|The EPA’s Open Government Plan, a cover screenshot of which is shown above, gives a breathtakingly broad overview of the EPA’s open data efforts. Image: EPA.gov.|
WatchDog Opinion: Open Data Is Still Important at the EPA — and Worth Updating
By Joseph A. Davis
Environmental data is a boon to journalists — but it can only help us (and the public) if we can get at it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plans and policies about open data are of key importance in promoting data access.
Fair warning: It’s geeky and that may turn off lots of impatient reporters (more so if they favor concise, clear English). But the EPA’s open data policies are worth looking over to understand whether they help or hurt journalism.
Need a reminder of how data can feed great journalism? You have only to look at ProPublica’s major investigative package, “Sacrifice Zones,” produced by a large team with a wide range of talents. They took basic EPA data about toxic releases, overlaid it with demographics and presented it with brilliant graphics. There are a lot more possibilities where that came from.
Threats to open data remain
But if you’ve forgotten about the threats to open environmental data, it’s worth turning pages back to 2006, when the Bush administration (to industry applause) was trying to cut back the Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, and some in Congress were trying to save it. (Spoiler: it got saved.) To this day the TRI underlies much knowledge about toxic chemical risks. And it was a foundation stone of that ProPublica project.
The EPA’s most recent open government plan
actually dates back to Sept. 2018, the middle of
the Trump administration. But it was not the first.
If talk is cheap, policies are sometimes cheaper; only worthwhile if they are followed and implemented. The EPA’s most recent Open Government Plan (5.0) actually dates back to Sept. 2018, the middle of the Trump administration. But it was not the first. For that, you have to look back to 2010, the middle of the Obama administration, when the Office of Management and Budget mandated that most agencies should draw up such open government plans.
The Obama administration meant well. Seemingly. They trumpeted their belief in openness practically the first day. But over the following eight years, the Society of Environmental Journalists and other journalism groups often chastised them for not living up to those ideals.
Before we start chastising the EPA, it is well to acknowledge that they were once a pioneer and leader among federal agencies when it comes to giving the public access to data. The TRI, created by Congress back in 1986 (before the web), allowed people to dial into the EPA and download toxics data. In later years, the EPA showed the way for other agencies on how to use the web for public information and data interactions.
EPA Open Government Plan worth a read
The WatchDog urges Freedom of Information Act fans and data geeks alike to take a look at the EPA’s Open Government Plan — in fact, to zoom out one step and look at the agency’s Open Data web page. It gives a breathtakingly broad overview of the EPA’s open data efforts.
Here are some highlights:
- To use data, the plan says, “the public must know where the data are collected, how they were collected, the definition of individual data elements,” etc. The EPA has done pretty well on this score (mostly) and the SEJournal Reporter’s Toolbox has tried to help.
- The plan also says the public should only use data that it can trust to be reliable. WatchDog agrees. But it’s a two-edged sword. All data has flaws. The story goes back to what was once called the Data Quality Act, which the EPA acknowledges has been criticized as providing a vehicle for special interest groups to challenge regulations on the grounds of not meeting information quality requirements.
- The public must be able to find data, the plan adds, and brags about the EPA’s Environmental Dataset Gateway and Facilities Registry Service. These are nifty and helpful.
- The plan points to another important handle to help with the EPA data: the Substance Registry Services. This cross-cutting gateway, it explains, “is the catalog of the chemicals, biological organisms, and other substances tracked or regulated by the EPA or its partners.”
- There’s also a nod to the Controlled Unclassified Information, or CUI, program. The nod is good, even if CUI is not. This often-extralegal category is one of the major ways by which the EPA restricts public access to information that should be publicly available.
- By the way, if you are a FOIA fan, did you know that you can ask the EPA to declassify a document? (You may not have even known that the EPA had classified information.) They do.
The WatchDog dutifully notes that the EPA’s Open Government Plan has not been updated since the darkest depths of the Trump administration, which was never zealous in its pursuit of openness.
It is about time that the EPA took another swing at it. Perhaps it would even be good to invite input specifically from journalism and open-government groups while developing a new version.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 34. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.