The Digital Dark ages and data preservation

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that in a few hundred years some future version of the TV show Time Team will be digging up a range of what we consider modern day technology. You can picture the excitement on the presenters face, as he exclaims; “we’ve found a video of a laughing cat, some excel spreadsheets, and a song by someone called Taylor Swift… what a find we’ve had today!!”

Presently the nature of digital file formats means that the chances of these, future “data archeologists” being able to access the digital content any documents is high unlikely. A common term for this potential loss of digital data is the “digital dark age“. This term dates as far back as 1997 and refers primarily to a future situation when historical electronic documents and multimedia are lost due to them being held in an obsolete or unreadable file format. Most recently the cause of lost data was discussed by Google vice-president; Vin Cerf. In an interview with the BBC, he warned:
“Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed. What can happen over time, even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”

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By design, digital file formats encode information into forms that can only be processed and rendered comprehensible by very specific combinations of hardware and software. This means the accessibility of any digital information is highly vulnerable in today’s rapidly evolving technological environment. We have in both our personal and work lives developed an almost Pavolvian thirst for the next model, update, version, etc. of the latest technological advancement. In business to keep moving with technology is vital to help many an organisation maintain their competitive edge and business advantage. The question this raises is; could this “progress” in reality cause a very real problem for information managers. It’s a problem that could mean that the digital dark ages cannot now be seen just as a long-term issue within business, education and healthcare. Instead to all of us, who are responsible for implementing information management solutions and document management processes it should now been seen as a vital concern with regards to managing and sustaining access to electronic records over relatively short timescale.

What can be done in order to prevent a digital dark age? Well, there are number of actions that data managers, Information managers and any appointed data specialist within an organisation can do to maintain data preservation within their information management solutions:

• Make a detailed plan for the management and preservation of your data, from its inception to the end of its lifetime. In doing this you ought to consider exactly how long you have to legally retain this information? [Link to Guidance Notes on length of time to keep documentation]

• When creating electronic records the format should be determined not only by the immediate and obvious requirements of the situation, but also with long-term sustainability of information in mind.

• Be aware of data costs including hardware, software, support and time, and include them in your overall IT budget. Determine whether it’s more cost-effective to regenerate some of your information management solutions rather than preserve it over a long period.

• Ensure data retention by planning ahead of time for the transition of digital data to new storage media. Plan budgets for new information storage and software technologies, file-format migrations, and time. Move data to new technologies before your storage media become obsolete.

• If your data eventually needs to be transferred to an information management specialist [Link to Datatron Storage page (?)] organisation’s repository you will need to ensure that it meets the requirements of the new environment, such as legal admissibility.

• Tailor plans for data preservation and access to the specific needs of users. For example, NHS patient data used daily may need a different information management/preservation solution to a planning document that may or may not ever need to be accessed.

• Pay attention to data security. Be aware of what you must do to maintain the data integrity at all times.

In this age of rapidly developing technology our information assets are in danger of being a victim of progress. Preservation actions must be planned – and then realised – to ensure that your organisation’s digital documents and information flow is protected for the long term. The data preservation actions above can help to ensure that your digital data will remain authentic, reliable and accessible whilst at all times maintaining data integrity.

A data preservation programme suited to the individual organisation must be used to safeguard your information & data resources. Without good information management practices in place your documents will remain at risk from digital obsolescence and from the fragilities inherent to digital media. Whether your role is data manager, IT manager, information specialist, data librarian or research assistant, Datatron can help you to build your team’s capacity and capability for digital data preservation with a information management software solution.

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