More than 100 archivists, environmentalists and data nerds will gather this weekend at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to hold a digital barn-raising of sorts, downloading scientific data from several government data bases and uploading them to a secure server.
The idea is to protect the information from possible political pressure from a new White House that many see as hostile to science, especially environmental and climate science. This weekend teams will focus archiving data from the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
"The will be chosen, scraped, harvested, matched for authenticity and reproducibility purposes, zipped, assigned a checksum or hash value, and stored in DataRefuge.org," said Meredith Claire Broadway, an organizer with the Data Refuge Project.
"It's a very thorough process, done with the intent this data be used by scientists in the future," she said. "For it to be used, it needs to have authenticity. Scientists aren't going to use data that looks faulty or unreliable."
The project has archived U.S. fisheries catches, studies of the benefits of wind power, toxic waste reports and satellite measurements of the Earth's atmospheric and ocean temperature. While the idea of government bureaucrats destroying or blocking this data may seem far-fetched, there are signs that the Trump administration is taking steps to alter the kind of information that the public can see on federal websites.
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This week, the US Department of Agriculture removed public access to inspection reports from animal breeders, reports that are used by both pet owners and animal rights activists to monitor so-called "puppy mills."
Trump administration and transition officials have said they might not continue to fund measurements that are used by some climate databases or they might transfer climate change research from NASA to NOAA, for example.
The EPA's new administrator, Scott Pruitt, who was confirmed Friday afternoon by the Senate, has cast doubts on the science of climate change. Pruitt sued the agency 11 times as Oklahoma attorney general.
It's this backdrop of hostility toward science, and climate science specifically, that has spurred the movement, according to Bethany Wiggin, co-director of the Data Refuge project and professor of environmental humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Data refuge has regarded itself as an insurance policy," Wiggin said. "You operate with an abundance of caution, better safe than sorry."
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Wiggin says that some federal scientific data may be lost because of "link rot," a condition that affects websites that aren't maintained properly and embedded links begin to disappear over time.
Wiggin and others surveyed scientists after the election to find out what federal databases were important to their work. That survey helped identify agencies that are a high priority. While some universities already have copies of federal databases, others do not.
Workers at one federally funded super-computing center has started downloading a major federal climate database and won't be finished until mid-March, Wiggin said. She also worries that federal scientists who maintain databases might retire or be forced out.
"My fear is that people will be fired and through attrition of people that data will go away," she said. "The internet needs care and feeding or it rots."
The Data Refuge Project has already had download events in several U.S. cities and plans to continue, according to Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"There are all kinds of federal datasets that only live in the federal government," Halpern said. It's not a question of whether or not its going to be destroyed or thrown in rivers, it's also a question of public accessibility to the data so accessibility is not disrupted."
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