Essay  |  Volume 166

Lessons from DataRescue: The Limits of Grassroots Climate Change Data Preservation and the Need for Federal Records Law Reform

166 U. Pa. L. Rev. Online 231 (2018)

Posted on Apr. 12, 2018

Essay - Lessons from DataRescue: The Limits of Grassroots Climate Change Data Preservation and the Need for Federal Records Law Reform

Shortly after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential election, but before his inauguration, a group of concerned scholars organized in cities and college campuses across the United States, starting with the University of Pennsylvania, to prevent climate change data from disappearing from government websites. The move was led by Michelle Murphy, a scholar who had previously observed the destruction of climate change data and muzzling of government employees in Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration. The "guerrilla archiving" project soon swept the nation, drawing media attention as its volunteers scraped and preserved terabytes of climate change and other environmental data and materials from .gov websites. The archiving project felt urgent and necessary, as the federal government is the largest collector and archive of U.S. environmental data and information.

As it progressed, the guerrilla archiving movement became more defined: two organizations developed, the DataRefuge at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), which was a national collection of academics and non-profits. These groups co-hosted data gathering sessions called DataRescue events. I joined EDGI to help members work through administrative law concepts and file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The day-long archiving events were immensely popular and widely covered by media outlets. Each weekend, hundreds of volunteers would gather to participate in DataRescue events in U.S. cities. I helped organize the New York DataRescue event, which was held less than a month after the initial event in Pennsylvania. We had to turn people away as hundreds of local volunteers lined up to help and dozens more arrived in buses and cars, exceeding the space constraints of NYU’s cavernous MakerSpace engineering facility. Despite the popularity of the project, however, DataRescue’s goals seemed far-fetched: how could thousands of private citizens learn the contours of multitudes of federal environmental information warehouses, gather the data from all of them, and then re-post the materials in a publicly accessible format?

Federal records laws and policies in the U.S., like the FRA, the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), were created to prevent government administrators from engaging in censorship, lack of transparency, and the destruction of relevant government records. The DataRescue project proves that these laws, in their current iterations, are insufficient in the digital information age, and must be reformed to ensure proper records preservation and access. This Essay describes DataRescue’s efforts and limitations, and examines the FRA, prescribing statutory updates that would safeguard online access to government records, allowing volunteers across the nation to rest easy knowing that climate change data and other information will be preserved through changing presidential administrations.

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