Endangered Data Week calls for open data access

By DRAKE FOREMAN | March 8, 2018

Endangered Data Week, a collaborative effort across campuses, nonprofits, libraries and other institutions to raise awareness for datasets that are in danger of being deleted, repressed, mishandled or lost, took place last week from Feb. 26 to March 1. 

As a part of the effort, seven staff members working under the Sheridan Libraries hosted an event on March 1 to teach students about the importance of improving public access to data and finding the mechanisms to preserve it. 

This event was one of several held during the week. In the morning, staff members hosted guest speakers from Open Baltimore to talk about the initiatives they were undertaking to make data about the city of Baltimore more openly available. 

Mara Blake, data services manager at Hopkins, said that she was at a different institution before last August and that this is the first year they are hosting events for Endangered Data Week at Hopkins. 

The team responsible for making the event possible is from the data services and archives units of the Sheridan Library. They have been working with various researchers who want data. 

Therefore, the team has been involved in efforts to help preserve data so that access can continue for research and teaching uses on campus. Members noted that, especially in an academic research setting, access to data is crucial. 

Blake noted that many team members are involved in data rescue outside of Endangered Data Week.

“We are part of a broader effort to rescue or preserve government produced data, particularly federal data as well,” she said. 

Blake believes that data rescuing should not just be limited to various institutions, organizations or specialists, but can be done by students and other individuals without expertise. 

At the event, she hoped to give students the practical tools needed to identify available data and to also preserve data somewhere sustainable so that access can continue. 

The event started off with a presentation on the underlying concepts behind endangered data. Reid Boehm, data management consultant at Hopkins, explained the various ways data can be important, aside from research, in allowing people to do the work they need to do or to simply live their lives. 

For example, some may need to use government data to navigate through flood plains. If they did not have access to data, it would limit their ability to travel.

Other examples Boehm mentioned where data is important included professions in agriculture, business and health.

Those involved in agriculture may need data on weather patterns to make decisions on what to do with their crops. Businesses may need data on market prices and trends to make informed decisions. 

For public health, it may be important for people who have medical issues to have access to health information. In these ways, many have specific reasons why data might be important to them. 

Boehm explained that all of such data can be threatened in two key ways: government shutdowns and lack of funding. 

“You probably remember a couple weeks ago when the government shut down for a couple of days. This is the sort of thing that happens periodically. A lot of times when you go to websites during that time, you see these notifications that there’s suspension of these services or that you are unable to or have limited access,” they said. 

Boehm stated that there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes to preserve data and that when there is not enough funding or when the government shuts down, it can sometimes lead to a lapse or degradation of data.  

“If you don’t have the right amount of funding or have the right personae, the files may not be maintained during a shutdown. There may or may not be additions to the system, so there might be a collapse, a lag or a scheduling backup for preservation activities,” they said.  

Following the presentation was an interactive session where the staff demonstrated how to use DataLumos, an archive for valuable government data resources. DataLumos is used to safekeep and disseminate U.S. government and other social science data. The staff gave a step-by-step introduction into how to use DataLumos to store data.

According to Geospatial Services Librarian Bonni Wittstadt, one of the most important things that makes DataLumos reliable is its organization system of data. Users have to take three key steps when storing data. The first is searching through the database to verify that the data the user is about to input is not already part of DataLumos. 

“You wouldn’t want everybody to be depositing and saving the same data, since we would then have thousands of copies of the same data,” Wittstadt said.  

The second step is uploading the data. Finally, the third step involves describing the data. The user does this by creating a metadata, which is essentially a description of the data that includes the title, data producer, summary of the data and the URL. This will make the data findable in the future. 

Blake stated that the key focus of Endangered Data Week is about making sure that access to as much open data is possible for the public. Her team is motivated to get more people to become involved in helping preserve data through using tools such as DataLumos. 

“It’s exciting now that there are so many tools that make it accessible for lots of people to participate without a lot of background knowledge and skill,” she said. 

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