Meeting the digital challenge – keeping your personal digital records for the long term September 10, 2013

On 30 August State Records held another very successful Open Day at our Western Sydney Records Centre.

In amongst all the fantastic talks, tours, treasures and trucks, Government Recordkeeping staff gave advice on some of the real world challenges that today’s digital business environment creates for good recordkeeping.

We looked at what State Records is doing to help government agencies address these challenges, and highlighted how this advice could also be used to safeguard personal records at home .

Here is what we said.

Records are being created today that are fundamental for government business operations, now and long into the future.

So what is State Records doing to safeguard today’s records for tomorrow?

The answer is, a lot!

The State Records Act says that NSW Government organisations must:

  • make and keep full and accurate records
  • look after their records
  • ensure that their technology dependent records remain accessible
  • only destroy records if State Records says they can
  • transfer to State Records those records that we identify as State archives.

Therefore the legislative framework is strong for ensuring that NSW Government organisations:

  • make and keep good records and
  • transfer to State Records those records that will be the archives of the future.

But problems arise because the challenge of making and keeping records in today’s digital business environment is actually very significant.

Today we will look at some of the real world challenges that the digital business environment creates for good recordkeeping.

We’ll then look at what State Records is doing to help government agencies address these challenges, and look at how you might be able to apply this advice in your own lives.

So what are some of these challenges?


Challenge 1: There are a lot of records out there…

We hear phrases like ‘big data’ and ‘information abundance’ all the time. So what does ‘information abundance’ mean for the archives?

It means there is an awful lot of  information out there, more than we or anyone else can actually manage. Information volumes across the world are growing at 57% per year. By 2020 it is anticipated across the world we will create 35 zettabytes worth of data. One zettabyte is equivalent to the content of 260,000,000,000 DVDs.

In spite of this, the myth continues to exist that digital storage is cheap but increasingly we have to face the fact that it is not. For example, digital preservationist David Rosenthal has calculated that to maintain all the data that the world will create in 2018 will cost 100% of Gross World Product.

We are all, business and government included, currently living in a data bubble. We are making and keeping too much information . We cannot afford to keep everything. All of us need to throw more information away. It may sound strange to hear an archive saying, ‘Throw it away!’ but that is actually one of the messages we are emphasising to government at the moment.

We cannot save everything forever, so we need to be incredibly proactive and strategic and design ways to keep what we need to keep, and to appropriately destroy the information we no longer require.

So the Government Recordkeeping team does a tremendous amount of work – in partnership with agencies – to identify the core, long term value information across all government organisations, and to ensure this information is protected and maintained so that it will be available as core business information today and as the archival record of the future.

What lessons can we learn for this to apply to personal recordkeeping?

  • It will be very challenging to try and keep all your digital information – all your emails, photos, tweets, blog posts, instant messages etc etc. Firstly you will have the cost of storing all this information, and then the costs of migrating and maintaining it through time. Year on year these costs will grow. So, prioritise.
  • Do you have to keep everything? What is of most value? What will contribute the most meaning to your family and community in the longer term? Be proactive with your identification of your core records. Don’t leave a huge digital legacy for you or your children to sift through.  The chances are you will never get time and your family never will either. Folders will just be deleted and precious family information will be lost. Be strategic and prioritise now.


Challenge 2: Make recordkeeping a priority

Many organisations that are not aware of the long term needs they have for their business information. They are also often not aware of the implications of the technical and management decisions they are making about their information, and how these decisions can limit the long term accessibility of their records.

For example, in some business environments, short term deadlines define many project requirements. Sometimes important records about projects, constructions or programs are not seen as having longer term use, when in fact they do, and so adequate arrangements for their ongoing retention after the project ends are not made.

In other scenarios, business units don’t think about how to repatriate long term value data back into corporate systems from cloud environments or external service providers, or organisations apply uniform data purge rules to both short and long term value information in their email or cloud systems.

In other situations, information that is a year or two old and of long term business value can be abandoned to back up tapes, orphaned systems, legacy network drives, USB sticks or superseded databases where no one will ever be able to understand what its true value is.

