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Major Gaps Exist in Long-Term Management of Digital Assets

  • March 08 2006, 1:00am EST
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A state of the nation report has revealed that less than 20 percent of UK organizations surveyed have a strategy in place to deal with the risk of loss or degradation to their digital resources - despite a very high level of awareness of the risks and potential economic penalties.

With the release of the report, Mind the gap: assessing digital preservation needs in the UK, the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) aims to help government, public institutions and private companies turn high awareness into concerted action.

The survey reveals that the loss of digital data is commonplace - some sees it as an inevitable hazard - with more than 70 percent of respondents saying data had been lost in their organization. Awareness of the potential economic and cultural risks is high, with 87 percent recognizing that corporate memory or key cultural material could be lost and some 60 percent saying that their organization could lose out financially. In 52 percent of the organizations surveyed there was management commitment to digital preservation - but only 18 percent had a strategy in place.

Prior to the survey, a number of high profile cases had helped raise awareness of the risks of digital data loss. In a recent judgement in the U.S., Morgan Stanley had more than $1 billion awarded against them as a result of their failure to preserve and hand over some documents required by the courts. The Securities and Exchange Commission in the US are also looking at fining the same bank over $10 million - specifically for failing to preserve email documents.

The data tapes from the 1975 Viking Lander mission to Mars were recently discovered to have deteriorated despite careful storage, and scientists also found that they could not decode the formats used and had to rely on the original paper printouts.

The BBC's 1986 Domesday project is another example of the unique fragility of digital material. Designed to capture a picture of Britain in 1986, the collection of photographs, maps and statistical information was recorded onto 30cm laserdiscs. But less than 20 years on, the laserdiscs and player are obsolete. The date was only rescued thanks to a surviving laserdisc player and more than a year's effort by specialist teams.

According to the DPC-commissioned report, the principal risks to digital material are: the deterioration of the storage medium; obsolescence of hardware, software or storage format; and failure to save crucial document format information (a common example is preserving tables of numbers without preserving an explanation of their meaning).

The report identifies 18 core needs, each of which has recommendations that will address them. Recommendations are addressed to organizations, government and funding bodies. Among the key needs: awareness of digital preservation issues needs to be more commonplace - particularly amongst data creators; organizations need to take stock of their digital materials (55 percent of the respondents to the survey do not know what digital material they hold); and projects need to be funded from the outset with the long-term value of the information produced and the cost of retention taken into account. There needs to be funding for more digital archives

This UK Digital Preservation Needs Assessment study, carried out by the software services company Tessella, looked at digital preservation practice in government bodies, archives, museums, libraries, education, scientific research organizations, pharmaceutical, environmental, nuclear, engineering, publishing and financial institutions.

"Gone are the days when archives were dusty places that could be forgotten until they were needed" said Lynne Brindley, Chair of the Digital Preservation Coalition. "The digital revolution means all of us - organisations and individuals - must regularly review and update resources to ensure they remain accessible. Updating need not be expensive, but the report is a wake-up call to each one of us to ensure proper and continuing attention to our digital records."

Dr Peter Townsend, Commercial Director of Tessella said, "It is critically important that organizations create long-term proactive information management plans, and allocate adequate budget and resource to implementing practical solutions." Dr Robert Sharpe of Tessella added: "Organizations that create large volumes of digital information need to recognize the benefits of retaining long-term information in digital form so that these can be balanced against the costs of active preservation."

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