Our mission

Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Blog posts scrubbed from U.S. Department of Labor Blog. Why?!

Here’s an oddity. On the Department of Labor’s blog, there was a post on september 6, 2016 titled “What is the ‘Real’ Unemployment Rate?” that described the “huge array of measures, which together provide a comprehensive picture of the state of job opportunities” in the US. As you’ll see if you click on that link, the post is now “404 page not found.” You’ll not find the post in the blog’s archive for September 2016 either. However, the post was archived by the Internet Archive on October 17, 2016, the last time that IA crawled the blog. So sometime between October, 2016 and today (February 16, 2017) that post was scrubbed from the Department of Labor’s blog.

What’s more strange is that the archived site showed 26 posts in September, 2016, but the live site’s blog’s archive for September 2016 shows only 10 posts. Unfortunately, IA didn’t crawl the monthly archive urls, so there’s no way to know what those missing 10 posts were about. There are also discrepancies for other months (eg, the archived site shows 30 posts in August 2016, while the live site shows 17 posts!).

There’s nothing that I can discern in this one found post that could be considered controversial. It’s not a CRS Report that found no correlation between the top tax rates and economic growth, thereby destroying a key tenet of conservative economic theory that was subsequently suppressed in 2012. It was written by Dr. Heidi Stierholz, the department’s chief economist.

So what gives? Why is the Department of Labor disappearing selective blog posts? We’ll let you know if we find out.

Internet Archive offers to host PACER in perpetuity FOR FREE!

This is an amazing offer from Brewster Kahle and the internet Archive. Kahle just wrote a letter to the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet Committee on the Judiciary stating unequivocally that they will “archive and host — for free, forever, and without restriction on access to the public — all records contained in PACER.” The “Public Access to Court Electronic Records” or PACER system is the supposedly publicly accessible system of federal court records that charges exorbitant fees to download, thus making it for all intents and purposes blocking meaningful access to federal court records. But with this letter, the whole system could become actually accessible, for free and in perpetuity!

By this submission, tile Internet Archive would like to clearly state to the Judiciary Committee, as well as to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Judicial Conference of the United States, that we would be delighted to archive and host — for free, forever, and without restriction on access to the public — all records contained in PACER…

In order to recognize the vision of universal free access to public court records, the Federal Judiciary would essentially have to do nothing. We are experts at “crawling” online databases in an efficient and careful fashion that does not burden those systems. We are already able to comprehensively crawl PACER from a technical perspective, but the resulting fees would be astronomical. The Federal Judiciary has a Memorandum of Understanding with both the Executive Office for us Trustees and with the Government Printing Office that gives each entity no-fee access for the public benefit. The collection we would provide to the public would be far more comprehensive than the GPO’s current court opinion program- although I must laud that program for providing a digitally-authenticated collection of many opinions.

By making federal judicial dockets available in this manner, the Federal Judiciary would enable free and unlimited public access to all records that exist in PACER, finally living up to the name of the program. In today’s world, public access means access on the Internet. Public access also means that people can work with big data without having to pass a cash register for each document.

The OpenGov Foundation wrote just released their “Statement on Internet Archive Offer to Deliver Free and Perpetual Public Access to PACER” in which they said:

“The vital public information in PACER is the property of the American people. Public information, from laws to court records, should never be locked away behind paywalls, never be stashed behind arbitrary barriers and never be covered in artificial restrictions. Forcing Americans to pay hard-earned money to access public court records is no better than forcing them to pay a poll tax.

“The Internet Archive’s offer to archive and deliver unrestricted public access to PACER for free and forever is the best possible Valentine’s Day gift to the American people. The Internet Archive is proposing a cost-effective and innovative public-private partnership that will finally fix a clear injustice. There is no reason to do anything but accept this offer in a heartbeat.”

EPA cuts attendance at Alaska environment forum

NPR reports that Trump administration transition officials ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cut in half its staff attending the Alaska Forum on the Environment.

NPR reports that EPA transition official Doug Ericksen blamed the cutback on excessive travel costs even though some of the attendees cut work just blocks away from the meeting site.

The Alaska Dispatch News said that the cuts came just three days before the Forum, which has met for at least 19 years. The meeting agenda included the effects of climate change on subsistence fishing and how to help coastal communities threatened by erosion and sea-level rise decide whether, and when, to relocate.

