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May 25 2017   11:15PM GMT

Reporters Say Trump is Deleting Data

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher

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Data
government
Security

As you may recall, no sooner was Donald Trump elected President than people began saving copies of government data that they feared he might delete, such as years of data about the environment. Now here we are, four months later, and it turns out there did indeed appear to be some cause for worry: While the data may not be gone, it’s no longer possible to gain access to some of it, and isn’t that just about the same thing?

Access to some data disappeared literally on Inauguration Day, though White House spokespeople said at the time that it had to do with reorganizing websites. Since then, however, other data has vanished.

For example, on the eve of the Peoples Climate March in April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that “its website would be ‘undergoing changes’ to better represent the new direction the agency is taking, triggering the removal of several agency websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information,” write Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post (where it received more than 1,000 comments). “One of the websites that appeared to be gone had been cited to challenge statements made by the EPA’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt. Another provided detailed information on the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan, including fact sheets about greenhouse gas emissions on the state and local levels and how different demographic groups were affected by such emissions.”

The changes were to remove “outdated language” from the website, explained an agency spokesman. Other examples of missing data were an explanation of climate change that had been on the website for more than two decades, and the influence of human activity on climate change, Mooney and Eilperin write, though they add that an archive of the previous data was still available. A description of the Obama era Clean Power Plan was also no longer on the site.

In an indication of how jumpy people are about the issue, a message on the EPA’s Open Data Web service saying that the site wouldn’t be available, due to the government shutdown, was taken by many to mean that the data was going away altogether, writes Andrew Griffin in the Independent UK. “Since this story was first published, EPA officials have denied that the website will be taken offline and that it may continue to operate throughout the government shutdown,” he writes. (Congress ended up passing a continuation that prevented a shutdown in the first place.) “The pop-up and claims by a contractor that the site was being turned off permanently were based on confusion about the government shutdown, they suggested.”

Whether the data is gone or merely inaccessible, ThinkProgress is dealing with the situation by filing a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests intended to force the government to make the data accessible again, writes Joshua Eaton of the organization. “We’ve already filed Freedom of Information Act requests for six disappeared websites,” he writes. “And we’ve already scored a victory: In response to requests by ThinkProgress and others, the Environmental Protection Agency posted a snapshot of its website as it existed on January 19.”

Other examples of missing data for which ThinkProgress is filing FOIAs include the Department of Energy’s online phonebook, an inventory of data.gov data when almost 40,000 datasets appeared to vanish for three months, and Bureau of Land Management ecological assessments, Eaton writes. The site MuckRock tracks FOIA requests, including Eaton’s. “Other data taken down from federal websites include regulatory enforcement actions, like fined abuses at dog and horse breeding operations and workplace injuries cited by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration,” writes The Week. “The Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations had regularly publicized fines levied against companies to encourage workplace safety, but business groups opposed such ‘naming and shaming’ disclosures.”

Some of the FOIA requests have deadlines of mid-June. It will be interesting to see what sort of responses they get – or if they’ll have a new set of FOIA requests to keep them company. In addition, the site DataRefuge continues to make and store copies of government datasets.

6  Comments on this Post

 
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  • joeinslw
    Who are the sources of this report, and to which political party do they belong?
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  • joeinslw
    I received an error on my first attempt to get the above question answered, I have another....Why?
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  • Sharon Fisher
    To which report are you referring?

    You are welcome to check out the government websites yourself to see whether the data is still there.
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  • IowaSmart
    In reality, the article does not provide any website URLs that we can check - just statements that they are no longer there.  Hard to prove a without the original links to check against...
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  • Gandalfian1018
    Particularly during the last 20 years and specifically in the Obama admin, data was simply created to fit the narrative.Most funded "scientific projects" had a conclusion in mind versus normal scientific endeavor. For example, in Alaska, there were oil and mineral reserves discovered that were labeled as dangerous to retrieve due to environmental reasons that had no facts behind them. Maybe those are the deleted ones.
    I mean any bureaucracy that takes 2000+pages to define "water" has a big problem to begin with.
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  • TheRealRaven
    ITKE assumes readers are IT professionals. Any of us should find it easy to locate the federal EPA site, so providing a link in this article is like providing directions to college students how to find the school library. Checking current site content against Internet archive copies is essentially middle school level for college students, so providing samples in the column is similarly below the level of the target audience. (Google searches for recent EPA web activities are trivial.)

