Activists Work To Preserve Government Environmental Data

Mar 11, 2017
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Environmental data appears to be in danger of disappearing. The New York Times reports this week that information is vanishing from government websites, including pie charts that link coal and greenhouse gas emissions and a description of the effects of hydraulic fracking. Now, while it is illegal to destroy government data, it is not illegal to make it harder to find.

There is a growing effort to save those studies, statistics and even photographs that help scientists examine our planet. Matt Price is a historian of science and technology who works with the Environmental Data And Governance Initiative, and they've been staging events around the country called data rescues. Mr. Price thanks for being with us.

MATT PRICE: Thank you.

SIMON: You have what you call a data rescue in Chicago this weekend. What goes on there?

PRICE: Well, in general, at these events, people come together to identify data sets that are in some kind of danger of disappearing, potentially. And then to harvest them so that they can be kept safe in another location.

SIMON: Now, we said in the introduction - and I'm told this is the case, of course - that it's illegal to destroy data. Well, what are your concerns?

PRICE: Data requires access to be useful. So if scientists can't get to the data, then the usefulness of that data is dramatically reduced. But then the other thing is that data actually requires resources to be maintained kind of continuously and especially when we're talking about climate data, which we need to have for a very long time because we build our climate models out of very long-range time series of data. So we're going to need the data that we had today - we're going to need that 100 years from now.

So we are starting to think a little bit more long term about how those kinds of data ought to be preserved when you have changing governments that aren't necessarily equally or equivalently committed to the tasks that science needs.

SIMON: Well, I'll risk being plain. It sounds like you don't trust the Trump administration to keep this data around and accessible.

PRICE: I myself, personally, certainly do not.

SIMON: You hope to put it out where people can find it, read it, use it, make judgments.

PRICE: Yeah. And so, for us, this is kind of an opportunity to rethink the kind of overall structure of how we care for scientific data. And this is a big question that people have been kind of thinking about, I'd say, kind of in low gear for a couple of decades. And now it's a moment where we can really step up that process.

SIMON: Mr. Price, as a scientist, what do you do about the fact that the media that records this data seems to change every few years?

PRICE: Yeah. This is a big problem, and we need to think about robust distributed resilient systems. And the other way to think about it is that one copy of a data set or a piece of data is always vulnerable, but 10,000 copies are relatively secure. You know, we're not in danger of having "Star Wars" disappear from the world. And one of the reasons that that's the case is that there are millions of pirated copies all over the - all over the world. We can do similar things with data but in a serious and legal way.

SIMON: Matt Price of the Environmental Data And Governance Initiative, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

PRICE: Thanks very much. My pleasure.

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