v29 #6 Maintaining Access to Public Data:  Lessons from Data Refuge

by | Mar 2, 2018 | 0 comments

by Margaret Janz  (Scholarly Communications and Data Curation Librarian, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA) 

An Abbreviated History of Data Refuge

The Data Refuge project began in December 2016 after fellows in the Penn Program for Environmental Humanities (PPEH) grew concerned about how the incoming presidential administration might find ways to limit access to federal climate and environmental data.  These concerns stemmed from a public denial of climate change from key figures within the administration, and its stated intent to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Previous administrations had taken actions to limit these data, including that of George W. Bush.1  There have also been similar actions taken abroad.  Canada’s Stephen Harper, for example, closed governmental libraries of environmental information2 and made rules to prevent governmental scientists from communicating with the public.3

With these precedents in mind, the PPEH fellows, the PPEH program director Bethany Wiggin, PPEH coordinator Patricia Kim, and librarians from Penn Libraries wanted to create a refuge for these federal data by holding what we called “data rescue” events.  We quickly got to work planning DataRescue Philly, which would feature a teach-in, a panel discussion, and a day of data archiving, which would be informed by a similar event held in Toronto4 roughly a month before our event.

As the fellows started preparing for the teach-in and panel discussion, Wiggin, Kim, and the librarians — primarily Laurie Allen and myself — began discussing how to go about backing up these data locally.  Wiggin reached out to Mark Phillips at the University of North Texas who works on the End of Term (EOT) Harvest, a project that aims to archive government websites ahead of presidential administration changes.  Phillips told us that one limitation of the project is that the web crawler it employs only goes a few layers deep into the pages.  We could provide support by seeding more lower-level URLs to the EOT project and we began thinking about the ways this could be done.

Seeding the EOT project was a great way to have DataRescue Philly attendees participate, particularly those who are less tech savvy, but the web crawlers used by EOT are unable to capture all types of digital information.  Large data files, complex databases, and embedded and interactive data interfaces are not picked up by most web crawlers and need to be scraped or downloaded some other way.  We had been in touch with a group called Climate Mirror that was working on doing just that.  At the time, the volunteers with Climate Mirror were downloading federal data and hosting it on their own servers around the world.  We worked with them to help set priorities and avoid duplication.  While we were impressed with the tireless efforts of Climate Mirror volunteers, as librarians and academics we were concerned about how researchers using these data in the future could have confidence in the copies.  It’s easy enough to take the copied version and compare it to the original.  However, if the original is taken away, it’s much more difficult for someone to trust that the copy is the same.  This became the challenge our team focused on ahead of DataRescue Philly.

We decided that one way to instill some amount of trust would be to require multiple quality checks before data would be archived in Data Refuge’s cloud storage, and cataloged in our datarefuge.org open data catalog.  Additionally, we required that anyone performing the checks would need to sign off on their assessment by including their name in the data’s metadata.  If the participant preferred to stay anonymous, a registered username could be used in place of their real name.  This was not the optimal solution to the question of trust, but we felt it was a sufficient solution for our purposes.

An Event Becomes a Movement

In the meantime, our work in this area caught the attention of the media.  We were fielding a large number of interviews, some in high-profile outlets.  We started hearing from other institutions and individuals who wanted to help however they could:  share storage space and technical skills, share their stories, or host their own DataRescue events.  The response was beautiful and overwhelming.  DataRescue events started being planned all over the country — and a few abroad — over the next several months.  Many of the events were held at universities, and they were often planned by graduate students, civic tech groups, and small groups of librarians.  During DataRescue Philly, we, along with incredible partners, notably Justin Schell from University of Michigan, Ben Goldman from Penn State, and Rachel Appel and Delphine Khanna from Temple University, developed a workflow for data archiving that we were able to share with these events.  Members of the Environmental Data Governance Initiative (EDGI), an organization that shared our concerns and with which we’d worked closely, also developed a workflow for seeding the EOT that they introduced at DataRescue Philly.  We shared these workflows with other DataRescue event organizers, and those of us who were most familiar with the details helped organizers prepare and then troubleshoot issues remotely during their events.  By June 2017, about fifty individual DataRescue events had taken place, thousands of URLs had been seeded to the EOT, and over 400 datasets had been uploaded into datarefuge.org.


