Gun Violence Researchers Race to Protect Data From Trump
It’s not as if they were hacking, or even using some secret scientists-only login. “Everything we downloaded by definition is public information,” says Wintemute. “We didn’t go behind any firewalls.” So the fact that scientists are worried they’ll lose access should probably give you pause.
In many cases, federal information is vital to research in these fields. “I was scared,” says Veronica Pear, a data analyst at the Violence Prevention Research Center. She’s using federal data for a paper on firearm mortality—tracking hotspots in California between 1999 and 2015—and her work is almost complete. Since the federal query system makes it easy to search the data but cumbersome to download, Pear had never bothered to save the information to her computer. To catch up, “I had to enter around 50 different queries,” she says. “I felt frantic.”
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After about five hours spent in a flurry of activity, the team had downloaded everything they could think of. Now, it’s stored on a secure server at UC Davis, ready if gun violence researchers ever do lose access to federal data on firearm licenses, sales, use in criminal activity, and deaths. It’s not as large of an effort as the climate data scraping executed in recent weeks—the datasets numbered in the tens rather than thousands—but that doesn’t mean the UC Davis team’s work was insignificant. Thanks to funding issues and opposition from the National Rifle Association, very little gun-related data exists. Every scrap counts. “There aren’t a lot of different kinds of data, but they are foundational,” says Wintemute. “Every research study on firearm violence begins with a statement on the size of the problem. That’s what these data provide.”