IU professor leads local DataRefuge effort

April 28, 2017

Late last year, IU humanities professor Jason Kelly came across an article about "DataRefuge," a national, grassroots initiative to archive federal climate and environmental data sets observers felt were at risk of potentially disappearing following the election of President Donald Trump.

In the article, Kelly recognized the name of Bethany Higgins, a University of Pennsylvania professor who's spearheading the effort and with whom he was already acquainted.

"I contacted Bethany over Facebook and said, 'Hey, it looks like a great project. It's wonderful what you're doing,'" he said. "And she wrote back immediately and said, 'So, you want to be involved?'"

Kelly's background has little to deal with climate and environment issues, and his official title is the director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute. Nevertheless, he obliged and launched DataRefuge Indy, and the effort is picking up traction here.

DataRefuge was sparked by signals that the Trump administration was skeptical of environmental issues such as climate change, organizers said. Kelly said the fear is not that the federal government will destroy data sets, but that that information will not be maintained or will be moved offline, making it difficult for researchers to access.

He said the initiative isn't a rebuke of Trump or his policies, but rather something that should take place with any administration because new presidents bring different funding priorities that can affect data accessibility.

"I don't think of it as politics ... I look at it from a scholarly perspective," Kelly said. "We need to maintain these data sets, and I find it hard to argue with the importance of maintaining all of the work scientists have done over decades."

This is how it works: Every six weeks or so, a group of volunteers shows up that the IUPUI library, gets a tutorial and commences on a six-hour day of downloading. National organizers have an evolving list of data-set priorities, and the local foot soldiers claim the sets they're going after so that their efforts aren't duplicated elsewhere.

The data (and the metadata that provides supplemental information) is archived at datarefuge.org.

Nationally, the focus has been grabbing sometimes decades-old data from the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the initiative has grown to target records from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Some 200 datasets have been downloaded to date, covering some 18 organizations.

The first DataRefuge Indy event on Jan. 19 drew about a dozen people. It's March 8 event drew about twice that, including software developers, librarians, students and more.

The next event will probably take place in June, he said.

Kelly said it's unclear when—or if—DataRefuge will end because it's turning into something the researchers want to do in perpetuity. "What we've realized is we have relatively underdeveloped data-management practices across the country right now, and what we need to be doing is this all the time."

More than 40 DataRefuge events have been held across the country, including in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Austin.

DataRefuge Indy was the third chapter, Higgins said.

"Jason has been a terrific collaborator," she said, "and a real leader in building DataRefuge."


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