At Haverford, 'data rescue' aims to save vital climate research

Librarian Mike Zarafonetis ( R ) and associate professor of computer science John Doughtery discuss preserve at-risk federal science data in Haverford's Magill Library Saturday February 18, 2017. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

Unusually warm, sunny skies for February didn’t deter a group of college students, faculty, and staff from holing up in the Haverford College library for most of Saturday, on a mission to rescue federal data they feared could be in danger under the new White House administration.

“The fear is really there.… Hopefully, we’re overreacting. This is in case we’re not,” said John Dougherty, associate professor of computer science at Haverford.

The Data Rescue event at Haverford was one of five going on this weekend around the country, part of an effort to garner and preserve data on climate change and other environmental research that scientists and scholars worry could be in jeopardy.

President Trump and several of his cabinet picks have downplayed the significance of climate change and have expressed skepticism that human activity plays a major role, even though researchers generally agree that it does. Within minutes of Trump’s inauguration, nearly all mentions of climate change were removed from www.whitehouse.gov, the official White House website, giving scientists greater concern.

Average global temperatures have risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, and scientists say it was caused primarily by the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

Other event sites this weekend are in Washington; Boulder, Colo.; Boston; and Durham, N.C.

The larger project, called Data Refuge, has its home at the University of Pennsylvania, which held one of the first Data Rescue events on its campus last month, drawing more than 150 people over two days. Since then, 36 coordinated events have been held or are scheduled, each preserving parts of government websites, said Laurie Allen, assistant director of digital scholarship at Penn.

“There is no end in sight to the work that needs to be done,” she said. “This is a project designed to safeguard the data we need for research we do.”

Each Data Rescue event focuses on a different area of the federal government’s website. At Haverford, which was holding its event in cooperation with Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore Colleges, about 50 students and staff worked on sections of the Department of Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) websites throughout the day. Other sites looked at were NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Haverford students Diana Schoder, 21, an economics major from Ardsley, N.Y., and Noah Connors, 20, a sociology major from Bradenton, Fla., focused on data on NOAA’s North Carolina site.

“I think that the public deserves to have all this information,” Schoder said. “Just because the administration has changed doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have access to important information about the climate and what all of us are going to face in the future. So I thought I could help in my own small way by doing this.”

The team at Haverford was divided into two groups. One worked on data that was “crawlable,” meaning it was easy to download and store. The other group worked on the more difficult task of rescuing “uncrawlable” data that required coding or more sophisticated intervention.

“We have people with programming abilities who can come up with ways to get around that,” said Michael Zarafonetis, coordinator for digital scholarship and services at Haverford. Tom Hutchinson, a web developer for Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore, is one of them. He viewed the event as “an applicable way to put my skills to use.”

Hutchinson spent part of the morning trying to figure out how to download precipitation data.

Emma Oxford, a 2013 Haverford alumna who is a librarian at James Madison University, said the effort mattered no matter who was in the White House.

“Even if there isn’t imminent danger of the data being moved,” she said, "you should always be thinking about archiving and preservation."

Data Refuge plans to broaden the data sets being captured into areas beyond climate and environmental science, Penn’s Allen said. “Certainly there’s concern about education data, should the department lose funding.”