Dam transparency

It was a good day for journos when President Obama declared he was in favor of transparency in government, and issued the memo instructing bureaucrats to, when in doubt, go ahead and release the data. Not only that, says the prez, citizens shouldn’t have to wait around and file Freedom of Information requests when the government has the ability to preemptively make the data available online. It’s a great idea from both perspectives. Especially when it comes to popular data — we’ve all seen instances where so many people requested a certain data set that it makes sense for an agency to just post the data online and direct requests accordingly. It saves everyone time and money.

Those of us who tinkered with data related to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure are interested in the stimulus package that calls for bridge building and other projects. Infrastructure isn’t a sexy issue; it’s hard for most people to get worked up about it, and readers often don’t care.

Except when there’s a disaster, such as we saw with the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The phones at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting rang off the hook in the following days, with journalists across the country wanting to learn how poorly maintained the bridges were in their communities. They found bad bridges all over the place.

What about dams? Will this pledge of transparency extend to “de-classifying” the National Inventory of Dams? According to NICAR, the Army Corp of Engineers won’t release updated data citing “national security” reasons.

That’s tenuous at best, and just one of myriad examples of the last administration employing fear to ensure opacity. Dams failed or overtopped in Wisconsin last summer after heavy rainfall. There’s a far greater risk of a dam failing due to negligence than from acts of terrorism.

Listen, you don’t need an updated database to locate potentially deadly dams. The old data still exists — they ain’t moving these dams from place to place, folks. States often maintain their own databases. And if you’re not a data-minded person, most commercially available maps indicate the location of dams. I just bought a Delorme atlas and gazeteer for Tennessee, and as I purused each page, eyeballing each body of water for its potential as a new fishing destination, I saw dozens of symbols for dams. And of course, dams aren’t generally invisible to the naked eye.

One thing’s for sure, though: Use it or lose it. Now is not the time to fall asleep at the wheel. We must continue to exert pressure, re-requesting previously denied data requests and making sure this administration follows through on its promise.

About the Author

grant smith
Hi. I’m a freelance journalist and data specialist living in NJ/NYC. I like to play outside.

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