Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Concerns over disappearing data infiltrate AU community

Out of fear of losing it all, AU academics begin protective measures to save work

Concerns over disappearing data infiltrate AU community

Over the past few weeks under President Donald Trump’s administration, Congress has introduced several bills to scale back efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency, and The White House has restricted communications between scientists and the media. And before the presidential election, academics said that government scientists believed that their work might get erased if Trump became president because of his decisive opinions about climate change.

As the media continued to report about the new administration, government scientists and academics noticed a trend with the new administration and its cabinet nominations that the new agenda is to eliminate government workers from continuously researching climate change issues.

Now that Trump is in the Oval Office and appointing cabinet members who agree with his anti-climate change ideology, various groups across the country and abroad have taken action to try and save science-related, open-access government data before it is deleted.

Adjunct AU Professor Willem Brakel, who teaches environmental science in the College of Arts and Sciences, anticipated before the presidential election a possible shift away from accessing environmental reports and data for his students and himself under President Donald Trump’s new administration.

Brakel often asks his students to research environmental science topics by using government websites, or he may use information from the government for class lectures, however, he does not conduct much research in the field anymore.

“I had some concerns that, with the presidential transition in January, some reports and policy papers on which I occasionally depend might disappear from sites such as epa.gov or noaa.gov,” Brakel, who once worked for the federal government, said in an email. “I took the pre-inauguration precaution of downloading a few EPA documents that I sometime use in my class.”

Brakel isn’t the only academic who is concerned about the fate of government scientific data under Trump. Stefan Kramer, AU’s Associate Director for Research Data Services, said that a national trend in saving the information is quickly emerging across the country. That’s because more and more people are hearing from the media what the new administration may do, and that data rescue events are more available for volunteers who want to help with the efforts of saving data.

“Enthusiasm to rescue data has been snowballing since the election results in November,” Kramer said, who has a master’s degree in librarianship.

Right now AU librarians and archivists are talking about what they can do to preserve data for the AU community, AU science librarian Rachel Borchardt said.

“Libraries Network has a lot of good information on the various roles libraries can play,” she said. “In their four-point list, I'd say we have been able to contribute one, identifying data to save.”

Borchardt noted that money can influence science, but in the past that has been seen to happen in the private sector, not the government. She is watching the data rescue community to see if she needs to appropriately respond as an academic librarian.

Academics and librarians like Borchardt don’t have any control over the changes in government data, she said. She noted the challenges with paying for the databases the AU library has because it is usually based on contracts between third party companies and the University.

“We’ve all been in panic mode trying to find the most sustainable way to save data,” Borchardt said. “It’s what librarians have always talked about - but right now it’s become a top priority.”

However, the University administration will not step in to create new programs until a need has been demonstrated across the campus, Borchardt said.

Borchardt also said that since AU is an R-2 research university, the University does not have the staff or equipment to support a possible on-campus program to save massive amounts of research tools, such as databases.

She also said that while brainstorming ways to salvage information is a typical task for librarians and archivists, AU will not invest in more resources until larger groups within the AU community express concern about how the new administration’s possible agenda to erase scientific research will impact their work.

“Ideally science and politics should be as separated as possible,” Borchardt said. “The problem is that we won’t know if something has been deleted until it happens.”

“Hack-a-thons” spread across nation

Concerns over the federal agencies’ ability to continuously publish scientific research has rapidly increased over the last few weeks, Kramer said, mainly because of the new cabinet officials and Trump’s request to delete climate change web pages within the Environmental Protection Agency.

Kramer said that scientists are also holding “rescue” data events across the country in an attempt to save scientific research they fear may be permanently erased under the new presidential administration.

Rescue data events, also called, “hack-a-thons,” started in Toronto, Canada. The events allow concerned scientists, academics, programmers, graduate students and library archivists to meet up for brainstorming sessions on how to save their research for continuous public access.

Brakel raised concerns with Borchardt about how to save government research for his work with AU. Borchardt said she advised Brakel to connect with the data rescue events. One option to get more involved with the events is to fill out a Google Doc form to “nominate a dataset for rescue.” In this way, the volunteers at the events can tally up the websites and work on them in order of importance.

The U.S. hosted its first event, “DataRescue Philly,” in Philadelphia, Kramer said. Both hack-a-thons occurred before the inauguration. On Feb. 18 and 19, Washington, D.C. hosted the event “datarescueDC” at Georgetown University Library. The purpose of the event is for scientists, archivists, programmers and librarians to come together and use their skills to either save data or to create a plan to save data.

Faculty at AU are protected by the LOCKSS system, or “Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe,” Kramer said. It is a secure system of copying work without the threat of anything being erased, even if the work is funded by the federal government.

“Not just one person trying to save the world”

Data rescue events are not just found in the U.S.

Borchardt said in an email that other schools are becoming leaders in the data rescue movement. For example, the University of Toronto, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan and Temple, which are all partners in DataRefuge, are making great progress.

Kramer said other countries such as Canada are also worried about losing data because they heavily rely on NASA’s work for their own research.

“They are also doing their best to save data,” he said.

Right now, the fear is centered around scientific research, and especially climate change, he said. However, he noted that removing federal student aid data is also being discussed with the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“We have no guarantee that the work that is available now will be there in the next four years,” he said. “Science studies can disappear, so it is not unreasonable to try to save the data now.”


sdolezal@theeagleonline.com


Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.