(Photo by Flickr user NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, used under a Creative Commons license)
When hearing the term “data,” we might think of surveillance, of Snowden and of private moments made unwillfully public (like revenge porn or Facebook posts ruining job offers). Persistence is the side of data to which we have paid (and should continue to pay) attention.
But data, the Web and its architecture are precarious, the #datarefuge project from Penn’s Program in the Environmental Humanities (PPEH) reminds us. It’s as New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore wrote: “The Web dwells in a never-ending present. It is—elementally—ethereal, ephemeral, unstable, and unreliable.” We lose data as often as we make it. Despite projects to essentially archive the web like The Internet Archive, access to data — even federal data — is not as simple as it seems.
The emerging and urgent concern is that amidst the transition of political administrations, especially the current transition to the Trump administration, the public will lose ease of data availability and access. It’s a concern that’s been chronicled by outlets including VICE’s Motherboard, The Washington Post and Stephen Colbert. While legally federal funded projects must share their data with the public, if that data is taken offline or only available through Freedom of Information Act requests, collaboration and timely research to build on foundational data will become extremely difficult.
That’s where the #datarefuge project comes in. The project, which brings together partners to address climate data’s vulnerability, aims to empower everyone to explore, use and ensure the trustworthiness of data. “We need to remember that data collection is a social practice,” says Bethany Wiggin, founding director of the PPEH and associate professor of German at Penn.
Wiggin, who’s part of an emerging field called the environmental humanities, pointed to the City of Philadelphia’s 2015 report, Growing Stronger: Toward a Climate-Ready Philadelphia, as an important example of how crucial public access is to this kind of data. In the report, three out of the four “near-term priorities to deepen the city’s climate preparation” depend on climate data. How do we as a city prepare for climate change if that data is not readily available or maintained?
The #datarefuge project, led by the PPEH and Penn libraries, has a three-fold mission:
- education to promote data literacy.
- partnering with End of Term Harvest, a collaborative project to archive internet data from federal sites during this presidential transition, focusing on content that is likely to change during the transfer of power.
- data rescue and creating a set of protocols for upcoming events.
Much of the parameters and protocols are still in development. Laurie Allen, assistant director for digital scholarship at the Penn Libraries, said one of the key components in active development “is a framework to identify the most vulnerable and most valuable data.” The framework will be debuted at the first #datarescuepenn event on Saturday, Jan. 14. The day will include an data installation, panels that are geared towards data literacy and of course, rescuing data.
The #datarefuge movement is just beginning, but it’s already clear that it is not just a refuge for data. It is also a refuge for ourselves.