The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is concerned that aging systems present challenges in obtaining reliable air quality data.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) primarily uses two legacy IT systems—the Air Quality System (AQS) and AirNow—to manage ambient, that is, outdoor, air quality data collected by the monitoring agencies. These agencies—tribal, state, local, or territorial—design and operate air monitoring sites. EPA developed AQS in 1996 to manage data that are used for regulatory purposes, such as identifying areas that do not meet air quality standards. EPA developed the AirNow system in the late 1990s to provide near real-time information about air pollution levels to the public.
Due to their age and design, AQS and AirNow can be difficult to maintain, access, and use, according to GAO’s analysis of EPA and stakeholder views. This limits their functionality and poses resource and other challenges for EPA, monitoring agencies, and other data users. For example, EPA officials said it was particularly challenging to find and retain IT staff with experience or knowledge to work with AQS’s outdated software. Moreover, the use of multiple systems to manage air quality data results in inefficient use of resources for EPA and monitoring agencies, according to GAO’s analysis of EPA and stakeholder views.
EPA is considering replacing AQS and AirNow with a new, single system to address the legacy system challenges, but GAO has found that progress has been limited partly due to competing priorities and resource limitations.
Despite listing AQS as a system in need of modernization in 2017, EPA has not clearly identified AQS and AirNow as candidates for replacement through its recent IT management and oversight processes.
According to EPA guidance, the agency should assess mature systems to ascertain their continued effectiveness in supporting mission requirements and consider replacement options. However, GAO found EPA’s processes do not specify factors for evaluating systems that may be ready for replacement, such as if the system has deteriorated beyond economical repair.
Furthermore, GAO found that EPA has not developed a business case for a new system, which is a step in EPA’s IT management process needed to secure management approval for modernizing IT systems or developing a new one.
GAO is making three recommendations to EPA, including to identify factors for evaluating IT systems that may be ready for replacement and develop a business case for a new IT system. EPA agreed with two recommendations and disagreed with the one to identify factors for evaluating IT systems. GAO continues to believe identifying such factors could assist with oversight.