Unmaking a digital landfill
- 05 April, 2010 22:00
In a survey 74 percent of local public-sector organisations admitted to holding some digital information they can no longer access. The digital continuity team led by Archives New Zealand conducted the survey last year. It included core government departments and institutions such as universities and district health boards.
A statistic like this highlights the need for work to be put into digital continuity — the preservation of digitally recorded information for the long term, says Evelyn Wareham, programme manager for digital continuity at Archives New Zealand.
A digital continuity strategy will ensure valuable information is preserved and migrated when necessary to the latest formats and media, that appropriate metadata is attached, and documents that are no longer relevant are securely deleted. The alternative is to have information necessary to the smooth running of the country or valuable for historical purposes slide into what Wareham calls a “digital landfill”, an accumulation of data that takes up space but is of no practical use.
Archives NZ led the drawing up of a Digital Continuity Action Plan last year. The focus of the plan in its first year is to raise awareness and understanding of the problem and start agencies thinking about strategy.
The digital continuity team is reaching out to sector groups, to help engender a common approach to digital continuity across various sectors, such as health, education or local government. “So far, we’ve spoken to more than 600 people,” Wareham says. In the first week of May this year, there will be a three-day conference on digital continuity in Wellington, featuring overseas specialists who will give presentations and conduct workshops.
“The biggest challenge our research has pulled up is not knowing what you have. That affects 50 or 60 percent of organisations. Documents have been filed without adequate naming or metadata.”
The organisation knows it has a lot of documents in a particular area of its business, but doesn’t know which of them it wants. “That’s a management issue, not one of technology,” she says.
There are challenges when decommissioning or upgrading a system, deciding which information to migrate and which to discard. Part of the issue, she says, is the sheer volume, the “data deluge” as a recent issue of The Economist called it. “When there’s that much data, there’s a danger of mission-critical information getting lost.”
The team is encouraging the formation of “communities of practice” so people within a particular sector can identify and share their common challenges.
Some concepts, such as the lifespan of a document, are universal, but different types of organisation manage information in different ways. “District Health Boards manage individual patient information and they have to pay particular attention to privacy. In the education sector there is more of an interest in managing assets, such as the results of research.”
Part of facilitating communication among agencies is “refining the language used”, says Wareham. “We have an interdepartmental group looking at which words are used by CIOs, technology managers, record keepers and so on.” “Archiving” from a preservation perspective means keeping something for perpetuity; to a computer technician, it simply means transferring the data to a longer-term storage location or medium.
Once organisations begin discussing and putting into place common strategies within their sectors, the digital continuity project team hopes the results will show in a reduction of the volume of inaccessible data as uncovered by yearly “high-level” surveys of public sector organisations.
These surveys will be conducted in association with the Public Records Act (PRA). The Act, which regulates keeping of information in the public sector, has a sufficiently broad application to be influential in digital continuity, says Wareham. “But I think often ‘records’ are understood narrowly; that’s one thing we’re looking at in our study of the language used. The term in the Act covers everything from data to documents to audio-visual images but in the digital continuity plan, we use the word ‘information’, because we find when CIOs and technology managers hear the word ‘records’ they tend to focus on the document repositories and not think about the big business systems.”
Audits of all organisations’ records under the PRA start from July this year and, in tandem with self-reporting, this will provide better continual monitoring of the situation, says Wareham.