    And to discount collected data by unsupported assertions that data was simply "created" to support an agenda is an insult to intelligent readers. Sites that regularly present such assertions tend to be frequented by visitors who won't realize the insult, so it's not an issue for them.

    That's not to say that no flawed studies are ever released to the public. However, no such studies were among those removed by the EPA. Any that were ever discovered to have flaws were removed whenever the flaws were discovered (assuming that they even made it to sites such as the EPA; practically were discredited before getting that far.

    To group the entire set of science practitioners of climatology in with the tiniest fraction that either commit frauds or perhaps make methodology errors is itself flawed. It's practically equivalent to smearing "IT professionals" by saying the profession engaged in political interference during the 2016 federal election campaigns. It's the type of assertion done by those who ignore and discard 99 studies because the 100th study was discarded by the climatology professionals themselves after problems were determined.

    Perhaps worst of all is the sole focus on the 'man-made' component of climate change. There are still a very few climatologists who continue to dispute that the man-made element is significant. And there is a very small chance that they're right. The chance shrinks every year as data continues to indicate that they're wrong, but a non-zero chance remains.

    A bigger questions remains regardless: Does that matter?

    There is no dispute at all that climate change is happening. The world is slowly getting warmer, and weather effects (and others, e.g., ocean levels) are becoming more pronounced. But opponents of "man-made" climate change also argue that we shouldn't be working to counter nor even slow or limit the change. They argue that continued use of coal and other carbon-based fuels not only should go on as usual but that it should even be increased, by government support if necessary.

    Even assuming climate change is 100% natural, those actions are insane or at the very least purely self-serving with no consideration of others, not even their own children. It's analogous to a discovery in early spring that summer will come, and the government decides for all of us that we must keep wearing our winter clothes.

    It's irrelevant if summer is man-made or not. It's coming. We need to start shedding some outer clothing layers and be prepared for what's next. Getting started on designing air conditioners and changing how we build houses and all the other stuff that lets us survive summers differently than winters is called for. To call for the opposite is a betrayal of the population.

    Not only would the general population be forced to suffer the overall consequences, but some segments will have worse. A major example are coal mine workers. They'd effectively be forced back into the mines for the rest of their lives, and many of their children would follow.

    What should happen instead is investment in alternative industries in coal producing areas. Coal mining in the entire state of Washington, for example, ended completely in 2006 when the last mine; and alternative industries have far more than taken up the slack. Not only alternative jobs but better and more jobs, plus opportunities for education.

    Certainly, that had less impact than in states such as West Virginia. But it was preceded by earlier economic troubles. In the early 1980s, the state's largest private land holder, International Paper, Co., closed most (all?) timber operations in the state, moving their focus to yellow pine forests in the southeast U.S.A. Coming as it did on the economic wave from the oil mess of the time, the state was hit hard as loggers and sawmill and other workers state wide were hit.

    Similarly, the state was big in aluminum smelting and casting with Reynolds Metals (Alcoa). I think that's mostly closed down since 2006 even though electricity costs (primarily hydro-electric) are relatively low, and aluminum smelting is a big user.

    Other examples are possible, yet Washington State ranks at the top for strong state economies for 2016. Timber was as much a part of Washington as coal is to West Virginia, but the state didn't stand still when troubles rose. Some of the world's most successful companies were encouraged and fostered. Education facilities have worked hard to keep up.

    Instead of the whole state acting like it was giving up, it's chosen to go forward. There was turmoil, but there is still no big push to "put the loggers back to work as loggers". It makes zero sense to use "put coal workers back to work in coal mines" as justification for pushing the rest of the country to 'keep wearing winter clothes while we work at making it an even hotter summer'.

    Similar justifications make as little sense. The sensible, sane thing to do is to prepare for the 21st (and 22nd) century now. Actually, a couple decades ago, but now is better than later when it'll only become harder. Disputing whether it's man-made or not is nothing but a smoke-screen to hide the dollars that might be squeezed out. You can bet that many of those dollars are being shifted into alternative energy research so those who really benefit today will be the ones to benefit in the future... at the expense of coal miners who aren't being given the opportunities they should get.

    Finally, throwing ridiculous assertions such as "2000+pages to define "water"" has no place in any rational discussion. It adds nothing and only dilutes the subject.
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