Covid-19 and the importance of digital preservation

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A crisis requires rapid decision-making, and keeping record of these decisions becomes more important, says William Kilbride

Digital preservation is not going to do itself and it’s not going to go away, especially in light of the global pandemic. We need to act quickly to make sure that digital materials will be available for the long term.

When the UK went into lockdown, everyone pivoted to digital in the space of two weeks. Teaching, learning and research are now taking place online and informal collaboration and video conference tools such as Zoom, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams have become the platforms where key, history-making decisions take place. 

This raises the question: How do we preserve these more informal platforms and are we keeping record of these primary historic materials in times of crisis?

Rapid decisions

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted companies, universities, local authorities, non-departmental public bodies and quangos to rapidly make lots of decisions, affecting the health, income and wellbeing of billions of people around the world. 

Think about the hourly WhatsApp messages from Downing Street and what they mean in terms of a process of decision-making. All of that has to be accountable as it is subject to the Public Records Act. 

Routes out of lockdown

Digital preservation will also play a key role in shaping a route out of the current health crisis. To get out of this pandemic we need a vaccine that works and is trusted. The research that goes into finding a vaccine needs to be reproducible quickly and we need to have lots of eyes on it. 

In this post-truth era, it is crucial that this process is well documented and authenticated as its produced because the last thing we need is anti-vaxxers disrupting the implementation of a cure. Preserving this research information can then be subject to the most robust scientific scrutiny, because there's going to be all sorts of people who will try and find fault with it. Dependable, reliable, authentic data is essential to demonstrate that the creation of a vaccine isn't a hoax.

Preservation needs continuous assessment

What the global search for a vaccine also demonstrates is that the volume, complexity and importance of data is growing. For instance, when we look back on the history of the webpage, we see that web archiving has evolved tremendously. In the 90s, HTML code was embedded to write and design pages. 

Preserving this data involved making a copy of the code and storing it somewhere safe. But more recently, the internet has evolved into a complex entity with all sorts of personalisation and audio and video files.

Skills will drive innovation

The sector is in great need of researchers with better digital skills. Technological solutions have developed faster than the skills and policy development in the community. I believe that we need to prioritise the human element. Once we have that in place it will reveal the weaknesses of the technology and opportunities within the data that we are not currently fully exploiting.

Best practice by design 

Another element that needs addressing is the way we look at keeping record. Preservation is a global ubiquitous challenge and instead of trying to solve the question of obsolesce at the end of a data lifecycle we should be looking to move preservation upstream. It would be much better to build in preservation at the point of creation or when it comes out of the machine. 

We are currently talking to archivists and librarians, but we will need to engage the people upstream who design and imagine digital infrastructures to integrate preservation at the outset. Software and healthcare organisations will need to talk to IT companies to solve this design flaw and will need to take responsibility for their data in a different way. 

We see companies and institutions spending more time looking at the depreciation of their furniture than looking at the value of their data. If data is indeed a valuable commodity, we ought to include it on the balance sheet and get the auditors to assess it. Data has become incredibly valuable but currently it only appears on balance sheets as a liability – not an asset. 

William Kilbride is chair of the Digital Preservation Coalition