Skip to main content

Statistics Are Disappearing From Government Websites

Statistics Are Disappearing From Government Websites Promo Image

On the afternoon of Oct. 4, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) noted on its website that half of Puerto Ricans had access to water and 5 percent of the island had electricity.  On Oct. 5, no such information could be found.

FEMA spokesman William Booher told The Washington Post that the statistics on Hurricane Maria recovery are still available through through twice-daily conferences and media calls and through www.status.pr, a Spanish-only website maintained by Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello.  He declined to mention why the information was removed from FEMA's main website.

Another notable change is that the page which formerly displayed recovery data for Puerto Rico is now positively-skewed.  The tab "Federal Response Updates" highlights the accomplishments of the U.S. government response teams in bold.

"FEMA, working in coordination with federal partners, has provided millions of meals and millions of liters of water to Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands," the website reads under the heading "Commodity Distribution." "Additional meals and water continue to arrive to the islands regularly via air and sea."

The website's social media section contains enthusiastic Twitter updates by various government agencies.

Image placeholder title

"Landslide or Road Blocked after #HurricaneMaria No Problem, Customs and Border Protection crew delivers 'food basket' [DHSgov[ [fema]," wrote U.S. Customs and Border Patrol alongside a video of a government worker lowering a food basket onto the ground from an aircraft.

FEMA shared the following tweet from its own feed: "Here’s [Chef Jose Andres] sharing his plan to feed #Maria survivors across Puerto Rico with support from federal partners!"  The message was accompanied by a video of food workers making meals from fresh ingredients for Maria survivors.

The top comment on the video shows a picture of a small FEMA food box with packaged crackers and other snacks, not whole foods like the video had depicted.

"[FEMA] can you expand partnership w/ [Chef Jose Andres] so the people of Puerto Rico get real food (Paella, avocado) instead of this food box?" the caption read.

Image placeholder title

Though it's not disrespectful to remain optimistic about recovery efforts, the tone of the FEMA website isn't reflective of the severity of Puerto Rico's situation.  According to Puerto Rican data provided by The Washington Post, 55.5 percent of people have access to water, 42 percent have cell phone service, and 10.7 percent have power as of noon on Oct. 6.  For those who are interested, The Washington Post has created a tool which tracks changes in Puerto Rico's recovery statistics based on data from Status.pr.

Some have suggested that the changes on the FEMA website are indicative of the Trump administration's efforts to delete or obscure any government information that conflicts with their agenda.  Data deletion is particularly evident in websites dealing with climate or environment-related statistics.

In May, ThinkProgress launched the Disappearing Data Project to document government records that were scrubbed off federal websites.  The records they requested under the Freedom of Information Act included information about Obamacare from the Health and Human Services and Healthcare.gov websites, ecological assessments from the Bureau of Land Management's website, climate change data from the Environmental Protection Agency and reports from the Department of Agriculture's Animal Care Information System.

Requesting information and documenting removed statistics doesn't seem to be preventing the government from continuing to block data from their websites.  On Sept. 17, climate scientist Peter Gleick sent out a series of Twitter updates about the removal of climate change data from the U.S. Geological Survey's "Science Explorer" website.  Gleick noted how topics such as "Effects of Climate Change" went from having thousands of links in Dec. 2016 to zero links today.  ThinkProgress reported similar findings -- click on "Greenhouse Effect" or "Sea level change" and you'll receive a "No results found" message.

Image placeholder title

Gleick told ThinkProgress that he wasn't certain whether the data had been deleted or moved elsewhere. Regardless, he said that "the changes have made it far more difficult for the public to access critically important web resources and data sets related to climate science."

"This is shocking in the extent of the changes," Gleick continued, "and distressing in the sense that publicly funded data and science should be easily accessible, not hidden, and the changes move us in the wrong direction.  Every federal agency website has undergone changes like this."

In April, Senate bill S.960 -- titled the "Preserving Government Data Act of 2017" -- attempted to block the government's ability to delete data from its websites.  If implemented, the bill would require federal agencies to give six months notice and to provide descriptive reasoning before taking any data offline.

"It imposes a sort of accountability tool," said Aaron Mackey, a legal fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to WIRED. "Once something is out there, this makes it really hard to make it secret again."

WIRED noted that the bill's description of data was quite vague for it to be passed in its current form.  Congressional records show that no action has been taken on the bill since April 27.

Sources: The Washington Post (2), FEMACBP Southeast/Twitter, FEMA/Twitter, Twitter, ThinkProgress (2), WIRED, Congress.gov / Featured Image: Matt McGee/Flickr / Embedded Images: Greg Henshall/FEMA, Win Henderson/FEMA, US Federal Government via Wikimedia Commons

Popular Video