The workflows developed in January that most events used were a great response to our concerns, but we knew this plan of action was not a long-term, sustainable way to ensure continued access to these data.  We are so proud of the work volunteers did at the many DataRescue events throughout the first half of 2017 and we learned so much from them and the other amazing people we spoke to during this time.  These lessons would serve as the cornerstones in moving the project to the next phase.

One important lesson learned by DataRescue event attendees who worked on seeding URLs to the EOT was how government websites are organized.  At first blush, government data and information appears to be a rabbit hole of disorganized fragments.  The more time we spent with it and the more we spoke with data creators within the agencies, the more we understood that the information they provide is designed to serve the public’s various and specific needs for short-term or immediate access.  They’re quite successful at achieving this goal, but the nonlinear organization makes it very difficult to keep track of what exists so it can be captured and preserved.

Not knowing what or how much data the government creates is a major obstacle for efforts to back up and maintain access to them.  Data.gov is one attempt at keeping track of and cataloging federal data.  Data.gov is an overarching catalog of open federal data.  The small data.gov team has done an amazing job working with agencies to easily and incrementally make an inventory process simple, more inclusive, and largely automatic.  An agency works with data.gov to set up an account and learn the workflow, and then the agency can create metadata files that data.gov can automatically read and import into their catalog.  This is a fairly low effort addition to an agency’s workflow.  After learning more about how data.gov works, we at Penn think libraries could support and adapt the process in order to catalog the federal, state, and local data that matter to their researchers.

Another lesson we learned about federal data is that they share the various vulnerabilities of all born-digital information.  Different technical vulnerabilities put born-digital information at risk.  For example, proprietary file formats become outdated.  Hardware breaks down over time, as does the information itself as bits corrode and files become corrupted.  A lack of description, context, or sufficient documentation also renders data useless.

Political factors are another potential risk for these data.  Not only might an administration actively attempt to limit access to data, more passive measures such as cutting budgets is another way to lose curatorial staff and fail to meet maintenance priorities.  There may be legal protections for some data otherwise vulnerable to political risks, but the enforceability of those protections may or may not be apparent.  Weighing the risks inherent to specific datasets to assess their vulnerability is an important part of prioritizing our work.  We spoke to a number of the stewards who work with these data within agencies and in affiliated data centers, and their intimate knowledge about the data puts them among the best suited to make these assessments.  Their expertise is integral to protecting access to these data.

A lesson we set out to impart through DataRescue Philly and other events was that federal data are more than products of specific research projects and legislatively-mandated administrative functions.  It was important to us to have a path at our event that focused on telling the stories of how these data are used by local organizations and professionals to make decisions that impact the community on a daily basis.  City planners, architects, real estate developers, and social service providers are just a few examples of groups that rely on these data to improve life for citizens in their cities and towns.  Raising awareness that data aren’t only used for scientific study, and connecting data to humans makes the issue more pressing for a much larger group.  To quote Eric Holthaus, a climate journalist and friend to Data Refuge, “We are all part of this story.  This is our story, we are shaping it every day.”5

The most significant lesson that came out of Data Refuge concerns the nature of the problem we sought to solve.  From the very beginning of the project, many people generously offered to provide storage space and technical skills for our efforts.  Technical solutions are all important for working in this problem space, but we found as we dug deeper that technology is only one part of the problem; many technical solutions have been attempted or considered by various stakeholders at various points in history.  The more complicated problem is one of culture and communication.  All of the professionals who work with these data have established workflows to meet their own internal needs.  While many groups have overlapping goals, it’s rare that one group’s workflow works nicely with another’s.  Getting any group, in any scenario, to alter its workflow to benefit a different group is enormously challenging.  These changes also require excellent, reciprocal communication, which is in itself very difficult.  Data.gov’s simple metadata file creation is one great example of how these challenges can be overcome.

