Government website credibility called into question, data saved

Photo courtesy of Pixaby 

Photo courtesy of Pixaby 

BY SAVANNAH HARRIMAN-POTE ’20

Since the start of the digital age, the transition between presidential administrations has occurred not just in the physical space of the White House, but also throughout the digital landscapes of the federal government. Just as they did in 2008, government websites changed to reflect the platform of President Trump on the day of his inauguration according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, scientists across the country initiated efforts to preserve the government data of the Obama administration.

Many of the changes made to the federal websites were highly publicized in the days following Trump’s inauguration. Reuters reported that all references to climate change were removed from the White House website the day that Trump took office. But even though Trump is now settled in the Oval Office, federal databases are still quietly altering their rhetoric and content. 

 The newly formed Environment Data & Government Initiative (EDGI) proactively archives federal data and monitors any changes made to federal websites. Their most recent Access Assessment Report, published on Oct. 18, 2017, documented the transformation of the EPA website entitled “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments” into the truncated “Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments.” The new website does not include its predecessor’s web resources regarding climate change. Mary Glackin, the instructional technology consultant of Mount Holyoke’s Library, Information and Technology Services (LITS), provided context for these changes: “Most of what seems to be disappearing under this administration is climatological data, weather data … And it’s not like those databases are being reorganized, it’s that you’re getting a lot of 404s: data not found.”

“Many of these changes seem benign,” continued Glackin, “but the concerning thing from the position of someone in science is that we’re losing all this valuable data, and the only place it lived was on government websites. Data are how we communicate with one another in the scientific community.” 

While Trump’s tenure in office has brought new attention to this issue, conservation efforts of .gov domains predate the Trump administration. The End of Term Web Archive, a collaboration between the California Digital Library, the Internet Archive, the Library of Congress, the University of North Texas Libraries and U.S. Government Publishing Office, preserves government data of the preceding presidential administration, as well as documents any changes made to government websites. According to their website, the project began in 2008 after President Bush left office. 

In response to the recent alterations of federal databases, several individuals and organizations have initiated efforts to protect open data. Similar to the EDGI, The Sunlight Foundation documents any removals of government data under the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the Disappearing Data Project from ThinkProgress is working to recover websites and datasets that have been taken offline, often through Freedom of Information Act requests. Additionally, Wired Magazine reported on a group of “roughly 60 hackers, scientists, archivists and librarians” who spent the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration identifying databases they felt were vulnerable and saving them to the Internet Archive, a digital archive of the World Wide Web.

For its part, LITS published a new Library Guide on its website entitled “Trump Presidency: Election, Transition and Administration” after the 2016 election. Its section on “Archiving Government Information” includes links to the Internet Archive and an article entitled “Climate Science Data and Digital Collections: Issues and Responsibilities,” published by the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. Additionally, LITS started an ongoing speaker series to discuss issues facing technology and information, and will host a lecture by Claire Wardle entitled “Hoaxes, memes & bots: Learning how to navigate our polluted information streams.” According to Glackin, LITS has “done a fair amount of outreach in trying to help the Mount Holyoke community understand an issue that isn’t really clear yet.”

What consequence does this change pose for those who rely on federally-sponsored research? In a survey of 50 Mount Holyoke students, 98 percent of students responded that they believed .gov websites were sources of credible information. 40 percent of the respondents were majoring in a STEM field. Glackin’s advice to students is that “one must be careful. We’ve always tried to tell students that anything that’s on the web, you have to look at skeptically … We used to be able to say that government publication was completely apolitical, but it now appears that that is no longer the case. There’s an agenda, there’s is a point of view. The scary thing is, we don’t know what that point of view is.”

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