Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In a fact-challenged era, will public access to federal data be the next casualty?

Dr. Garen Wintemute an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, poses for a photo Thursday at the hospital in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
By Stuart Leavenworth and Adam Ashton McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – Wondering who is visiting the White House? The web-based search has gone dark. Curious about climate change? Some government sites have been softened or taken down. Worried about racial discrimination in housing? Laws have been introduced to bar federal mapping of such disparities. Federal rules protecting whistleblowers? At least one has been put on hold.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has made a series of moves that have alarmed groups with a stake in public access to information: historians, librarians, journalists, climate scientists and internet activists, to name a few. Some are so concerned they have thrown themselves into “data rescue” sessions nationwide, where they spend their weekends downloading and archiving federal databases they fear could soon be taken down or obscured.

Previous presidential transitions have triggered fears about access to government data, but not of this scope. “What is unprecedented is the scale of networking and connectivity of groups working on this, and the degree it is being driven by librarians and scientists and professors,” said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group that tracks transparency in government.

The White House declined to comment, but Trump’s supporters say the administration’s detractors are overreacting. Trump is committed to open government, said Ben Marchi, a Trump supporter and Republican operative. In a recent interview with McClatchy, Marchi noted how, prior to announcing the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to serve on the Supreme Court, the White House released a list of 21 candidates under consideration.

Yet moves by the Trump administration have helped stoke the fears. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed animal cruelty data from its website, prompting protests from animal welfare advocates, including the Humane Society, which has filed a lawsuit against the USDA. Some Democrats in Congress have protested as well.

Also in February, the Trump administration suspended an Obama regulation aimed at protecting whistleblowers who work for Department of Energy contractors. The regulation would have permitted civil penalties against contractors that retaliate against whistleblowers. Supporters of the rule say its rescission will make it harder for contract workers, including those at the federal government’s nuclear facilities, to come forward with complaints of waste, abuse and safety concerns.

“Is this reaction overblown?” said Howard, in response to a question about the pushback by open-government groups. Trump, he said, has made clear that he will seek to prosecute leakers and has labeled the media an “enemy of the people.” He’s dismissed climate change science and raised questions about the use of vaccines.

“The reaction we are seeing is driven by concerns unique to this administration,” Howard said. “It’s because of the antipathy this president has shown toward government statistics and scientific knowledge.”

During his eight years in office, President Barack Obama was hardly a darling of open-government advocates. His Justice Department prosecuted nine cases against whistleblowers and leakers, compared with three by all other previous administrations. In one of those investigations, the government secretly seized records for telephone lines and switchboards that more than 100 Associated Press reporters used in their Washington bureau and elsewhere.

But Obama also took some steps to increase transparency, including establishing a web-based log of visitors to the White House. That log allowed journalists and others to track lobbying at the White House, including links between the Obama administration and the pharmaceutical industry.

But easy access to the log disappeared after Trump was sworn in and the National Archives and Records Administration stopped paying a contractor to maintain an embedded Web application for the Obama-era visitation records.

They’re still available at the Obama White House archive, but only on zip files that are difficult to download and analyze. As of Thursday, the Trump administration had not built a webpage with information about recent visitors to the White House, although it has said it will post such records “on an ongoing basis, once they become available.”

Other information of interest also has disappeared. The phone book for employees at the U.S. Department of Energy has been removed from DOE’s website. Several federal websites have been altered to eliminate or tone down evidence linking human activities to global climate change, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a group that has been tracking changes in federal and state websites.

One of these websites is Energy Kids, which the Energy Information Administration launched nearly 20 years ago to help teach schoolchildren about sources of energy. Since Trump took office, the educational website has been altered, including the removal of two pie charts reporting the link between coal and greenhouse gas emissions, according to ProPublica, which based its report on tracking by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.

All incoming administrations put their ideological stamps on federal websites and accessibility of government data. When George W. Bush was president, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attempted to close several of its public research libraries, triggering a blowback from environmental groups and Congress.

Yet Trump’s election, like no other, has set off alarm bells for those who want to keep public information public. Fearing that federal data could soon be rendered inaccessible, librarians, scientists and other professionals started networking on how to salvage what they could.

“We started thinking, how could we organize a bucket brigade that could draw attention to the ways that data is vulnerable?” said Bethany Wiggin, founding director of the environmental humanities program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wiggin and others started organizing dozens of “data rescue” sessions nationwide, in which net activists were invited to bring their laptops and ideas for federal data sets deemed vulnerable. Over the last two weeks of February, organizers held data rescues in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington (Seattle), Washington D.C., Minnesota, Connecticut, Texas and Wisconsin.

Even before these coalitions started organizing, scientists threw themselves into the task of archiving data of professional interest.

For several decades, Dr. Garen Wintemute has been preparing reports on gun violence and the workings of the gun industry. An emergency room doctor, he grew interested in preventing gun violence back in the early 1980s, when he treated gunshot victims at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.

On the day Trump was inaugurated, Wintemute got a call from a colleague, who reported that the White House had removed a climate change page from its website. Fearing that federal data on gun violence might soon similarly vanish under a president with close ties to the National Rifle Association, Wintemute called together his partners at the University of California, Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. He then ticked off the records he wanted to archive.

Within minutes, the team was downloading a crime victimization survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. They scoured the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, gathering data on retail gun sales. They preserved mortality records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes a field for deaths caused by firearms.

Wintemute said he could imagine a scenario where either Congress or the White House ordered that data stricken. “I don’t think the CDC would do that of their own volition, but they might be directed to,” said Wintemute, whose team in a single day archived all the key federal records they deemed vulnerable. They are now stored on a secure server at UC Davis.

Another concern of data users is that a Trump-led federal government won’t continue to collect information as in the past.

Earlier this year, a group of Republicans, including U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, introduced legislation to undo a 2015 Obama regulation aimed at reducing past patterns of housing segregation. The Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017 includes a provision that bars federal funding to “design, build, maintain, utilize or provide access to a federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.”

Open-government groups see this bill as a blatant effort to limit federal research, and a precursor of things to come. Rubio, however, says the legislation is squarely aimed at stopping the federal government from dictating zoning decisions to local governments. “Top-down, one-size-fits-all regulations by Washington bureaucrats won’t help make affordable housing more accessible to those who need it,” Rubio said in a statement to McClatchy.

How Trump may approach access to federal data is not entirely known, but one upcoming appointment will provide a signal. In coming weeks, the administration will appoint a director to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. That is a powerful but little-known agency – part of the Office of Management and Budget – charged with guiding federal policy on information technology, information policy, privacy and statistics.

At a recent data rescue event in Washington, a Georgetown University professor urged those in attendance to pay attention to that appointment. “That is going to be a key position in the federal collection of data going forward,” said Raphael Calel, an assistant professor in Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “If you have congressmen to call, senators to call, that is one to keep an eye on.”