  • Delivered a four-page, analytically-synthesized report to the EPA addressing our understanding of the state of SDWIS Prime and including recommendations for pivoting resources going forward
  • Report served as an important catalyst to bridge the communication gap between the EPA's technical teams and leadership
  • Report enabled the EPA to make smarter decisions about how to proceed with their development contract