American and Canadian data scientists, librarians, hackers and activists have united in a “rogue” movement to locate and archive climate data maintained by U.S. agencies. Environmental scholars and librarians at the University of Pennsylvania founded DataRefuge in late 2016. The purpose of DataRefuge is to prevent the new U.S. administration from adapting former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s treatment of a centuries’ worth of scientific data.
What happened in Canada? How, pray tell, did P.M. Harper’s administration treat environmental data when he controlled the administration between 2006 and 2015? The administration: Burned it; Stripped it from websites; Closed research libraries; Expanded budgets to include salaries for assigned administrative “minders” to accompany scientists to media and scholarly events; Threw hard copies of generations of data into dumpsters; and Created an effective public media blackout on climate change, because the bureaucracy so frustrated journalists that media coverage of government environment research dropped by 80%.
Ok. So this sounds bad, but nothing really bad happens when a government scientific data is not available to the public, right? Not much. Just overfishing, lag time in addressing viruses affecting plant and animal based food sources and the underestimation of the levels of radiation released from a nuclear plant in Japan. By the time Canadian scientists held a mock funeral for the “death of scientific evidence” on Parliament Hill in 2013, the public had lost access to scientific data needed to set appropriate fishing quotas that are needed to provide stewardship of the fishing industry for decades.
What is happening in the U.S.? Newly formed oversight organizations such as the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative are documenting ‘changes’ in the U.S. government’s transparency on scientific issues. “Changes,” means the public can no longer access data that the government has compiled for over a century at great cost, mostly funded by public monies. The United Kingdom announced the funding of £14 million (approximately, $17 million U.S.) “to ensure that the published outcomes of publicly funded research are made widely accessible as quickly as possible.” Most would say that despite their different approaches to personal privacy, the U.S. and the U.K. share the same core ideology about government; yet the U.S. is actively hiding data that was previously available to the public as the U.K. is broadening access to data that has not yet been collected. Oh the irony!
M.I.A. Data. What is missing from U.S. federal government websites this
month? Data from the: (1) Department of Energy showing the correlation between burning coal and greenhouse gas emissions, (2) Interior Department related to the negative effects of hydraulic fracturing on federal land, and the (3) U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service identifying circuses, zoos, research labs and puppy mills that violated the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act.
None of the agencies provided prior notice of the changes to their websites as required by the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act. The USDA reposted some records about violators after the American Humane Society threatened to sue, but data about puppy mills and zoos is still missing. Puppies! Cue, Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel” commercial for the ASPCA. Seriously, puppies. I would like to know which businesses mistreat them so I can do something about it. Open access groups anticipate additional limits on the types of data will be disclosed. So, what can be done to keep data accessible? Are there private actors that can fill the holes in the government’s reporting?
What are the risks to the citizens and political oponents? Activists are concerned that the public will not have access to the data necessary to hold the government accountable. Accountability requires knowledge. Remember when the hardest working, most experienced beat cops solved crimes on TV by wearing down the suspects and not stopping until every witness had been interviewed? Now cops solve crimes with algorithms, autoclaves and TrueAllele. Villains no longer steal gold ingots; they steal thumb drives. The power shift from power to knowledge is evident in cinema and life. “The Firm,” a movie that is about photocopying records to help the FBI, is converse to the strategy employed by Enron, which was to shred data before the government could seize it.
Dr. Bethany Wiggin voiced her concern that the politicization of science may keep “knowledge out of the hands of your political opponents,” which is “an effective win.” Without data to correlate the presence of certain chemicals to illnesses lawsuits, implementation of product safety measures and conservation of animals will be much more difficult. Knowing that child mortality increases when the new power plant opened in town is a fine thing to know. But, only when you can prove the connection between the two is when you have the power to effect change.
“Rogue” U.S. data scientists, librarians and hackers are mobilized and making a difference. Absent government websites with comprehensive scientific data, the public will be forced to rely on Freedom of Information Act requests or through nonprofit journalism websites like Mother Jones or the Sunlight Foundation. Non-profits may be the best option to preserve existing data. Since November, DataRefuge, alone has hosted almost 20 events in several cities, including New York, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto. Data scientists are not waiting to see how far the deletions go. Instead, they assume that what happened in Canada will happen in the U.S.
Sometimes, apparently, you have to play dirty to preserve data. Data scientists identify where the data is, or was, downloadable. Determine whether you can scrape the data off pages with web crawlers, if you need to write data-harvesting scripts or use other means. Save the data somewhere safe. The DataRefuge reportedly saves climate data to the Internet Archive or a research library. The librarians (I LOVE librarians!) organize the data consistent with its original descriptors and try to keep the data free of evidence of handling. Simple, right? No. Below are links to organizations that seem to have it all sorted out for you. I do NOT support hacking; but I understand.
I don’t know about you, but if data scientists and librarians are consorting with hackers, I am terrified what will happen if they lose. Let’s hope no fires in the U.S. are fueled by 60 years of climate data.
Harvard Business Review and The Guardian have described data scientists like this: Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century and Data scientists: ‘As rare as unicorns.’ Now data scientists have an origin story.