Under Science-Unfriendly Administration, Internet And Its Data Are In Your Hands

Published in Online Spin, January 20th, 2017

In the final days of 2016, the website of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources got a bit of a refresh.
Unless you were paying close attention, you might have missed it. After all, most people don’t regularly visit the Wisconsin DNR. But the changes were caught by a website-monitoring service and shared on some blogs, starting with a guy named James Rowen.

Turns out the changes are kind of important -- if you think climate change is kind of important. Here’s some sample text before: “Earth’s climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping (“green house”) gases are the main cause. Earth’s average temperature has increased 1.4 since 1850 and the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.”

And after: “As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Statistically speaking, I’m guessing you don’t live in Wisconsin. And I’m guessing you’re wondering why you should care about an obscure government website in another state. The answer is simple: If Wisconsin can do it, your state can do it. And if the states can do it, the government can do it.

That’s not just my opinion. This week, InsideEPA reported that the “incoming Trump administration's EPA transition team intends to remove non-regulatory climate data from the agency's website, including references to President Barack Obama's June 2013 Climate Action Plan, the strategies for 2014 and 2015 to cut methane and other data, according to a source familiar with the transition team.”

The thing is, a lot of people care about these data, whether it’s the 97% of scientists who agree that human activity is causing irreversible climate change, or the millions of ordinary citizens who recognize that climate change directly affects our homes, our economy, our food supply and our national security.

And -- thanks to the Internet -- people who care are powerful. Take, for example, DataRefuge, a public, collaborative project to create a “refuge for federal climate and environmental data vulnerable under an administration that denies the fact of ongoing climate change.”

Through DataRefuge, people organize DataRescues, making copies of publicly available datasets so that they will remain available in the future. DataRescues have taken place in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Indianapolis; there’s one in Los Angeles today and one in Ann Arbor next week.

But who’s to say the DataRefuge people aren’t changing the data in their copies of the datasets? Zoe Schlanger from Wired addressed the issue: “In order to be used by future researchers—or possibly used to repopulate the data libraries of a future, more science-friendly administration—the data would have to be untainted by suspicions of meddling. So the data must be meticulously kept under a ‘secure chain of provenance.’ [At the DataRescue,] volunteers were busy matching data to descriptors like which agency the data came from, when it was retrieved, and who was handling it.”

Think about what is happening here. The government can put data on the Internet, and can take it down. Ordinary citizens, using the power of collaboration and access to the Internet, can preempt efforts by government to deny them access to information. Other citizens who disagree with what those citizens are doing can take to that same Internet to voice their displeasure.

The Internet isn’t just some thing out there that we connect to when we want to know what the Kardashians are up to. It’s a resource that is co-created by all of us. The sum of our actions determines the shape of the Web, and if you don’t like its shape, you, too, like the good folks at DataRefuge, can take action to change it. It’s in your hands.