NSF Grant to Toxic Docs!


Recently, Toxic Docs was pleased to learn from the National Science Foundation that it won a $457,649 grant to support its work.


Merlin Chowkwanyun will serve as PI of the project, David Rosner as Co-PI, and Gerald Markowitz and Alex Farrill as collaborators.

The NSF is one of the largest government agencies that subsidizes academic research. It places a premium on projects that have not just a scholastic footprint but a "broader impact."

When we began Toxic Docs, some suggested that we charge for access to the documents or try to sell it to academic libraries. There are many companies that do this with digitized documents.

We rejected the idea without any deliberation.

Charging for access would essentially render Toxic Docs inaccessible to most of the people we want to reach. Fortunately, this grant will allow us to provide a sound monetary footing for the novel technological infrastructure undergirding Toxic Docs. We will always remain free of charge, open to all. Toxic Docs was created on a shoestring, with tiny proof-of-concept and internal grants. We do not have a constant flow of funds like other toxic substances regulatory initiatives do. This grant assures we're going to stick around.

When we started the project a few years ago, one of us had just finished graduate school. Another was beginning an Internet start-up and wanted to help contribute to a civic project on the side. And other two of us, senior historians, were wondering what to do with the massive piles of documents and DVDs overflowing in our offices. We'd always dreamed of an electronic dataset that would make the material open to as many people as possible.

After a lot of experimenting and detours, we're proud to have developed version 1.0 of Toxic Docs. After evaluating some off-the-shelf data retrieval software and finding it unbearably slow, we built a speed user interface and underlying database from scratch. We have a speedy pipeline that renders documents machine-readable on the fly, then rapidly posts them online. And we are constantly performing user testing and developing new tools. Another software update will be coming shortly!

Image: Click to read short article on Toxic Docs

We've also been pleased to engage users from all walks of life -- consumers, scientists, researchers, lawyers, journalists, and most important to us, environmental health advocates -- through our public engagement channels on Facebook, Twitter, and soon, Instagram.

Last, we've hosted a number of terrific budding data scientists who have used the dataset to land awesome jobs at companies like Vanguard, Bloomberg, and Nielsen. We'll be systemizing this a bit more down the line.

But many things won't change. We remain committed to academic and non-academic audiences. We believe in speedy, mobile-friendly interfaces, not boxy interfaces with feature bloat. (Web 2.0, not Windows 2000.) We run a lean operation, overseen by the same four people, and are all very hands-on and know how the machinery of Toxic Docs works. We eschew bureaucratic and hierarchical models of operation where a single prominent figurehead delegates most of the work to an army of underlings. When you contact us, you actually get us.

Enough about high principles, though. In the coming months, we're excited to push out new tools, some of which have been in development for some time, along with subtle tweaks to our user interface. And we have a bunch of huge collections to drop that will add to the 20 million pages of material we already have.

Thanks for all your support!

-- The Toxic Docs Team