UM community and local volunteers partner to archive government data threated by presidential transition

Sunday, February 5, 2017 - 3:45pm

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Julia Lauer

As part of a national movement to preserve various data sets stored on government websites,  University of Michigan students, faculty and Ann Arbor community members have begun working together to prevent the loss of important data.

Information graduate student Noa Kasman, a member of the University’s Society of American Archivists Student Chapter, helped coordinate a data-archiving event held by University libraries last weekend, in which 300 attendees gathered at the Undergraduate Library with the same goal — to ensure data is not lost amidst the efforts of President Donald Trump. She said the preservation efforts originally stemmed from the Internet Archive’s End of Term harvest, which started in 2008 in an effort to protect data on government websites that tend to be either removed or overlooked during transitions between presidential administrations.

“There’s an understanding that when there are presidential transitions, websites will change, and data that’s available online, especially from government agencies, is quite vulnerable,” she said.

Justin Schell, director of the Shapiro Design Lab, said the current political climate lends a sense of urgency to these archival efforts, referencing changes the Trump administration have instituted such as the amount of information on climate change on the Environmental Protection Agency website.

“We’re seeing webpages change, we’re seeing different kinds of data under threat,” he said. “The geospatial databases related to the racial disparity in housing is one thing that people are talking about. We’ve had contacts inside the EPA who have told us about particular data sets that they’ve heard could go down. So we quickly try to back those up and preserve those, so it is this moment where we have a particular thing to work on and not just the general ‘we’re trying to fix government data.’ ”

He said the archiving efforts during their event focused mainly on information from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Energy.


The Educational Data Governance Initiative and the Data Refuge are two groups that help coordinate the national events and guided the areas of focus for the event to minimize overlap with efforts of other universities. Schell said collaboration both with other universities and with University departments and researchers is essential to this preservation work.

“The collaborative effort is really the thing that makes this go, whether it’s between people collaborating within the U of M, Noa and myself to our biology librarians to our SNRE librarians, that’s the piece that really makes this happen,” Schell said.

Kasman said the inspiration for these ongoing events came from a similar event at the University of Toronto in December and was modeled after an event hosted by the University of Pennsylvania earlier this month. She also said the coordination of this project helped preserve the data, and does so in a way that will make it practical for future use.

“The anticipation of what you want the final project to look like and how you want things to be useful and retrievable for people is there, and I think that that’s really important,” she said. “Just having people coordinated over that effort across all of these different universities, and geographically being able to have some sort of core coordination over that makes it so that whatever it is that we’re producing is going to have the greater potential of being useful.”

Kristine Auwers, a Information master’s student, helped familiarize volunteers with the archiving process at the event. She said she felt the archiving efforts provided a place to make direct, visible change.

“There are a lot of ways to be involved with activism, but doing a direct action that is something that is immediately useful is a unique opportunity,” she said.

Auwers also noted how these efforts, while related to the current political climate, was not a partisan effort.

“You could see a support for an action for this that’s bipartisan,” she said. “We have people who are concerned about climate change and accurate data reporting on both sides of the aisle.”


Kasman said in addition to making a material difference by preserving data, she hopes the efforts raise awareness of the importance of archiving.

“I also really like the idea of people being more aware of the Internet archiving that they can do,” she said. “Obviously this coordinated effort, it’s really important and I think it’s great that we have people who are participating. But I think it’s also empowering for them to see, ‘I can archive these websites on my own as well, I can use tools like the internet archive to save websites that I think are important to be saved.’”

Schell said though he is not sure of the particulars, he aims to have more events like this in the future at the University.

“We want to work with the community of people who were there, not just the people who have expertise that we need getting data or researching this kind of data sets, but the people who just want to help,” he said.