Toronto at the Centre of the Race To Save Climate Change Data from Trump
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Toronto at the Centre of the Race To Save Climate Change Data from Trump

An Interview with Matt Price, co-organizer of the Guerilla Archiving Movement.

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Matt Price leading a group of coders at the Hackathon. Photo via University of Toronto.

It’s the Saturday before Trump takes office. Dozens of concerned citizens are organized at University of Toronto, huddled intently over their laptops, and scouring the internet for climate change data. They’re racing to save years worth of invaluable environmental research before Trump, a firm climate change denier, can remove online public access to the Environmental Protection Agency. This hackathon—called the Guerilla Archiving Eventmay just be the only way to preserve the integrity of scientific research in the face of some very powerful and hostile forces in the United States.

Fast forward to March 2017: the Trump administration is in full swing, but where is the Guerilla Archiving movement now? Dorothy Eng of Civic Tech TO talks with Matt Price, a co-organizer of Guerrilla Archiving, to catch up on what came out of the hackathon, lessons learned by the community along the way, and why Toronto is at the heart of a growing movement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did you get the idea for Guerilla Archiving?

Leading up to the US election, Trump threatened to shut down the EPA; years of climate and environmental research was at risk of being lost or much harder to access. An idea emerged from the EDGI to co-ordinate the preservation of this data with the End of Term web crawl. Here in Canada, we’re actually a half step ahead of Americans. We had seen a suppression of climate and environmental research during the Harper governmentphysical libraries were being shut down and data sources were harder to access. When people don’t have access to information, it makes it harder for them to organize. As similar events were unfolding in the US, we knew that we had to do something to prevent this potential information suppression from happening. Guerrilla Archiving seemed like the best way to make it happen.

What did the Guerilla Archiving hackathon event look like? How did you mobilize people to archive the data?

Prior to Guerilla Archiving, I presented the event idea at a Civic Tech TO hack night and couple fellow civic hackers helped us to build a Chrome extension—a simple tool that would target, search, and preserve web domains from government agency pages into a spreadsheet. This tool really helped us to streamline the archiving activities at the hackathon—one group would flag government web addresses for the Internet Archive, a “web crawler” that makes copies of websites, while another group would look for useful or vulnerable data sets. In the end, we had accomplished quite a lot for one day. Thanks to this tool everybody felt like they had the ability to contribute to the issues at hand—regardless of technical ability. People came out of the day feeling pretty good.

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Volunteers at U of T glued to their laptops, helping store EPA data for posterity. Photo via University of Toronto.

Guerilla Archiving got insane press coverage around the world leading up to the event. What has happened afterwards?

The data we gathered is being stored in an open data platform, for now. It will be moved over to the InterPlanetary File Systema protocol based on Bitcoin blockchain—that will create a permanent and decentralized method of storing and sharing all of the data for the public.

As for the Guerrilla Archiving movement, things have really taken off. Although the threat of disappearing environmental data hasn’t been as significant as we expected since Trump has taken office, there is still lots of interest. Guerilla Archiving started as one event in Toronto but has since spread across the US. There is at least one archiving event every weekend. Toronto has been key to the movement—our Civic Tech tool is used at every location.

Why do you think Toronto has been at the heart of this movement?

There is something special about Toronto, and specifically the civic tech community here, that you can’t find in the U.S. Groups like Civic Tech TO nurture diversity and are accepting of all participants regardless of technical ability. They create a special environment where non-technical people and technical people can grow alike, and work towards a common civic goal. Our technical work is accompanied by a robust and sophisticated idea of civic engagement. Movement’s live or die based on the health of community, and Toronto’s presence makes a big difference to the broader project.

Are there any insights that you’ve gained from your Guerilla Archiving work?

The way scientific data is curated and cared for has major implications for how we understand our world and the kind of policies we ought to be making. We shouldn’t be building our data with a single point of failure where that point is the political will of the governing party. We need better ways of managing invaluable data for the long term. Also, our work has given us the ability to monitor websites in a systematic way. This has never been done before. We’re watching information change over time, it’s surprising. We noticed that the word “impact” is being replaced by “change” across environmental websites. What may seem like a subtle difference in messaging actually points to a watering down of American communications regarding climate change. We are building better tools for monitoring government websites—we should have had these in place already.

At its core, this is a story of how lack of transparency breaks down trust between citizens and government. Are there any lessons on transparency that our local government can take away from this story?

The U.S. has been way ahead of Canada in terms of opening up data. Cities like Boston and Chicago do a good job of opening up data sets to the public. We need to catch up. There is a lot less to lose here in Canada! People really do value open data sources. Sometimes people think that open data is just an ideological position and there are no users out there. But the users are out there, if the data is provided. As an administrator or data provider, it’s the little things—like providing a hash of a dataset for better searchability or making it accessible via peer distributed networks—that government can do to be more transparent.