Democratizing Government Data.

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Date: Sept-Oct 2021
From: Online Searcher(Vol. 45, Issue 2)
Publisher: Information Today, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,695 words
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Within a week of the 2017 inauguration, the Trump administration instructed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove the climate change page from its website. Reuters called it "the latest move by the newly minted leadership to erase ex-President Barack O bama's climate change initiatives" (reuters. com/article/us-usa-trump-epa-climatechange-idUSKBN15906G).

Scientists at the EPA who wanted to publish or present their scientific findings, according to an NPR interview (npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/25/511572169/epa-scientists-work-may-face-case-by-case-review-by-trump-team-official-says), were told they would likely "need to have their work reviewed on a 'case by case basis' before it can be disseminated, according to a spokesman for the agency's transition team."

The EPA was not the only agency affected. Jordana J. George, clinical assistant professor of information systems in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University (TAMU), told me that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's data about companies that had animal welfare infractions disappeared and "other government websites, such as NASA, were restricted on posting any data on climate change and other political hot-potato topics, especially data that implicated human influence on climate."

Margaret Kwoka, Lawrence Herman Professor in Law at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, backed up George's statement. "Database 'blackouts' or data take-downs occurred across a variety of federal agencies. I litigated, for example, the legality of a database blackout at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where full datasets of animal welfare enforcement records were suddenly taken down."

Academics, librarians, and many nonprofits reacted by downloading and moving as much of the EPA data (on climate change and other key issues) into "safe harbors" for the duration. The best known, Data Refuge (ppeh.sas.upenn.edu/ex periments/data-refuge), is now collecting climate stories.

Under the Biden administration, the EPA Climate Change website (epa.gov/climate-change) is back, "with more content to come." However, the actions over the past 4 years have ignited a great debate on the value of government data, the need to guarantee access, and efforts to download or reconstruct data that has been taken down.

INFORMATION ACCESS IN A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY

Free access to government information is key to a democratic society. Hence, the worldwide shock at the Trump administration's take-down activities. In the U.S., the establishment of the Government Printing Office (now the Government Publishing Office) in 1861 signified the importance of citizens being able to access government information. In 1973, then Secretary of Education Elliot Richardson chaired an effort on "automated data systems," issuing a report titled "Records, Computers, and the Rights of Citizens," prepared by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (justice.gov/opcl/docs/rec-com-rights.pdf). This report recommended that all organizations collecting data needed to include some type of code of fair information practices.

More recently, in 2019, the OPEN Government Data Act (congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1770) makes Data.gov a statutory requirement, rather than merely a policy. It requires that agencies publish their information as open data, using standardized, machine-readable data formats, including metadata, in the Data.gov catalog (catalog. data.gov/dataset). "Opening more data," the Data.gov website asserts, "will continue to ensure that the best sources of information are accessible to the public and...

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