08 June, 2009

Keep your data moving

So you’ve got all your business and family records on computer, you store all your email online, all your business documents are in "the cloud", and your family photos are on Flickr. You’ll never lose anything again, right? Wrong.

As any archivist will tell you, the half life of information storage is shrinking all the time, and they despair at the increasing pace of information loss. Messages written in stone lasted for millenia, documents written in natural inks on linen papers lasted for many hundreds of years if stored well; synthetic inks and industrial papers last a century, celluloid films several decades. But it’s the move to electronic media that has really sped up the losses. Not only do these media only last a few years, but also the technology to read them (both electronic and software) rapidly becomes obsolete, unobtainable and unmaintainable. Anyone got any files on floppy discs? Can you do any analysis of your survey records from 20 years ago? Can you even find them, let alone read them? Take optical discs (CDs, DVDs, etc) - the discs get scratched, the surface film (in which the digital pattern is etched) breaks down, the plastic substrate breaks down, and the recording standards change.

For the time being, there is only one working solution - keep your data moving. If you transfer your data to a new medium from time to time, you keep it accessible. That’s easier to do now cloud computing storage is so cheap. Create a document archive for everything online, copy everything into it, and back it up on a second storage service elsewhere regularly (ideally automatically). And from time to time, move everything to the latest current medium. But if you aren’t there to keep your data moving, who will look after it after you’ve gone, in 10 years time, 100, or 1000? Make sure others know where your information is stored (you probably want to share much of it with them anyway) and how to get to it if you’re run over by a bus.

For the archivists, a long-term solution may be on the horizon. Wired magazine reports on a nascent carbon nanotube technology with the potential for data to be stored accurately for a billion years “from now until long after the Earth has been overrun by superintelligent, fusion-powered cyborg ants“.

Carbon nanotubes are molecular-scale tubes usually made of a carbon allotrope. For data storage, a small electrical signal is applied across the nanotube causing the iron nanoparticle shuttle to move back and forth. The movement of the nanoparticles from one end to the other of the tube creates the binary ‘1′ or ‘0′ state.
The position of the shuttle can be read out directly, explain the researchers in a paper published in the current issue of the Nano Letters journal. …The technique has significant potential for archival storage, say the researchers, because the nanoparticle-based bits show significant persistence. It’s also possible to store a lot of data in a small space: With information density predicted to be as high as 1012 bits per square inch, you could store data from nearly 25 DVDs in the space of a postage stamp.

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