So at State Records we really try to help with this. We develop records management standards, guidance and case studies to help agencies understand what records need to be kept and why. We help agencies to implement strategies for managing their key records and keeping them accessible for as long we they need them. We provide advice via our website and blog, we constantly meet with all kinds of different agency personnel to talk about recordkeeping and we have host many regular information forums to share knowledge, experience and advice across the sector.

In all our regular meetings with business managers, ICT staff or information management professionals we emphasise that in the digital environment, records really do need proactive identification, care and management from the moment of their creation to ensure that they are going to be around for as long as business needs to use them.

In the digital business environment of today, we can’t rely on a nice set of legacy records sitting and waiting for us to sift through them in 5 or 10 or 20 years time. Business systems and frameworks need to be proactively designed to support good recordkeeping. If recordkeeping isn’t actively supported, it will be very hard for digital records to survive so it is critical to be proactive.

Lessons to learn from this at home include:

  • Make recordkeeping a priority!
  • Keep your records in well titled, well organised collections
  • Make sure all your records have accurate date information
  • Always have clear and understandable titles, particularly for your photos and emails
  • Realise that even little things can be tremendously important, such as how an email or a document is titled. If digital records do not have meaningful titles thenthey could be difficult to find it in 5, 10 or 100 years time.
  • Think about what you want to keep long term, and then plan for how you are going to keep it


 Challenge 3: Technical change is a constant

We all need to understand that we cannot rely on any of the systems we are using today to keep our records for any more than a few years.

In business, system lifespans are down to 12 months to 5 years. Today, a large proportion of the information created will need to outlive the system it was created in.

But this can be problematic. For example, a number of apps, wikis or software tools either do not allow you to export your information out of them, or they make it complex or costly for you to do so.

Some proprietary software packages and devices seek commercial advantage by ensuring their business tool is not interoperable with a competitor’s packages and devices.

How business is performed is also changing all the time. For example, today lots of important government business is conducted via social media.  Government can’t rely on Twitter or Facebook to keep the business they are performing via these channels accessible for the 20 years that the business might need this information. So if a government tweet or update is important, government agencies need to proactively choose strategies that enable them to make a record of it.

Lessons to learn at home from all of this:

  • make sure any app, wiki or tool you use allows you to export your information out of it and in a format that you can actually use
  • do not rely on external storage (have example of floppy disk, video tape and USB). These devices age incredibly quickly (you will be hard pressed finding a device that can accept let alone read a floppy disk or video tape today) and when they do the information on them can be completely lost. Digital information takes active management. If it’s important, don’t just leave it on an external device. There is also no capacity to label a USB, so with new devices there is no capacity to flag that they contain valuable information so don’t trust important data to these devices long term.
  • Back up systems are not recordkeeping systems. Backup is vitally important for ensuring you have copies of your information if your system crashes or your device is stolen. But your back up will run on a certain version of software and will be enabled for a certain version of hardware. This is perfect for the scenario where your system crashes or device disappears – your information can easily be brought back to life on your existing technology. So backups serve immediate purposes but they are not long term recordkeeping tools. If you want to keep certain information for long periods of time, don’t trust it to back up tapes or systems. These will often be linked to specific forms of software and hardware. If you change your software and/or hardware, your older backups are likely to become inaccessible. The solution is to not trust your long term valuable information only to back up tapes but to carry your information through your system changes. Migrate your information into your new systems, software and devices and keep it accessible in your new operating environment. And back it up there too!
  • Look at how you could use some of the recordkeeping strategies that government is using for social media

In conclusion, information management today is fundamentally about taking the initiative.

Virtually all business information today is in the digital domain. It will not survive unless we proactively take steps to make it last.

At State Records we are doing a lot to help government to make sure it has the digital business information it needs, and the digital archives you will need, now and into the future. We hope you can use some of the advice we give to NSW government to help you with your digital recordkeeping at home.

And then to finish up we handed out a flyer, Open day recordkeeping handout: Meeting the digital challenge, outlining ten strategies for managing your personal digital information.

Thanks so much to all those who attended! We hope you enjoyed this fantastic day as much as the staff of State Records did.

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