DEC 22, 2017 8:41 AM PST

Can Public Data Stewardship Save Disappearing Climate Info?

WRITTEN BY: Julia Travers

The Environmental Data Group (EDGI) is an “international network of academics and nonprofits” that monitors and preserves environmental and scientific information. It also records and shares instances of its removal from government websites. Members keep an eye on data changes within about 25,000 U.S. federal webpages weekly, archive data they deem vulnerable, and interview veteran federal employees about incidences and implications of what they call the dismantling of the U.S.’s “scientific research structure.” It has teamed up with numerous archiving sites and technology firms to develop innovative means of preserving data.

image of air pollution, credit: EDGI on Facebook

The Trump administration has initiated a major shift in U.S. environmental policies – for example, the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reversed or changed many environmental regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan. Government websites have also removed many public links to environmental and scientific data, causing alarm among some scientists and concerned citizens. Environmental law experts say the EPA has discretion over what it chooses to share online, PBS conveys. In contrast, Sierra Club attorney Elena Saxonhouse tells PBS the agency is failing in its duty to be objective by taking down climate change information.

Examples of missing materials and pages include an EPA site called, “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local Tribal Governments.” After disappearing for three months, it returned in July 2017 about 200 pages shorter, referencing only energy (not climate). Many resources have also been removed from the “Clean Water Rule” website, now called “Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rulemaking.” The Clean Water Rule is another regulation that EPA Director Scott Pruitt proposes to repeal. The “Climate Action Report” page from the State Department’s website is gone. TEDGI logo, credit: EDGIhe EPA’s climate change adaption plans are gone. EDGI has found discussions and mentions of climate change removed from seven federal agencies’ sites. 

EDGI, The Sierra Club and other organizations have submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the EPA regarding these records and practices. In an April press release, the EPA stated its website “updates” are meant to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt.”

EDGI has teamed up with archiving sites like Data Refuge and the digital library Internet Archive (formerly known as the “Way Back Machine”). Data rescue events have taken place with EDGI volunteers and other interested groups around the country, but coordinating and organizing these efforts and the data they store is no easy task. Also, Associate Dean for Research Data Management at Johns Hopkins University Sayeed Choudhury cautions that to be of use, the data must be accompanied by the appropriate scientific background and frame of reference. “It’s understanding the context, understanding the methods that are used to create it and that may be used to interpret it. Those may or may not be sitting alongside the data,” he tells PBS.

EDGI and other committed parties have joined the firm Protocol Labs and the startup qri.io to develop Data Together, a “distributed, community-driven stewardship of data.” Rather than keeping information in one central hub, the data will be stored on a secure, public, decentralized network that is spread out over multiple computers. This type of decentralized technology is the foundation for cryptocurrencies and other blockchain innovations.

About the Author
  • Julia Travers is a writer, artist and teacher. She frequently covers science, tech, conservation and the arts. She enjoys solutions journalism. Find more of her work at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.
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