Steam and exhaust rise from different companies on a cold winter day on January 6, 2017 in Oberhausen, Germany.  Lukas Schulze/Getty Images
Make Me Smart With Kai and Molly

Blog: Scientists and other volunteers are banding together to save data

Tony Wagner Feb 16, 2017
Steam and exhaust rise from different companies on a cold winter day on January 6, 2017 in Oberhausen, Germany.  Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

We do the numbers every day around here. But on this week’s “Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly,” we got a listener question about the numbers, specifically, data created and distributed by the federal government.

President Donald Trump repeatedly slammed government economic data throughout the campaign, and voters followed. A fourth of people we surveyed last fall and nearly half of Trump supporters said they didn’t trust the numbers. 

That attitude, combined with the administration’s skepticism and at times outright denial of climate science, has inspired a loosely organized but broad coalition of volunteers dedicated to preserving government data.

Groups of coders and scientists have been gathering around the country to scrape the websites for NASA, the Department of Energy, White House and others, then upload data sets and other documents to repositories like the Internet Archive and DataRefuge. PBS Newshour notes that no data have disappeared completely, but changes to government websites have made numbers harder to find. During one of the first UCLA hackathons on Inauguration Day, developers were getting to work just as all mentions of climate change disappeared from The White House’s data portal has since been cleared out as well. Here’s NewsHour’s piece on an event at New York University earlier this month: 

The grassroots Environmental Data and Governance Initiative has planned more events around the country in the coming weeks. The Initiative has published materials and guides to organizing more “data rescue” events. Two other developers have created a web app that lets anyone see what data needs to be harvested and contribute from home.

That’s just for the easy jobs though, scrapes that simply require developers to download spreadsheets or capture webpages. Other government sites require a little more elbow grease.

“All these systems were written piecemeal over the course of 30 years. There’s no coherent philosophy to providing data on these websites,” tech exec and volunteer Daniel Roesler, told Wired this week. Some coders have to get creative:

One coder who goes by Tek ran into a wall trying to download multi-satellite precipitation data from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Starting in August, access to Goddard Earth Science Data required a login. But with a bit of totally legal digging around the site (DataRefuge prohibits outright hacking), Tek found a buried link to the old FTP server. He clicked and started downloading. By the end of the day he had data for all of 2016 and some of 2015. It would take at least another 24 hours to finish.

The New York Times reported this week that these “data rescue” missions are just one facet of a new, more politically active scientific community. Energized by Trump’s climate policy, and specifically his appointment of prolific Environmental Protection Agency-resister Scott Pruitt to head that agency, researchers are organizing marches and even weighing runs at elected office.

Like our guests on the show this week, many scientists behind these efforts draw a distinction between the numbers and narratives you draw out of them. But you need to make the numbers accessible first.

“I’m a great believer in science,” Myron Ebell, who lead the EPA transition but quit before the inauguration, told the Times. “But I’m not a great believer in politicized science.”

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.