Stories from Data Rescue Houston

On March 4, 2017, Data Rescue Houston was held at Rice University’s Fondren Library. Approximately 75 librarians, faculty, students and community members came together to identify, download, describe and preserve federal datasets. Dr. Tani Barlow interviewed several participants to understand why they got involved with Data Rescue.

Jeff Reichman and Neeraj Tandon

Interviewed by Tani Barlow

During Data Rescue Houston, Jeff and Neeraj used data from NOAA to map oil spills in the US. You can see their map at http://data.life/embeds/noaa.html and the underlying data and code at https://github.com/sketch-city/noaa-incidents.

How did you find out about this event?

We participate in several meetups related to civic tech, data visualization, and web development. Our friend forwarded us an email and said, why don’t you check this out? I saw that they were inviting community members to participate, so we thought we could help spread the word through Sketch City, a nonprofit of coders, designers, and policy people. It is fantastic that Rice is willing to invite the community at large to participate in this event.

Sketch City tries to advance data and technology in public decision making.  There are a lot of ways that new technology and data analysis can improve public services.

Part of this work involves teaching people how to “talk tech” with elected officials.  Last week, Sketch City held a workshop to teach people the rules and etiquette of a City Council public session.  We train people to give a quick 3 minute description of what their topic covers. Hopefully, in the long run, we help people to advocate for things important to them.

We came to Fondren Library because we love data, we love libraries, and we love the fact that Fondren is bringing the greater Houston community into Rice.

Lisa Spiro

Executive Director, Digital Scholarship Services, Fondren Library
Interviewed by Tani Barlow

Why did you organize this event?

It was a confluence of factors that led me to work collectively with colleagues at Rice and other places to organize Data Rescue Houston. As library staff, we share in common a foundational belief that long-term, free access to government information or data is in the public interest, since it supports research and public decision-making.

The first Data Rescue was held January 13-14, 2017 at the University of Pennsylvania. Organizers were concerned that the public might lose access to important environmental data.  The Data Rescue team started thinking about an organization that would insure data preservation, which became the Libraries+ Network. At Fondren we learned about these general plans through email announcements.

Every presidential transition means a change in focus, priorities and websites.  In fact web information is by definition ephemeral so as research librarians we want to promote long term access. Researchers and research librarians also worry that agencies or sub agencies may lose funding, raising concerns about what happens to their data.

Our work is consistent with the values of the university.  Our objective is to create and disseminate knowledge to the next generation of scholars and citizens.  We see that this objective is best served through collective effort and as you can see here at this event many people are bringing their capacities to bear on a common goal.

Was organizing the event difficult?

Not really.  The EDGI team had organized a first run at this work in Toronto in December of 2016.  They worked with Data Refuge at Penn and developed toolkits that made organizing our event a lot easier. That means our Rice event has support from the pioneers.  But we also have support from various units on campus like the Office of Information Technology, the Center for Civic Leadership and the Ken Kennedy Information Institute.  We also worked with colleagues from the University of Houston Libraries.  Librarians, citizen technologists, concerned citizens, students and faculty came together for Data Rescue Houston.

What was the response like when you first announced this event?
There was so much enthusiasm I had to close registration!  Since we have limited space (and limited wireless access), we did not want to pack in too many people.  We estimate that around 75 or so people participated.

Where is this all this data going to be stored?

Actually starting in 2008 the “End of Term Web Archives” has captured US government websites as presidential administrations conclude.  But, to my knowledge, this archive does not capture information that the Internet Archive’s web crawler cannot crawl, such as data accessible through dynamic web pages.  Such “uncrawlable” data is going into the Data Refuge Repository at https://www.datarefuge.org/.

Amber Tong

Rice Student
Interviewed by Tani Barlow

How did you find out about this event and decide to write about it?

I got a few emails from the Center for Civic Leadership, Owls Organize and the Anthropology Department. I’m an Anthro major and my department is probably more activist than most.  My ultimate desire is to be a journalist because I love observing and describing.  Since Rice does not have a Journalism Department I decided that I would learn skills best suited to my career in the Anthro department.  For me this is a refreshing kind of social activism.  It is relatively new, something that young people should find interesting and connect to easily.  After I worked at the Rice Thresher editing for a while I took an internship at Houstonia.  https://www.houstoniamag.com/ I decided to cover this event for Houstonia.   Rice plays a big role in organizing this event and I have more connections here so I felt like I’m in a better position to cover it than reporters or interns from other universities.

The way this meeting is organized everybody can do something – so the organization teaches with various levels of learning curves and you can give but you can also get a lot, like me, just a journalist covering this event.  It is also quantifiable.  You can know you did something real. Protesting can be ephemeral and while it’s empowering, in the end you may feel like you accomplished nothing.  You don’t have this feeling at Data Rescue because this is the next step this is actually what it is. Because you can keep on doing this anytime you want.  You can join Slack to become part of the national organization for Data Rescue in other parts of the country.  https://get.slack.help/hc/en-us/articles/201330256-Invite-new-members-to-your-Slack-team

Although you are not a US citizen you still feel a sense of obligation.  Why?

My citizenship is complicated.  Back when the UK used to control Hong Kong, my father’s family immigrated to England, which results in me having a British passport.  Meanwhile, my mother’s family stayed in HK under British National Overseas citizenship and later transitioned back to passports.  So I have a British passport and a Hong Kong Identity Card.  Now I am in the US and I feel attached to this place, too.

I feel an obligation to protect the freedoms here.  First, in a structural sense the American democracy has, over the years, developed a wonderful education system.  Few other countries do this.  Rice, for example has wonderful pedagogy, lots of active researchers, and participates in this history of academic freedom and pursuit of knowledge.  Another reason is that I have met so many people here that care deeply about this place, Houston, Texas, and I support them in caring.  Even if I don’t stay in this region they and their children will.  So it is good to invest in the place where people will live generation after generation.  Finally, even though my Hong Kong and UK family probably will not come and settle in the US, the United States is a major player in the international arena.  It is important for me and for my family to know what things look like from the US perspective.

What have you learned today?

Well first of all, I’m curious where the Rice Thresher reporter is. It’s great seeing the community come together, but I wish more Rice students knew about this.   Also I have learned how important librarians are and how easy it is to talk to them.  I’m surprised how huge the library networks are.  This network we are participating in now happened so quickly.  There are lots of  UH librarians here and I’ve interviewed them because it is so important so go talk to them.