Scientists across the US are scrambling to save government research in 'Data Rescue' events

  • Groups are downloading and archiving government data out of fear the Trump administration might delete it.
  • Some sites have already undergone changes.
  • A Congressional caucus and the New York Attorney General's office are also starting to address the issue.

Data Rescue NYC EDGILeland Sutton

Laptops in hand, roughly 150 people descended on an NYU building over the weekend to spend their Saturday downloading data.

Amid pizza boxes stacked next to a variety of 2-liter soda bottles, volunteers — mostly programmers, software developers, system administrators, scientists, and librarians by day — made their way through a list of government websites, flagging them to be preserved and downloading the data sets they contained.

The 8-hour event, called Data Rescue NYC, is the latest in a series of similar gatherings organized by a group called the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI). The organization is attempting to download and archive data generated by government agencies like the EPA and NOAA that they believe is at risk of being taken down by the Trump administration. EDGI is also working to save versions of webpages and monitor sites for changes to wording about topics like climate change.

By the end of the day on February 4, the New York volunteers had archived over 5,000 websites and downloaded nearly 100 gigabytes worth of data sets.

The downloading efforts have only been underway for a few months — EDGI formed after Trump’s election — but the work is already yielding results. The group’s monitoring work has revealed that descriptions of the negative environmental impacts of coal, as well as graphs showing the carbon dioxide emissions levels associated with different energy sources, are gone from the EIA website. On the EPA’s site, references to the US commitment to UN climate negotiations have been deleted, and phrasing has been changed on a variety of pages to emphasize “adapting” to climate issues, rather than mitigating the problem by addressing emissions.

EDGI EPA website change A comparison of an EPA webpage between January 16 and 22 Environmental Data and Governance Initiative

EDGI has also found that reports detailing the progress made on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan have disappeared from the State Department’s website. The plan itself was briefly taken down and then put back up.

“We feel like the administration has been called on a couple things they’ve tried to take down, and they’ve backtracked on a few things,” says Jerome Whitington, an anthropology professor at NYU who is also a member of EDGI and helped plan the Data Rescue event. “Basically they know they’re being watched.”

Within 24 hours of registration opening for the New York Data Rescue day, all 200 slots were full, Whitington says. A similar event held in Ann Arbor, Michigan on January 27 attracted 350 volunteers. Another is planned at MIT on February 18.

The issue has gained so much traction among the scientific community, in fact, that the Congressional Transparency Caucus is now trying to figure out how to support data preservation efforts — or even how to create government archives to keep this problem from arising in the future.

Representative Mike QuigleyChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“We can't just capture everything at the end of an administration,” Congressman Mike Quigley, who co-chairs the bipartisan caucus and represents Illinois’s 5th district, tells Business Insider. “It needs to happen on an ongoing basis so that you're not waiting until the end and then — heaven forbid.”

Quigley says the need to archive data gathered by government agencies — beyond just environmental findings — and make it accessible to the public is an important priority. He and Darrell Issa, the caucus' other co-chair, held a briefing about the issue last week. Quigley has also been working to compel the Congressional Research Service to make its reports public since early 2016, and now hopes to help groups like EDGI coordinate and even get funding for their efforts.

“The federal government is the largest scientific institution in the country. We engage in research across every scale, from botany to nuclear energy and everything in between — critical information for how we base our decisions that’s owned by the American people,” he says. “We base our policies on the best information we have. If you can't determine what the truth is, then we are lost because the world is an increasingly complicated place and it's difficult to make those decisions.”

Beyond being used to inform policy decisions and scientific research, environmental data collected by the government is often cited in legal cases, so a movement has emerged to preserve it for those purposes as well.

On January 24, plaintiffs in a landmark climate lawsuit filed a legal request for preservation of all electronically stored information related to government knowledge of climate change and its effects. The case, which was brought by 21 young people between ages 9 and 20, alleges that because the federal government knew the risks of climate change but has done little to address its causes, it violated future generations’ rights to life, liberty, and property. 

“We are concerned about how deep the scrubbing effort will go,” plaintiff attorney Julia Olson said in a statement at the time. “Destroying evidence is illegal and we just put these new U.S. Defendants and the Industry Defendants on notice that they are barred from doing so."

The New York Attorney General’s office is also worried about what a lack of available information could mean for their current and future cases. Amy Spitalnick, the office’s press secretary, says the Attorney General’s team has been downloading data, too.

“We’ve been working to preserve information from the federal government’s databases, such as scientific info compiled under prior administrations on issues like climate change,” she says. “That info is vital to our legal work protecting New Yorkers.”

Data Rescue NYC EDGI Volunteers converse at the Data Rescue NYC event on February 4 Leland Sutton

At the Data Rescue event, volunteers were divided into different groups. Most worked on saving pages (based on a list EDGI had created beforehand), while others downloaded data that couldn’t be captured by the web crawler. Programmers in a separate room worked on developing software that will be able to watch websites and create alerts when there are changes. In another space, a group of archivists were working to keep everything organized, and discussing ways to eventually get the downloaded information onto a new, non-governmental, publicly accessible platform. University librarians started a conversation about how libraries can help with the project.

“It’s definitely a powerful counterpoint to the administration’s line and the movement in the House of Representatives to suppress the EPA right now,” Whitington says. “It definitely seems like we’re proving that Americans of all different stripes really care about this stuff.”

Even so, he says, compared to the profusion of environmental data that’s out there, the amount EDGI members and volunteers have downloaded so far is just a drop in the bucket. Smaller follow-up work groups, where local volunteers can meet for a few hours in the evening, are already being planned.

Mike Quigley agrees that compiling all the government’s data into one archive or platform, even if just on one topic, is an immensely difficult task — for a group of volunteers or even for the government itself.

“It's a little daunting, especially considering that the administration is determined to keep us busy with the tweet of the day,” he says. “Right now I'm just worried about them shutting the switch off on things and doing ‘delete, delete.’”

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