MSIS student Sangeeta Desai leads local DataRescue efforts

April 17, 2017

Sangeeta Desai, a Master of Science in Information Science (MSIS) student at the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), wants scientific data collected by government agencies to be preserved, protected, and publically accessible. Unfortunately, she worries the current presidential administration does not share her conviction.

MSIS student Sangeeta Desai with the DataRefuge
logo projected in the background.

Desai turned her concern into action by organizing DataRescue Chapel Hill, an event where volunteers copied climate change data from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) websites and saved it to trusted repositories identified through the DataRefuge project.

“DataRescue ensures that federally funded, public data – data that belongs to the people – is preserved and remains accessible to the people,” Desai said. “This not only benefits the researchers, scientists, and academics that use this data every day, but anyone who wants to access that information.”

The daylong rescue on March 4, which received support from SILS and UNC Libraries, brought 78 volunteers to the Davis Library Research Hub.

“It was extremely rewarding to see people from all different backgrounds come together for this,” Desai said. “We had people from UNC, Duke, NCSU, grad students, professors, and concerned citizens. It was great to see how committed people were and how much they enjoyed doing something concrete.”

The desire to do work that has a tangible impact is also what initially drew Desai to SILS. After earning a PhD focused on South Asian religions and literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Desai decided to forgo a career in academia and began to look for a professional path with broader applications.

“I wanted something that would be extremely relevant, something that was more practical and hands on,” she said. “I wanted to feel like I was working on projects instead of research that was so abstract.”

Desai is now completing the Archives and Records Management (ARM) track of the MSIS and working to earn the Digital Curation Certificate. She plans to use her experiences organizing the DataRescue as the basis for her master’s paper. After graduation, she hopes to find work that combines cultural heritage preservation and digital collections.

“Until I came to SILS, I didn’t imagine how much I would enjoy digital curation and thinking about the larger questions in the field,” she said.

One of those questions is how best to preserve and ensure the continued authenticity of scientific data published on government websites. While none of the data harvested during DataRescue Chapel Hill had been specifically targeted for deletion, actions by the current presidential administration – from announcing plans to review information on all EPA websites, to ordering the organization to stop issuing press releases or posting on social media, to appointing an administrator who had sued the agency 14 times in a previous role – have left many worried that important data could become inaccessible, either through direct action or neglect. Reduction in funding and administrative support can contribute to data degradation and loss.

These and myriad other concerns about the president’s proposed policies had prompted Desai to look for ways to effect positive change in early 2017. When she heard about a DataRescue event at another university, it seemed like the best way to make a significant impact in a limited amount of time. The idea also resonated with Hannah Wang, another MSIS student at SILS, who helped to plan and publicize the event and participated in the rescue efforts.

“I felt like this was a place where I could apply my skills and my SILS education to help bring people together for a positive cause,” said Wang, who worked as a Carolina Academic Library Associate (CALA) for the Carolina Digital Repository. “As information professionals, we have a duty to make information accessible to the public, and the DataRefuge project is aimed at doing precisely that. It doesn't matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it's important to preserve data so that researchers can continue to have access to this information and continue to make strides in their fields.”

While DataRescue Chapel Hill was a one-day event, the turnout and enthusiasm has made Desai optimistic about future endeavors. In mid-May, Desai is planning a primer writing event that will produce guides to help future volunteers more quickly navigate through the websites of the various agencies and sub-agencies to find the data that needs to be saved. She is also working with the National Humanities Center to organize DataRescue RTP in June. The event aims to not only attract more volunteers, but also to expand the reach to agencies beyond the EPA, including Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Education.

Although DataRescue events may have particular appeal to information science students and researchers, Desai emphasizes that absolutely no expertise is necessary. “Anyone who can search the web can make a contribution,” she said. “And if you don’t like the technical side or the searching, you can contribute by writing press releases or documentation.”