The news quotes Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club:

This raises important questions about government transparency and public access to important information.

Rescuing Government Information: The Long View

There is a lot of activity going on to ensure that government information on government servers does not get altered, deleted, or lost during the transition between administrations. As we have pointed out before, this is not a new issue even if the immediacy of the problem is more apparent than ever before.

Much of the effort going into these activities has to deal with the inherent problems of how federal government agencies create and disseminate information. There is, for example, no comprehensive inventory or national bibliography of government information. Agencies do not even provide inventories of their own information. This makes it hard to identify and select information for preservation. Also, some information is in databases or linked to Web applications that are not directly acquirable by the public. Finally, the "digital objects" that we can identify and acquire are often not easily preservable.

The inherent problem is that agencies are not addressing digital preservation up front. Librarians and Web archivists are left trying to solve the digital preservation problem too late in the life-cycle of information. We are trying to preserve information long after its creation and "distribution" — in the absence of early preservation planning by the agencies that created the information. This is understandable under current government information policies because most government agencies do not have a mission that includes either the long-term preservation of their information or free public access to it. The Federal Records Act [Public Law 81-754, 64 Stat. 578, TITLE V-Federal Records (64 Stat. 583)] and related laws and regulations only cover a portion of the huge amount of information gathered and created by the government. In addition, the preservation plans that do exist are subject to interpretation by political appointees who may not always have preservation as their highest priority.

What we need is a better approach to government information management that includes preservation planning at the beginning of the information life-cycle and that guarantees its long-term preservation and free public access to it even if the agency has no more need for it, or if Congress has no more funding for it, or if politicians no longer want it.

How can that be done?

At FGI, we believe that a long term solution will require a change of government policy. That is why we have proposed a modification to OMB Circular A-130: Managing Information as a Strategic Resource that would require every government agency to have an Information Management Plan.

This seems to us to be a reasonable suggestion with a good precedent. The government agencies that provide research grants already require researchers to have a Data Management Plan for the long-term preservation of data collected with government research grant funding. A modification of A-130 would simply put the same requirement onto information produced at government expense by government agencies that the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other government funding agencies put onto the data produced by researchers with government funding.

Here is an draft of such a requirement:

Every government agency must have an “Information Management Plan" for the information it creates, collects, processes, or disseminates. The Information Management Plan must specify how the agency’s public information will be preserved for the long-term including its final deposit in a reputable, trusted, government (e.g., NARA, GPO, etc.) and/or non-government digital repository to guarantee free public access to it.

We believe that such a requirement would provide many benefits for agencies, libraries, archives, and the General Public. It would make it possible to preserve information continuously without the need for hasty last-minute rescue efforts. It would make it easier to identify and select information and preserve it outside of government control. It would result in digital objects that are easier to preserve accurately and securely. It would accomplish many of these goals through the practical response of vendors that provide software to government agencies. Those vendors would have an enormous market for flexible software solutions for the creation of digital government information that fits the different needs of different agencies for database management, document creation, content management systems, email, and so forth, while, at the same time, making it easy for agencies to output preservable digital objects and an accurate inventory of them ready for deposit in Trusted Digital Repositories (Audit And Certification Of Trustworthy Digital Repositories [ISO Standard 16363]) for long-term preservation and access.

Perhaps most important for FDLP Libraries, we believe that this OMB requirement would provide a clear and practical opportunity for libraries to guarantee long-term free access to curated collections of government information to their Designated Communities. And this, we believe, will drive new funding and staffing to libraries and digital repositories.

Authors
Jame A. Jacobs and James R. Jacobs.

New App Will Aid Data Rescue

A custom-built app will soon make it easy for anyone check government URLs to determine if they have been archived outside of government control and, if not, submit them for archiving.

The article in Quartz also reports on “data rescue events,” all-day archiving marathons, that have been held in Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and Michigan. Scientists, programmers, professors and digital librarians are meeting to “save federal data sets they thought could be altered or disappear all together under the administration of US president Donald Trump.” Jerome Whittington, a professor at NYU who organized one data rescue event, said about data on air and water pollution, contaminated soil, toxic spills, and the violation of rules against dumping harmful waste, “If you don’t have the data, you’ll be told your problem doesn’t exist. It is in a way a struggle over what we consider reality.”

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