Citizen Scientists in Resistance

Book burnings have been carried out throughout human history by authoritarian governments to suppress views perceived as threatening to authority. President Trump is launching a modern-day book burning, against servers instead of printed pages and against environmental scientists instead of literary scholars.

Hundreds of data scientists, programmers, policy wonks, activists, and concerned citizens gathered at Berkeley’s library for a hackathon with one goal: identify, download, and preserve the thousands of environmental datasets threatened by the new administration’s actions.

Data is already disappearing like these atmospheric data and this CO2 dataset from NASA, and this Climate Action Report from the Department of Energy. Language about science has also been stripped from government pages like the Energy Information Administration’s webpage on coal for kids and this the Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage on water and energy efficiency. Most environmental agencies have gag orders restricting their public communication and publishable studies now must undergo a political review process. There are currently bills proposed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (Gaetz, R-FL) and repeal Stream Protections. Trump administration is waging a war on the environment, and the institutions that work to monitor, manage, and protect our planet.[1]

The hackathon was organized by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) in partnership with DataRefuge as the 8th of 31 planned events to systematically ‘save’ environmental agency datasets (NOAA, EPA, NASA, DOE, among many others). EGDI was formed shortly after Trump’s election as an international network of academics and nonprofits to monitor environmental agencies and ensure that their datasets remain publicly available, and to address potential threats to federal environmental and energy policy.

Environmental data is critical in informing good policy choices. It is also an essential resource for local communities to understand their environment and make claims about justice and equity.

Here are a few of the people on the frontlines of protecting the scientific infrastructure of the American people. [These have been edited for clarity and simplicity].

Berhan Taye

Berhan Taye

“I am a Mozilla Fellow with the Ford Foundation. I’m not an American, but this kind of thing is what we can do that’s not just protesting. I am here to make sure alternative facts don’t become facts. And I’m here because most of this data is government funded, tax-payer data, so it should be public. Without this data, we don’t have anything to refute bad policies that are being proposed. We won’t be able to pull ‘check-mates’ on poor decision-making. Whether we like it or not, the U.S. sets the trend for the world, both the good and the bad. When I go back to my own country [Ethiopia], I don’t want people questioning data, so I’m here to stand up for it.”

Brandon Thompson

Brandon Thompson

“My background is in librarianship and I worked at the EPA as an intern and at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. As part of my own form of protest, I am really excited about capturing this information to ensure that it’s always available and that we’re not telling lies. We believe resources like Wikipedia now, but we don’t really know all of the contributors to that, even though we trust it. But with this, we know who the contributors are, because we’re also capturing that information. I’m here because we need to capture this information for the human race — it’s not a political thing, it’s about humanity. I think we need to know the Earth that we’re standing on and the world that we’re living in, if we plan on staying here.”

Katherine Tsen

Katherine Tsen

“I went to Cal and studied chemistry and minored in public policy. For me, I’m not a citizen of the U.S. — I grew up in Beijing and Hong Kong, and I am a Canadian citizen. As a women, as a student, as a non-citizen, what can I do about what’s happening? I’m here because this is a productive way to show up in support of environmental issues. I think a lot of people mistrust the media and having data accessible for people that want to understand the truth is so important.”

Evan Bloom

Evan Bloom

“I have a PhD in public policy and climate change. Having studied policy, we need data to make good decisions. I partnered a lot with small water agencies who, without this ecosystem of data and information, might make poor decisions. I’m especially worried about data collection getting defunded. The data we are collecting now isn’t just for decisions in the next four years, but for decisions in the next 100 years, especially for climate change. I’m also worried that the data could be faked and changed — that’s scary. Everyone needs to find a role that interests them and they are good at and they care about. It’s a muscle you need to work out and I’m here today to see if this is the right place for me.”

Emily Kearney

Emily Kearny

“I’m a PhD student here at UC Berkeley and I study pollination. I’m here today because I want to make sure that data is available to me. It’s pretty scary as a scientist, to know that we’ve spent billions of dollars collecting this data, this publicly funded data, and that an administration could just erase that, or erase the availability of that data. Losing data is actually very common in the scientific community because we don’t do a good job — though we’re getting better — of making our datasets publicly available. It’s one of the government’s major accomplishments that they’ve invested so many resources to do so, and we need invest our own resources now that they can’t do it themselves.

There are a lot of people here today who have not worked with these datasets before, myself included. Looking through these websites and just seeing what’s out there is not only impressive, but empowering. So even though fear is prompting us to do this, I think what we’re going to gain out of it is an ownership of the data. I’ve been to marches, and I’ve been calling my representatives, but here I’ve made a tangible impact and I feel more connected to the datasets that underpin all of our work.”

How to Show Up

What is each of our roles as citizens in preserving our access to information and evidence-based government decision-making? Start with identifying what you care about and then looking up groups and opportunities organizing around those issues.

And if you are passionate about environmental data and citizen science, check out EDGI’s upcoming hackathon’s here. And if there is a dataset or program you are particularly concerned will be transformed or closed during a Trump Presidency, add their URLs to the Internet Archive Webcrawler.

[1] And it’s bigger than climate, as a website for disabled kids disappeared as I wrote this post and as Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education.

Thank you to Lindsay Dillon, Sophie Sheikh, and Patrick Gage Kelley for their help organizing and telling the story of this hackathon. Enormous gratitude to Hanna Wallis for edits and Don Fogg for the stunning photos.