Digital Awareness Month at State Records – more food for thought December 5, 2012

Week 2 of DAM2012 started with a challenging and inspiring presentation by Kate Cumming on the issues that are threatening our ability to maintain an archival record of contemporary society. In this presentation, first delivered at the ICA Congress in Brisbane, Kate described some of the threats to archives in current recordkeeping environments. After making her audience feel somewhat depressed about the current situation, Kate concluded on a positive note by suggesting some strategies for ensuring an ongoing archival record of society.

The following Monday saw the publication of the second newsletter for DAM2012. This newsletter looked at appraisal in a digital environment and the application of digital forensics methods to archival processes. To find out what State Records employees were reading about during DAM2012, read on!

Appraisal in a digital environment

State Records, like other archives authorities in Australia, has a well established process for appraising the value of records created and kept by government agencies and identifying those which will be retained as State archives. Records are selected for retention as State archives based on the appraisal criteria outlined in Building the archives: policy on records appraisal and the identification of State archives. Appraisal decisions are presented in retention and disposal authorities, which agencies may use to sentence their records.

There are some characteristics of this approach which may make it less suited to appraising digital records:

  • Agencies are encouraged to sentence their records on creation. This recognises that decisions about value need to be made as early in the life of digital records as possible to maximise the chances of their survival – if identified at creation, records of long-term value can be preserved. Some records, however, cannot be sentenced on creation if a decision about their long-term value and whether or not they will be retained as State archives depends on factors which may not be apparent for some time (e.g. whether they document ‘significant’ cases).
  • The vast quantities of digital records created and kept by agencies may make it impossible to assess archival value at the level of individual records or folders/files.

A recent case in the UK illustrates the importance of identifying information of value as early in the life of the information as possible so that it may be migrated to new formats and remain accessible.

A man has been asked to pay £2,000 by a hospital trust to access his medical records from eight years ago. The man requested a copy of a cardiac ultrasound he had in 2004, but was advised that the data was recorded in an obsolete format. The hospital no longer has the equipment required to generate an image from the data.

Appraising scientific data

An alternative to basing appraisal decisions on an assessment of the value of the information contained in the records is to look at the quality of the information and the robustness of the records. The US National Research Council proposed a set of high-level criteria for selecting scientific data for preservation which assess these factors:

  • Is the data unique, or do other copies of the data exist somewhere else? If other authenticated copies of the data exist in an accessible, secure repository and are adequately backed up, the data set need not necessarily be retained.
  • Does the data have sufficient metadata to enable another scientist in the discipline to understand and use it? If documentation is lacking or is so poor that a data set is not likely to be of value to scientists with an interest in the data or is more likely to mislead than inform, there may be little value in retaining the data set.
  • Does the hardware necessary to access the data still exist? Or is the data kept in a form that is machine independent? Decisions on whether to keep data that relies on obsolete or inoperable hardware should consider the feasibility of building or acquiring the necessary hardware.
  • Is it possible to recreate the data and, if so, how much would it cost and is that cost acceptable?
  • Has the data undergone a formal peer review to assess its integrity and completeness, or has the data been used in publications in peer‐reviewed journals?

In a recent blog post, the Museum of London’s Digital Curator, Hilary Young, examines some of the challenges in selecting and preserving digital objects. Considering how ubiquitous and mundane the majority of digital experiences are, how do we choose which experiences to preserve? What impact will the behaviours of the ‘YouTube generation’ in creating, uploading and sharing digital content online have on a museum’s authority? And how do we preserve something that does not become active or even exist until it is used?

To highlight these challenges, Young looks at the Sukey app which is designed to keep demonstrators ‘safe, mobile and informed’ by using crowdsourced data from Twitter, SMS and geotagged photos in Flickr or Twitpic to aggregate reliable information. Sukey was used by demonstrators to avoid police kettles during the UK student protests in 2011, and would be of value to social history researchers in the future. But what is the actual object to be collected and preserved? Is it the app itself, the code, the individual Tweets or the concept? And what about the social interaction that user-generated content creates? What is of more value to a social history museum? The app that has been developed in response a 21st century phenomenon or the data that flows through it reflecting users’ experiences?

