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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.

USDA climate science research quashed US science leadership destroyed

Last night, Rachel Maddow did her opening piece on the history of scientific excellence and global leadership by the USDA its decimation at the hands of the Trump administration and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue – and in particular the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the principal in-house research agency of the USDA. She highlighted this Politico story:

Agriculture Department buries studies showing dangers of climate change The Trump administration has stopped promoting government-funded research into how higher temperatures can damage crops and pose health risks. By Helena Bottemiller Evich. 06/23/2019.

The Trump administration has refused to publicize dozens of government-funded studies that carry warnings about the effects of climate change, defying a longstanding practice of touting such findings by the Agriculture Department’s acclaimed in-house scientists.

Beyond the willful obfuscation and burying of important research findings about climate change, Maddow also highlighted a Washington Post article published yesterday that noted that USDA scientists were also recently given a choice: move to Kansas City by July 15 or be fired – somehow it sounds even worse when using the administration’s term: “be separated by adverse action procedures.” This forced move could cause a massive brain drain and decimate the scientific staff at the ARS, the Economic Research Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Maddow stated that perhaps 90% of scientists would leave the USDA!).

Talk about information loss!

EPA eliminates its climate change websites

Mashable reports that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has eliminated more than 80 climate change web pages. This according to a new report from the Environmental Data Governance Initiative (EDGI). The EDGI report notes that while NASA maintains a number of informative and frequently updated climate change websites, the EPA’s sites have been gradually obscured, and now eliminated. It certainly would be a public service if Congress would investigate why the EPA, supposedly charged with protecting the environment (it’s in its name!), would obfuscate and delete critical environmental information and data.

Sometime during the night of Oct. 16, 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) eliminated more than 80 climate change web pages — many of the last vestiges to the agency’s online recognition of climate change.

…”There’s no indication now that there was even a climate change website,” Eric Nost, the EDGI report’s lead author, said in an interview.

…The EPA did not respond to multiple attempts for comment about why the public webpages were deleted and if they might return.

…Of note, both the EPA and NASA are sprawling federal agencies directly answerable to the office of the president. Yet, while NASA maintains a slew of informative, diligently updated, and visually-rich climate change websites, the EPA’s sites have been gradually obscured, and now eliminated.

…NASA is a research agency, emphasized Stan Meiburg, the former Acting Deputy Administrator of the EPA, in an interview. It largely exists to perform science. Conversely, he noted that the EPA — which is responsible for protecting human health and the environment — is primarily a regulatory agency, writing and enforcing environmental rules.

… Right now, the environmental agency hopes to enforce a slew of new rules that would, among a variety of things, significantly roll back fuel-efficiency standards for new vehicles and replace Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Cuts to NOAA Climate Change Information Gathering

One of the ways that the government decreases public access to important information is to just stop collecting it. The Trump administration has proposed cutting research funding to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a leading climate science agency. The biggest cut would be to NOAA’s satellite division, known as National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, which includes a key repository of climate and environmental information, the National Centers for Environmental Information. (Washington Post By Steven Mufson, Jason Samenow and Brady Dennis March 3, 2017.)

EPA Removes and Changes Climate Information from its Website

Climate Central, an organization of scientists and journalists, reports that the Trump administration has removed federal climate plans, tribal assistance programs, and references to international cooperation from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

The report also says:

A mention of carbon pollution as a cause of climate change has also been removed and adaptation has been emphasized, indicating an attempt to separate the cause of climate change from the response.

A statement from the agency claims that some of the changes are “housekeeping.”

The report is based on research done by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), which is tracking changes to tens of thousands of federal environmental agency web pages. EDGI is also building online tools, events, and research networks to proactively archive public environmental data and ensure its continued publicly availability.

Using Government Data

Back when I helped teach new data librarians about data, one of the themes my colleagues and I liked to repeat was that “data should tell a story.” By that we meant that raw facts are literally without meaning until we analyze them and understand the stories they tell. “Understanding” is more than facts. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid said in their book The Social Life of Information, “information” is something that we put in a database, but knowledge “is something we digest rather than merely hold. It entails the knower’s understanding and some degree of commitment. Thus while one person often has conflicting information, he or she will not usually have conflicting knowledge” (p 119-120).

In those early days of data-librarianship, the tools we had for finding and acquiring and using data were very primitive (and often expensive) compared to the tools available today. Today, one can download and install very sophisticated free software for statistical analysis, data visualization, and even data animation. And one can download enormous data time series directly from the web and do analysis on the fly.

One big source of data is, of course, the federal government. Of course, we shouldn’t just hope that the government will preserve and provide free access to its data. Libraries need to take action to ensure long-term free availability of data.

I say all that as an introduction to an article that I recommend to you as a source of inspiration toward action, an example of what can be done with government data today, and a cautionary tale of how data can be manipulated to tell stories that appear “true” but which actually distort the story the data really tell.

Aldhous provides code for using R and ImageMagick and Adobe Illustrator to load data on the average global temperature for each month since January 1880 directly from from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He analyzes the data, animates it, and demonstrates how changing the timeline can make the data tell a false story.