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What to watch with EPA data

The first week of the Trump administration was a tumultuous one for the Environmental Protection Agency. Its most recent concerns come from reports that the new administration wants to significantly cut its funding.

Open data advocates are worried about what funding cuts could mean for the information the EPA releases -- data that is used by not only environmental advocates but private industry and state and local governments.

“We’re concerned,” Janet Ranganathan, the vice president of science and research at the World Resources Institute, told GCN regarding the future of environmental data under the new executive leadership.

Acting EPA Administrator Catherine McCabe took to YouTube on Jan. 27 to address career employees at EPA and let them know it is business as usual for the moment.

Other than being included in governmentwide hiring and contract freezes, “the administration has not issued any additional written directives specifically to EPA,” McCabe said in the video. She also said that contracts and grants will “proceed as normal.”

Data quality

Ranganathan’s organization, which makes data from the EPA  and other agencies more digestible for private businesses, will be keeping an eye on the budgets at federal agencies as they are drafted.

“Are the budgets of these agencies going to be cut?” Ranganathan asked. “That’s the quickest and easiest thing to be done” if the administration wants to reduce data quality.

Her organization relies on application programming interfaces set up by the EPA to receive its data. As of Friday these were operating normally, she said.

Myron Ebell, the former head of President Donald Trump's transition team at the EPA, told the Associated Press that Trump “is likely” to pursue large cuts in staffing and the agency's $8 billion budget.

Data from regulation, collection

Ranganathan said that budget cuts alone would not curtail data collections that are required by regulation.

For example, the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act requires the EPA to measure levels of certain toxic chemicals. That act would have to be amended or repealed to stop the collection of this data. But that information could become harder to find or be provided is a less convenient format, Ranganathan said.

Since not all data collected by the agency is the result of regulation or law, some other less-protected collections could be cut if purse strings are tightened, she added.

Data publication

Many people voiced concern when the Trump administration said it was planning to “review” EPA data and studies. Joel Gurin, the president or the Center for Open Data Enterprise, said it depends on what kind of review this is. If its scientific review that’s one thing, he said. It it's political review that’s another.

“And if it is political review geared toward changing the interpretation of the data or keeping the data from being released, that really is not in keeping with established scientific practice or established practice within federal agencies that produce scientific research,” Gurin said. “So that would be a major shift and not a positive one.”

A spokesperson for the Trump administration said there was no plan to subject scientific data to political review, according to the Associated Press. The EPA has a scientific integrity policy that states it is “essential that political or other officials not suppress or alter scientific findings.”

So if the Trump administration wants to change or trash data or studies, then it will have a choice to make, Gurin said. It will either have to change the EPA policy or violate the policy, which would provide whistleblower protection to anyone who wanted to go public with the studies and data attempting to be suppressed.

Use of data

“There are certain types of data that can be seen through a political lens, and that is always going to be a risk -- and it's actually been a risk in past administrations as well,” Gruin said.

Climate and environmental data, however, is used for more than proving the existence of global warming.

Ranganathan points to one case study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that estimates the economic benefits of its weather forecasting at $31.5 billion annually.

State of open data

While the situation at the EPA has people watching closely to see what will happen, at least one Trump nominee has spoken out in favor of open data.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), Trump’s pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, said the DATA Act, which requires the publication of spending data in machine readable format, is “fantastic for transparency and fantastic for management," according to an FCW report.

Both Gurin and Hudson Hollister, the executive director of the Data Coalition, say Congress is likely to pass the Open Government Data Act, which would require government data assets made available by federal agencies to be published as machine-readable data. The bill already passed with a veto-proof majority in the Senate and both Gurin and Hollister said they expect it to do so again when reintroduced.

The trend toward open data hasn’t been a partisan one, Gurin said. It has drawn wide support from both parties.

“If [open data] is your operating principle, you can’t pick and choose -- no administration can pick and choose,” he said. “If we’re going to continue to strengthen the principle that open government and that open data is a default assumption of how government operates, then you can’t say ‘That’s true for this type of data, but not this other kind of data.’

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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