‘Archival silences’

Digitising records and making them available online is a powerful way of providing access to archives. It makes sense to expend resources on digitising those records which are popular and easy to use. But what impact will this have on the diversity of sources used by researchers, and by extension on the diversity of experiences and perspectives forming part of a society’s formal history?

In a recent blog post Tim Hitchcock, a professor of 18th century history in England, has voiced his concerns about issues of selectivity and bias in making decisions about which materials from archives, special collections and research libraries to digitise and make available online:

We all know just how transformative the digitisation of the inherited print archive has been. But it is one of the great ironies of the minute that the most revolutionary technical change in the history of the human ordering of information since writing has resulted in a markedly conservative and indeed reactionary model of human culture. The most common sort of historical web resource is dedicated to posting the musings of some elite, dead, white, western male – some scientist, or man of letters; or more unusually, some equally elite, dead, white woman of letters.

Tea room discussion points

  • Much of the business of government is now transacted in business systems (e.g. customer relationship management systems, financial management systems, case management systems etc.) How can we identify the ‘records’ of archival value in these systems?
  • Agencies will need to decide which data to migrate into accessible formats and which data to ‘leave behind’. Should agencies keep data if they are unprepared to migrate the data into formats which can be read?
  • State Records’ digitisation program provides online access to particular archives. But what about the archives which are not popular enough to warrant digitisation – will their absence from the web mean that they are seldom (never?) consulted by researchers?

Digital forensics methods + archives

Archives have started using digital forensics methods to appraise, process and accession records. Some of the software tools come from the realm of legal forensics, where establishing a chain of custody and recovering maliciously destroyed or intentionally deleted files are among the key goals.

At the recent ICA Congress in Brisbane, Christopher A Lee delivered a paper on the development and application of digital forensics tools to improve the acquisition, management and access functions of archives. When archivists acquire born-digital records they must extract the records in ways that reflect the rich metadata associated with the records and ensure the records’ integrity. Archivists must also allow users to make sense of records and understand their context while preventing inadvertent disclosure of sensitive information.

Lee described some methods and strategies from the field of digital forensics which can aid this work. For example, digital forensics techniques can be used to:

  • extract underlying data that is hidden by the filesystem which may contain valuable contextual information
  • identify records outside of formal digital recordkeeping systems
  • prevent the alteration or overwriting of data, including essential metadata such as timestamps, during the process of copying.

Have you have seen the recent film Argo? If so, you may remember the scenes in which children reconstructed the shredded records found in the US embassy building in Tehran by hand!

More than 30 years later, archivists at the Stasi archives in Germany are using pattern recognition computer technology to piece together the shredded documents of the former East German secret police. The E-puzzler is basically a shredding machine in reverse: torn-up documents are scanned into it, and it matches up the pieces using colour, paper texture, fonts, tear lines and other details.

What would you do?

The use of mobile and smart devices has increased significantly over recent years. New statistics from Gartner project that 821 million smart phones and tablets will be purchased globally in 2012, and the number is expected to top one billion in 2013.

When used within workplaces, research shows that the use of mobile and smart devices significantly improves the responsiveness and productivity of employees. However, the use of these devices has the potential to pose the same, if not greater, risks to public records as traditional mobile devices such as laptops.

For a chance to win much honour and glory among your fellow Future Proof readers, can you describe in 50 words or less one of the recordkeeping challenges of the BYOD trend?* Post your suggestion as a comment below.

*Hint: A draft guideline on the recordkeeping implications of mobile and smart devices published by Queensland State Archives includes a section on the recordkeeping challenges posed by the use of mobile and smart devices.

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