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Preserving Fish and Wildlife Service History through Open Data Initiative

In the summer of 1914, Frederick M. Dille, manager at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, observed:

“The general conditions of affairs at Niobrara are favorable and good. The animals are thriving, the feed has been abundant, the fence is in good shape and Mr. Schultz has handled everything very satisfactory. […] The pheasants have done well and proven a great attraction to the visitors. Mr. Schultz wanted to try his hand at hatching a few of the eggs this spring; they were hatched but none of the chicks survived. If it is desired to hatch some pheasants and turn them loose, some additions to the pens will be necessary.”

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This excerpt, taken from the 1914 Refuge Annual Narrative Report at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, reads like a diary. Generally a product of the past, narratives like this documented activities and accomplishments on refuges and contain a glimpse into how the Refuge System’s management of wildlife and habitat has changed over time. Dating back as far as the turn of the 20th century, they contain detailed weather observations and wildlife counts, documenting historical conditions that can be used to examine trends in ecosystems and climate.

Many of these historically important documents only exist as hard copies and can easily be lost or destroyed. Recognizing a need to preserve these invaluable documents, as well as many other types of ‘grey’ literature, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) created ServCat, an online reference application to secure and store these documents.

Data analysts at the Natural Resource Program Center (NRPC) in Fort Collins, Colorado, have been scanning and uploading documents to ServCat since 2011. In 2013, an agreement was reached with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to scan all the narrative reports in their possession. To date, over 8,500 refuge annual narratives have been entered into ServCat. In addition to these refuge annual narrative reports, ServCat contains: management plans, biological survey data and protocols, land status maps, GIS datasets, FWS authored journal articles, and many more documents created by the Service, totaling over 30,000 records.

President Obama’s Open Data Initiative mandated government agencies make all non-sensitive data available to the public, increasing accountability and transparency. In the summer of 2013, Chris Lett and Andrey Andreyev, both of the FWS Information Resource and Technology Management (IRTM) office, suggested that linking ServCat references to Data.gov would be the best way to meet this obligation. If public records in ServCat could be automatically harvested, they could be accessed by anyone without putting an additional burden on ServCat record owners.

This was a huge undertaking for an agency as small as the FWS. As the System Manager of ServCat, I enlisted the help of Kenny Elsner, an IRTM Cartographer, Brent Frakes, Business Analyst for the National Park Service’s Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate, and Jeff Applegate of the FWS’s Environmental Conservation Online System (ECOS) group. Between the four of us, we were able to determine the Data.Gov record requirements, query ServCat for ‘public’ records and publish these records to a file to a Web accessible folder that gets harvested by Data.Gov. This process is now automated, ensuring that newly created records are updated nightly and can be harvested by Data.gov the following day.

“Storing data in ServCat prevents loss,” says Jana Newman, chief of the NRPC’s Inventory and Monitoring Branch. “But data tucked away that can’t be found is another type of loss. With ServCat, we have made it easy to store and share information.” We consider this to be a huge success for the FWS. New documents are added to ServCat regularly, reinforcing our commitment to sharing historical documents and management-relevant information both internally and with the public. With each record added, we learn lessons from our agency’s past and share stories of success with future wildlife practitioners.

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