Open Government

EPA's open data shutdown that wasn't

April 24, 2017 screenshot of opendata.epa.gov.  The message was changed later that day to say

An April 24, 2017, screenshot of opendata.epa.gov.

The Environmental Protection Agency's open data portal was to be shut down as soon as this Friday, a contractor who supports the site said. That statement sparked a social-media frenzy, and prompted the EPA to deny the "rumors" from its official twitter account.

One source of said rumor: The Opendata.EPA.gov site itself.

Early on April 24, visitors to the open data portal were presented with a pop-up window stating, "This site will shut down Friday, April 28, 2017." 

By mid-morning, however, many visitors saw nothing at all, as the site simply failed to load. Open data advocates on Twitter vowed to "start scraping" the site to preserve the data, and that traffic may well have crashed the site. 

EPA officials did not immediately respond to requests for clarification, but the takedown warning appears to have been a case of government shutdown brinksmanship. Bernadette Hyland, the data scientist who first warned that opendata.epa.gov would go offline, wrote that:

Our company ... was notified by EPA that “we need to be ready to turn-off the EPA Open Data web service by noon on April 28, 2017 — the last day of the current continuing resolution. If Congress does not pass a budget, we will be facing a government shutdown and won’t be able to give technical direction to continue any work.”

Funding for most government operations will indeed expire on April 28 -- though not at noon -- if Congress does not pass another continuing resolution or an omnibus appropriation. The Office of Management and Budget recently posted shutdown contingency plans to the WhiteHouse.gov website, and when previous shutdowns loomed, Obama administration officials warned that many websites might go down or function at "limited levels."

The pop-up warning appears to have been a digital example of "Washington Monument Syndrome" -- when government agencies promise to shutter the most visible or most popular resources when funding is threatened. By 11 am on April 24, however, opendata.epa.gov had a new pop-up message: "The data on this site will continue to be available on April 28, 2017."

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.


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