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IUPUI professors help rescue federal environmental data from extinction

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Arts and Humanities Institute director Jason Kelly gave instructions on the finding the data to a group of volunteers. - MICHELE WHITEHAIR
  • Michele Whitehair
  • Arts and Humanities Institute director Jason Kelly gave instructions on the finding the data to a group of volunteers.

About a dozen people sat at computers in a classroom in the basement of the library at IUPUI. Not the most unusual sight to see, but they weren’t there for the usual reasons.

They were saving information. From our own future government.

Indiana has now joined the rush to save federal data from President-elect Donald Trump after reports that his administration’s EPA transition team intends to remove some climate data from the EPA’s website.

Jason Kelly, the director of IUPUI’s Arts and Humanities Institute, led the first of what he hopes turns into many data rescues on Thursday. He said he heard about the data rescues from a colleague of his at the University of Pennsylvania, Bethany Wiggin, and that he sent her a message through Facebook to congratulate her on being a part of the effort.

“I got a message back that said, ‘Do you want to do one in Indianapolis?’” Kelly said. He agreed, seeing the opportunity as a way to combine his research and teaching with the importance of maintaining scientific archives.
“Right now there are environmental and scientific archives that my colleagues from across campus use, and across the country use,” Kelly said. “My colleagues on my Anthropocene project, they need these data sets, and future historians are going to need these data sets, so it's actually in some ways a project that relates to historical methodology as well.”

Thursday’s mission was to scour NASA’s and NOAA’s websites, and tell an online web crawler program what information to download onto servers to be saved. Kelly said the team was going to get as much information saved as they could with the time they had.

“For data driven science, these are among the most important data sets that scientists use, and if for some reason they disappeared from public access, then that actually hampers our ability to do science well,” Kelly said, and “one of the things we want to make sure is that those scientists into the future have access, and in fact the public has continued access to those data sets and one of the ways to do that is to make sure you have copies of everything in multiple locations."

The day started off with numerous talks, with topics ranging from how to build an archive to environmental justice, for participants to listen to.

Yi Wang, a professor of environmental health science at IUPUI, was one such speaker. He spoke about the mapping tool being created for environmental justice in Marion County.

“I think making data more accessible and publicly available is very important for both the scientific community, for research purposes, and also for informing the community,” Wang said.

Carlton Waterhouse, the director of IUPUI’s Environmental, Energy and Natural Resources Law Program, also spoke on Thursday, about the importance of collecting data to fight environmental injustice.

“I think it’s important to understand how data is relevant to legal decision making and policy making to resolve these kinds of inequities in society,” he said.

In the room ready to rescue the data were people from different departments within IUPUI, but also people from the community. One such person was Heather Coates, the digital scholarship and data management librarian at IUPUI.

“My primary motivation is that we are creating a more robust record, of science, of our scholarship, of how we understand the world around us. This event sort of fits into the bigger picture of my work and to the work of the center in that we are really trying to help people understand that it’s not enough to do the research but we have to make sure that people can access it,” Coates said.
A group of IUPUI professors led a local effort to collect and save environmental data Thursday. - MICHELE WHITEHAIR
  • Michele Whitehair
  • A group of IUPUI professors led a local effort to collect and save environmental data Thursday.

The process to save the data was rather simple: download an extension to Google Chrome, go to a website and tell the extension to tell the bots to crawl through the page and save information to servers where it will be safe.

Kelly said there are many similar coalitions throughout the country, and that they are primarily led by the University of Pennsylvania, but that this project is a part of an international effort of saving federal research data and information.

“Directly or indirectly, this data affects all of us,” Kelly said. When the information is loaded onto the university’s servers, it will go through a verification process and then be shared between different institutions to ensure that copies exist for scientists to use.


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