PortalU - The German environmental information portal (PortalU)

Published on: 11/06/2007

PortalU is the central online information portal of the environmental administration in Germany. The portal is the result of a long-term cooperation of the 16 federal states and the federal government. To the citizens of Germany, PortalU provides a highly-accessible, comfortable and central access point to publicly-held environmental information and data. Following the spirit of the Arhus-Convention and the EU-Environmental Information Directive, PortalU offers information-services with the goal to make government more transparent, to educate the public about environmental issues, and to thus enable and enhance public participation in environment-related decision processes.

Policy Context

PortalU is part of the stategy adopted by the German environmental administration to comply with new national and regional environmental legislation on the distribution of and access to environmental information (Umweltinformationsgesetz – UIG). This legislation implements the EU Environmental Information Directive (2003/4/EC – EEID) as a result of the Aarhus-Convention. PortalU was proposed by the Conference of the Environmental Ministers as a project for the “Aktionsplan Deutschland” one of the major German eGovernment initiatives within the framwork of Deutschland-online. PortalU closely cooperates with the Geodateninfrastruktur Deutschland (GDI-DE), a federation of mapping agencies throughout Germany under the leadership of the Federal Mapping Agency (BKG) in Bonn. Together with GDI-DE, PortalU will be a key-player in the implementation of the recently adopted INSPIRE Directive and the resulting European Spatial Data Infrastructure (ESDI). Overall, PortalU directly contributes to the objectives of the 1998 Aarhus Convention, namely to guarantee every European citizen the rights of access to information and participation in decision-making, with the goal to allow them to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being.

Description of target users and groups

The EU-Environmental Information Directive (EEID) grants every citizen in Germany the right of free access to publicly-held environmental information. The target-group of the Portal is therefore rather broad. Experience with the operation of the portal so far showed that mainly the interested public (i.e. members of NGOs, journalists, private sector companies in the environmental business and members of the environmental adminstration itself) make frequent use of PortalU. It is difficult to estimate the total number of potential long-term users, but it may be in the range of serveral million citizens.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

PortalU is a successful long-term cooperation of all 16 federal states and a number of federal agencies. This cooperation is put on a sound organizational and financial basis through an official adminstrative agreement between the participating administrations. This agreement guarantees a continuous funding of the project. All relevant decisions about the strategic development of PortalU and allocation of funds are made by a Control Board (Lenkungsausschuss) in which each partner of the agreement has a vote. A Technical Board (AG-IUTE) supports the Control Board in technical questions. With a team of 5 permanent staff, the Coordination-Center PortalU acts as the executive organ of the Control Board. It supervises the development, operation and maintenance of PortalU.

Technology solution

With PortalU, the user has access not only to data and information that are online and available through the Internet. The newly developed DSC database interface allows PortalU to access data sources that are not yet online, or hidden behind the firewalls of an intranet. Through this feature, PortalU is able to make data and information about data available that are hidden to the general public (and to other search engines). This is particularly important in an environment, where often severe security-constraints hamper the free access to data and information. PortalU fully integrates the well-established Catalog of Data Sources (Umweltdatenkatalog UDK). This data catalog has been used by the environmental administration for more than 10 years to reference and manage documents, projects, geospatial data, services and other environmental information. A considerable part of these data are offline and/or available only as hard-copy. Through PortalU and the UDK, information describing the content such data as well as references to the data-sources and contact persons is available in a user-friendly, highly accessible way.

Main results, benefits and impacts

PortalU applies a number of technologies that go beyond the current state-of-the-art in the area of information portals: - The modular system architecture of PortalU makes it possible to build customized information portals on different levels of the administrative hierarchy. A network of regional and/or local environmental portals can thus be set up using the PortalU technology. - The information portals provide a one-stop-access to distributed data sources, avoiding redundant data storage. An innovative communication infrastructure based on peer-to-peer concepts enables each information portal to use all data sources in the network. This follows the principle “all for all”, i.e. all members of the network may profit from the network. - PortalU provides access not only to web-content, but also to databases, expert systems and data catalogs. A highly configurable database-connector was developed for this purpose to minimize the cost of connection of new data sources. - Interfaces based on international standards ensure the interoperability of PortalU with other information infrastructure. One example is the CSW interface for data-catalogs. Through this interface, PortalU will be integrated into national and international geospatial data infrastructures, as mandated by the recently adopted EU-INSPIRE directive. - A complex environmental thesaurus is used to enable semantic query expansion and automatic semantic annotation of textual content. The thesaurus is encapsulated in a web-service (Semantic Network Service – SNS) provided by one of the organisations participating in PortalU, the federal enviromental agency (Umweltbundesamt) - The SNS is also used to geo-reference textual content of documents indexed by PortalU. Through this function, the spatial search funcion in PortalU has access not only to geospatial data and metadata, but also to web-pages and other documents. PortalU provides a central information infrastructure that can be used by all partners to fulfill their obligations with respect to national/regional and European legislation (i.e., UIG, EEID, INSPIRE). Secondly, the PortalU software can be used by the partners to implement regional and local environmental information portals at no additional cost. The costs for development, operation and maintenance of PortalU are shared in an “all for all” approach between the partners. The federal government is the main finanical contributor (> 40%) and the financial obligation of the other are divided according to their population and economic power. In this framework, in particular the smaller partners (i.e. federal states) do have an advantage. For them, usage of PortalU and/or the PortalU software can result in cost-savings of several 100.000 Euros annually.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

After only one year of operation, PortalU has already had a strong influence on the development of the environmental information infrastructure on a local, regional and European level: On the local level, municipalities can use the PortalU-technology and know-how to implement information infrastructures that help them to cope with the requirements induced by the EEID and INSPIRE. In Lower Saxony, a pilot project for a Municipal Environmental Information Portal involving several cities and counties is already under way ( Other pilot projects are planned. On the regional level, a number of federal states in Germany have decided to implement environmental information portals following the example of PortalU. Some of them (e.g. Saxonia, Thuringia) will use the PortalU software and system architecture as is. Others (e.g. Baden-Wuerttemberg, Saxonia-Anhaltinia) plan to integrate parts of the PortalU software in their own developments. On the European level, other European member states, in particular Austria, have expressed interest in a cooperation with PortalU. Austria plans to set up an environmental information infrastructure that follows the example of PortalU.

Lessons learnt

Lesson 1 - Cooperation creates a win-win situation for all partners. Lesson 2 - Cooperation both on the techical and organizational level is difficult, but achievable. Lesson 3 - A solid organisational foundation is necessary to make a project successful and sustainable.

Scope: National