Moving to the Libraries+ Network

Throughout spring 2017 we continued to connect with a wide variety of people who work directly and indirectly with federal data.  We spoke to many librarians hosting DataRescue events and started thinking that a network of libraries working to backup and archive these data could be a solution.  This was similar to an idea articulated by Jim Jacobs and James Jacobs in their work with Free Government Information (https://freegovinfo.info/):  a sort of reboot of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) oriented toward the collective distributed management of federal digital content.6

We also talked to city planners, people in the open data community, researchers in federal agencies, data managers and curators, journalists, and archivists.  Just like the librarians we’d spoken with, all of these knowledgeable stakeholders have been thinking about how to make these important data and other born-digital resources available for the long haul in one way or another.  Each group had been doing great things in their own communities, but no one group had solved the problem.  No one group had identified all of the challenges; blind spots existed for everyone.  As we pieced together the work being done, we could tell that even with all the pieces, there were still blind spots.  This problem can’t be solved by a network that consists solely of libraries;  we need a network with all these key partners working together.  We decided the best thing to do would be to connect these groups and get these brilliant people to talk to each other, identify the challenges they face, and try to define the problem space so that we can all start experimenting with long term solutions.

Libraries+ Network May Meeting

On May 8-9, 2017, we did just that.  Together with the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Mozilla Foundation, we held a meeting with many of these stakeholder groups in Washington DC at New America, a think tank that focuses on technology and policy.  One outcome was the mapping of the problem space (http://libraries.network/problemspace), which serves as a helpful reminder of what we’re working towards, and that there will be neither a single nor a simple solution.

The meeting also got the group talking about the work that’s been done so far and where we’d like to be in 2020.  Some projects started to emerge by the end of the two-day meeting and attendees left with some ideas about paths forward.  The meeting was dense and brought to light many challenges and opportunities.  Many who are tackling their pieces of this endeavor are still in planning mode, but updates will continue to come forth.

Our team at Penn has only just begun to think about how to continue these efforts and support the overarching goals, and more interested organizations continue to reach out to us.  The storytelling project continues to grow and expand with Wiggin and others.  As we rethink our repository services at Penn, we’re discussing instituting a catalog of data being created or used by our researchers and employing other lessons from Data Refuge.  Regionally, we think there’s great promise in the project that the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh are doing with the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center and the Urban Institute.  On the national level, we’re watching the Code for Science and Society as they work to pilot a mirror of data.gov that inventories federal datasets that are already being archived at research institutions.   We’re also really excited about the work being done by the Preservation of Electronic Government Information (PEGI) project and the Government Records Transparency group of the Digital Library Federation.

Stay Involved, Y’all

We know there are many paths to reach this goal.  The workflow we used initially with DataRescue events has been retired, but we still have a number of other ideas for hosting events to engage your community on our website: http://www.ppehlab.org/datarescueworkflow.  People also frequently ask us what their institutions should do to help our efforts.  Our answer is always the same: Something.  Anything.  Figure out what’s important to your communities.  Consider your capacity for doing something.  Experiment.  Then — and this is key — report back so we can learn from and build off each other.  We can only solve this problem together.  


  1.  Cheryl Hogue, “Bush’s Legacy at EPA,” Chemical & Engineering News 86 (51): 27-31.  http://pubs.acs.org/cen/email/html/cen_86_i51_8651gov1.html
  2.  CBCNews, “Research library’s closure shows Harper government targets science ‘at every turn,’ union says,” last modified August 21, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/research-library-s-closure-shows-harper-government-targets-science-at-every-turn-union-says-1.3199761.
  3.  Lesley Evans Ogden, “Nine Years of Censorship.” Nature 533 (7601): 26-8, last modified May 3, 2016, http://www.nature.com/news/nine-years-of-censorship-1.19842.
  4.  Kathleen O’Brien, “U of T Preserving Environmental Websites in Response to Trump Presidency,” U of T News, last modified December 14, 2016, https://www.utoronto.ca/news/u-t-preserving-environmental-websites-response-trump-presidency.
  5.  Eric Holthaus, “Final thoughts that NYMag Story.” Today in Weather & Climate, last modified July 17, 2017, https://tinyletter.com/sciencebyericholthaus/letters/today-in-weather-climate-final-thoughts-that-nymag-story-edition-monday-july-17th.
  6.  James A. Jacobs and James R. Jacobs, “A Long-Term Goal For Creating A Digital Government-Information Library Infrastructure,” Libraries+ Network, last modified February 27, 2017, https://libraries.network/blog/2017/3/7/a-long-term-goal-for-creating-a-digital-government-information-library-infrastructure.



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