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The dam data

With the sad news about flooding in the Midwestern United States this week, the Database Library received more than a few requests for the National Inventory of Dams. Not only does this dataset list the name and location of all federally-inspected dams in the United States, it has information useful for journalists, including when, exactly the last inspection date was for each dam and whether the dam is near a populated area.

More than a few good stories have come out of the dam data, which is still used for training purposes in IRE's computer-assisted reporting class. In 1995, Dateline NBC aired a story showing the poor condition of many Wisconsin dams (the story included footage of a dam inspector who was able to stick an entire pole in one dam wall).

Unfortunately, federal officials closed this dataset to the public shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, arguing that this information should be kept secret in the interests of national security.

This is a shame on a number of different levels, but especially in the context of the news last week. Journalists, as a result, had a tougher time providing the public with broader context as they reported the day's news about flooding. Bigger questions like "how safe is the dam in your town?" obviously can still be posed, but getting at a real objective answer is now more difficult.

Despite these limitations, there is at least one good use for the data: since the actual locations of dams aren't likely to change, it can give reporters a peek at where government-inspected dams are and what they are called.

For the record, we don't plan on giving up on this data. We still request it annually -- something at least one official has complained about -- and we've asked for all correspondence leading up to the decision to close the dataset. We hope to at least get some better explanation of the government's thinking in denying journalists basic information for reasons of "national security".

- Jeremy Milarsky

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