Data Rescue hackathon safeguards vulnerable federal research data

Libraries co-sponsored event is part of an emerging national movement

Photo: Renee Bell and Chi Feng

On Saturday, February 18, the MIT Libraries and the Association of Computational Science and Engineering Students co-hosted a daylong Data Rescue Boston hackathon at Morss Hall in Walker Memorial. Jeffrey Liu, a civil and environmental engineering graduate student at MIT, organized the event as part of an emerging North American movement to engage communities locally in safeguarding at-risk federal research information. Since January, Data Rescue events have been springing up at libraries across the country, largely through the combined organizing efforts of Data Refuge and Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI).

Attendees at the MIT event represented a wide range of ages, occupations, and technical abilities. The participants, including research librarians, concerned scientists, and expert undergraduate hackers, worked to ensure that climate data is comprehensively collected, mirrored, and accessible to everyone. Examples include information from the National Water Information System, which stores data used to monitor water levels in locations that may be at risk of flooding, and the Alternative Fuels Data Center, offering various data, maps, charts, and graphics on such topics as U.S. driver habits, hybrid vehicle availability, biofuels production, and vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

“These data sets are used to better understand our world, as well as make to decisions that impact our everyday lives,” says Alex Chassanoff, software curation postdoctoral fellow in the MIT Libraries Program on Information Science and event organizer.

One of the goals of the MIT event was to explore expanding beyond the existing focus on environmental and climate data. With domain experts on hand to assist, participants began expansion efforts for agencies and departments at the Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Federal Communications Commission.

The hackathon at MIT, sponsored by MIT Center for Computational Engineering, MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, MIT Libraries, MIT Graduate Student Council Initiatives Fund, and EDGI, was the second event hosted by Data Rescue Boston, which has begun hosting weekly working groups every Thursday at MIT for continuing these efforts. Data rescue events continue to gather steam across the country, with eight major national events planned over the next month. The next DataRescue Boston event will be held at Northeastern on March 24. A dozen volunteers and attendees from the MIT event have already signed up to help organize workshops and efforts at the Northeastern event.

Data Rescue @ MIT by the Numbers:

Organizers: 8
Volunteers: ~15
Guides: 9
Participants: ~130
URLs researched: 200
URLs harvested: 53
GiB harvested: 35
URLs seeded: 3,300 at event (~76,000 from attendees finishing after event)
Agency primers started: 19
Cups of coffee: 300
Burritos: 120
Bagels: 450
Pizzas: 105

Read more on the Program on Information Science blog

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