Hacktivists bring DataRefuge movement to Madison, WI

Ever heard of the EPA’s Environmental Radiation Data Journal Reports? Neither has most of the country. But in the wake of the 2016 election, a growing group of scientists were concerned environmental data like these reports may be removed from public access.

Concerned activists created the DataRefuge movement, supported by events called hackathons, where volunteers work to copy and secure federal environmental data sets and reports.

On Sunday, March 5, over 20 people gathered at Sector67 to bring this work to Madison.

Jim Kreft, Joe Warbington, and Erin Jonaitis work together on downloading data sets and ensuring the data is labeled and stored appropriately.

The Madison hackathon was hosted by a team of organizers connected through Madison’s Leading Locally movement. Leading Locally is a grassroots movement devoted to bringing progressive change and events to Madison within the 100 days following the presidential election.

“I came to the Leading Locally meeting on the morning of the Women’s March,” said Christina Libs, an IT project manager who joined the group focused on climate change. “I wanted to see what I could do locally. I didn’t have any experience in environmental work, but at the end of the day if we screw up the planet we’re all screwed.”

The Leading Locally climate change group included Jim Kreft, a data manager and curator.

“I stumbled across DataRefuge efforts on social media,” said Kreft. “I thought this would be a great thing for us to try.”

Many members the climate change group have ties to the scientific community, and some have begun to feel the effects of the Trump administration.

“Is it a real threat?” said John Morton, one of the event organizers. “Yeah. Some data has already started to go offline.”

One participant at the Madison event discovered a climate data set that has been tracked since the 1980s. At the top of the report was public notice that this data would soon be taken offline.

“This is pretty scary stuff,” said Joe Warbington, who found the notice.

Others at the event echoed his fears.

“The risk of losing scientific data is a scary trend,” said Matt Ziegler, a web developer and bioinformatics researcher. “It’s discouraging. Scientists put all this time into doing this research, and then political winds change, and everything we worked on is thrown away. Saving this data is urgent.”

While climate data is a top priority for data rescue, other federal data sets are being copied as well, including environmental health data, weather data, aerial images, and more.

Explore what data is being recovered with interactive graphs.

Teams searching federal websites for data sets use a Chrome extension to track which data sets need copying and which have been completed.

While copying data takes time and presents logistical challenges, event attendees remained optimistic.

“I’m excited this is happening,” said Ziegler. “This is a thing I can actually do instead of sitting in my apartment and freaking out… it feels good to do something concrete.”

Event organizers anticipate future DataRefuge events in Madison and will be supporting attendees working independently.

Inspired and want to join in? “New people are always welcome,” said Kreft.

Watch the Leading Locally Facebook group for notification of the next meeting, or contact organizer John Morton at johnmorton@leadinglocallymadison.org for more information. You can also connect with the team on the Leading Locally Slack group.