Environmental Data, Public Trust, and Guerrilla Archiving

By Evan Hepler-Smith

Over the weeks between the election and the inauguration, activists and critical observers sought to take preemptive action against a range of anticipated threats posed by the incoming administration. For the most part, they have focused on the same subjects of concern as opponents of Donald Trump did during the campaign: immigrants, Muslim Americans, women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, environmental policies, trade agreements, the Affordable Care Act. The status of facts themselves – twisted, faked, checked, misinterpreted, ignored – has been and remains a signal worry. Since the election, however, such fears have also latched upon a new subject: data, especially environmental data.

Under the Obama administration, federal agencies made an unprecedented amount of data that bears upon climate change and other environmental issues accessible to the public. Researchers have come to rely on it – perhaps even to take it for granted. The convergence of alarm regarding the anticipated trajectory of environmental policy under President Trump and his cabinet appointees and worries about the threat to empiricism posed by what some call “post-fact” politics cast a sudden spotlight on the value and vulnerability of this data. In response, activists have launched grassroots efforts to archive environmental data and information that they fear could be made inaccessible (or even discarded or altered) by the new administration.

In the process of archiving, preserving and protecting can go hand-in-hand with public outreach and with constituting the raw materials of history

These interconnected projects are the work of a loose network of scientists, humanists, STS scholars, and archivists, bringing different perspectives to the mission of archiving environmental data. Many are associated with the current iteration of the Internet Archive’s End of Term Project, an effort to capture a record of as much as possible of the federal government’s online presence as of the final days of each administration.

Climate Mirror, a collaboration of scientists begun in response to a journalist’s tweet, is copying federal datasets that climate scientists nominate for archiving. Its focus is redundancy: the Climate Mirror website connects various independent mirror sites and torrents where archived datasets can be accessed.

The Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project, run by four mathematicians and systems engineers, takes another approach to guaranteeing the trustworthiness of climate data. As group members store copies of climate datasets, they are computing hash codes for both the original and the archived data to demonstrate the authenticity of the copy.

The Environmental Data & Government Initiative, “an international network of social and natural scientists, lawyers, and other information and environmental professionals,” combines archiving and community organizing. EDGI has facilitated a series of locally-organized #DataRescue events in Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and New York City, generating lists of datasets to be archived and then downloading and storing data. EDGI is not just an archiving project; building on the group’s organizing efforts, EDGI plans to “track and respond to the undermining of evidence-based environmental governance in the United States.”

Other projects plan to trace changes in the presentation of data on government websites. This is the aim of Project Amber, founded by public policy doctoral student Matt Crespi and communications professor Chris Labash at Carnegie Mellon. Beginning with climate.gov and toolkit.climate.gov, they plan to compile a running archive of changes in government websites under the new administration and, with the help of interdisciplinary collaborators, to develop techniques for interpreting changes in the accessibility of data and the tone and tenor of website text.

One goal of Project Amber is to ensure that, as ephemeral bits of cultural heritage, snapshots of government websites are not lost. The archivists behind ProjectARCC (“archivists responding to climate change”) share the goal of linking cultural memory and climate change. The project long predates the election. (It was founded on Earth Day 2015.) But its goals highlight that, in the process of archiving, preserving and protecting can go hand-in-hand with public outreach and with constituting the raw materials of history.

The professional responsibilities of archivists to respond to climate change, per ProjectARCC.

Finally, STS-inflected initiatives at the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania are taking emergency archiving as an opportunity to ask critical questions about knowledge and public trust. Notwithstanding their shared STS orientation and close collaboration, the projects frame two distinct scholarly responses to challenges raised by the 2016 election.

Data Refuge, part of the University of Pennsylvania’s Project in Environmental Humanities, asks: What are the best ways to safeguard data? How do federal agencies play crucial roles in data collection, management, and distribution? How do government priorities impact data’s accessibility? Which projects and research fields depend on federal data? Which data sets are of value to research and local communities, and why? These guiding questions emphasize preservation and understanding.

The Toronto project, Guerrilla Archiving, takes a different tack. Guerrilla Archiving was organized by STS scholars Michelle Murphy and Patrick Keilty as a project of Toronto’s Technoscience Research Unit. This project draws its urgency from recent Canadian experience: the defunding of environmental science and the destruction of books and documents at Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries under the Stephen Harper administration.

As the project’s title makes plain, the organizers of Guerrilla Archiving frame archiving environmental data and delving into the critical questions of knowledge, authority, and trust as acts of resistance – and not just resistance to one administration. Toronto anthropologist Andrea Muehlebach describes Guerrilla Archiving as an attempt to “move away from the eventfulness of Trump” to develop an “archive of vulnerability” as a chronic challenge:

“How can we anticipate vulnerability and where it will lie? The hackathon was about archiving, but it was also about generating a collective habitus around vigilance, an active and anticipatory rather than reactive kind of politics within a larger, longer, and difficult war of position.”

These projects share an aspiration to make short-term bulwarks against the destruction of environmental data into resources for the long term. Such resources include not only secure and accessible archives, but also research frameworks (Data Refuge, Project Amber, Guerrilla Archiving), scholarly and activist networks (EDGI, ProjectARCC, Guerrilla Archiving), and technological tools (Azimuth, Project Amber) for promoting the safety and reliability of scientific data. Taken together, they advance an empiricist vision of the accessibility and stability of data as the foundation of trustworthy science.

There is a challenge here: rhetorically, at least, the bedrock of permanent, accessible data may be shaky ground on which to build public trust. A naïve absolutism regarding “raw data” (which doesn’t exist) and its sanctity (which misrepresents the reality of scientific practice) has proven an effective means of casting doubt upon robust results of environmental research. Analogously, charges of underhanded, state-sponsored changes in the tone and tenor of history courses have provided a weapon to resist the introduction of expert-designed history curricula. Sanctioned within an expert community, mechanisms for making changes to data and information may be vital to trustworthy science; suspicion of such changes and insistence on transparency may be invoked to erode trust in experts.

Of course, there are  manifest differences between the archiving efforts described above and those of self-styled climate auditors and intransigent school boards. Foremost among them is the commitment to empirically-grounded understanding not only of natural phenomena but also of what scientific practice, expertise, trust, and political culture are actually like. If crash archiving programs are to be transformed into resources for building public trust – if buttressing a culture of thoughtful empiricism is part of their mission – these archivists-at-need would do well to build this commitment as explicitly as possible into the webpages and databases of their guerrilla archives.

Evan Hepler-Smith, a historian of science and technology, is Ziff Environmental Fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. He thanks Michelle Murphy and Chris Labash for speaking with him about their archiving efforts.