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Mapping out the environment

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  • Business school project builds 'pollution map' of U.S.
  • Information aimed at companies and the public
  • Interaction with readers a key part of learning experience for site builders
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By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Business schools are not only at the vanguard of teaching environmentally conscious business. As one innovative new project illustrates some of them are actually taking practical action to spread the message further.

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Thanks you for not smoking: The site lists U.S. polluters.

MapEcos, a new web site launched by students and faculty at three leading U.S. business schools, has a highly ambitious premise -- nothing less than trialing for a new way of sharing detailed information about a key environmental issue, and seeing how people respond.

The site aims to help both members of the public in the U.S. and those interested from a business or other interested standpoint to learn more about industrial pollution, whether on their doorstep or in a city on the opposite coast.

It offers information on the environmental performance of more 20,000 industrial facilities across the country. Visitors use an interactive map to reveal government data on toxic pollution as well as information from the facilities themselves on what they are going to protect the environment, being gathered by the site's developers.

"For years, we have studied how businesses respond to environmental problems," said Andrew King, a professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, who founded the site with Harvard Business School professor Michael Toffel and Michael Lenox, an associate professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, assisted by Dartmouth College students.

"MapEcos lets us create a kind of natural experiment. We can make information more accessible and then see how firms respond."

"We wanted to move beyond finger pointing," added Toffel. "We believe MapEcos is the first web site that presents information about companies' environmental performance while providing their managers with an opportunity to publicize their environmental practices and awards.

"By giving managers a voice, we can portray a more accurate picture of what actions are underway and what problems remain."

Users can view areas as traditional maps, satellite imagery or a combination of the two, with industrial facilities color-coded according to their emissions levels and marked with a green ring where they are provided their own information about environmental management efforts.

They can also search by name, location, industry, and emissions level, while the site provides detailed information about the volume and health hazard of each facility's toxic chemical emissions. Where provided, some facilities also have information about operational policies, management systems, activities, staffing, and investment.

Fact Box

FT MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Columbia, U.S.
3. Harvard, U.S.
4. Stanford GSB, U.S.
5. London Business School, UK
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Insead, France/Singapore
8. Stern, NYU, U.S.
9. Tuck, Dartmouth, U.S.
10. Yale, U.S.
Source: Financial Times 2007

More obviously immediate than the wealth of data are the sometimes dramatic pictures, for example a magnesium facility surrounded by turquoise distillation ponds or power plant belching plumes of black smoke.

"We plan to examine which facilities, industries, and neighborhoods attract the most attention from MapEcos users," said Lenox.

"This information may help predict which facilities should develop robust mechanisms to engage their stakeholders."

Toffel explained that there might be another research benefit: "By observing how the thousands of facilities respond to our invitation to contribute information about their environmental management practices on MapEcos, we will better understand why some types of facilities choose to be more transparent than others."

The academics teamed up with a group of young technical entrepreneurs, many of them Dartmouth College students, to help them create the site, based around Google Maps technology.

"We were excited by the challenge of showing both the broad sweep of industrial activity and detailed information about each facility," said one of the Dartmouth students, Evan Tice. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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