How Do You 'Future Proof' Your Data?

Jerome P. McDonough, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, is concerned about data. Your data, the government's data, the world's data: he is so concerned about it that he and other information specialists can see a potential digital dark age where data from the present isn't being transferred to new media as quickly as it is being lost.

Magnetic tape, which stores most of the world's computer backups, can degrade within a decade. According to the National Archives Web site by the mid-1970s, only two machines could read the data from the 1960 U.S. Census: One was in Japan, the other in the Smithsonian Institution. Some of the data collected from NASA's 1976 Viking landing on Mars is unreadable and lost forever.

While not many of you are using magnetic tape as part of your daily data manipulation routines, the point is well taken. Media is not immortal and methods change. While helping clear out my technophile grandfather's estate I found numerous examples of extremely outdated media tucked away here and there. It was difficult to procure the proper devices let alone modern drivers and software to peek into his old media. What strategies do you have to address future proofing your data? It's certainly a more in depth topic than simply backing data up, but worthy of consideration given how much of our lives have been digitised. Photo by wonderferret.


    i think the trick is to not rely on a single medium, and try to migrate as soon as it is practical. i like to have a copy in the cloud, as this not only provides an off-site backup, but also then puts the responsibility on the service to maintain the method of storage.

    With the current explosion in cheap hard drives, at the moment the strategy just seems to be having a few copies on a few hard drives (formatted with a well documented file system), and if you are really concerned, storing some of them off site. But a large part of the problem is people not moving stuff off old media, and the only answer really is just keeping on top of it. Using proprietary media (eg. ZIP disks, or wacky USB drives that don't work with standard mass storage drivers) is a really obvious way to go wrong.

    Another problem which hasn't been mentioned here is whether data can be understood later. Some data has already been lost becuase it was in a proprietary undocumented format and the only program that can read it is unobtainable or can't run on any current systems. MS office documents are probably the main concern of that nature looking forward, and using any type of DRM format is just asking to lose it. Once again, the answer is pretty much just being careful and doing a bit of research. Keep on converting data to later formats, or just use simpler, non-binary ones in the first place if the data may be needed past the near future.

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