Digital time capsule hidden in Swiss Alps

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The Planets project has deposited a time capsule containing a record of the ‘Digital Genome’ inside Swiss Fort Knox – a high security digital storage facility hidden deep in the Swiss Alps. The aim of the digital time capsule is to preserve the information and the tools needed to reconstruct highly-valuable data long after the lifeline of supporting technology has disappeared.

The Digital Time Capsule contains five major at -risk formats (JPEGs, JAVA source code, .Mov files, websites using HTML, and PDF documents) and versions of these files stored in archival standard formats - JPEG2000, PDFA, TIFF and MPEG4 – to prolong lifespan for as long as possible. It also contains 2500 additional pieces of data – mapping the genetic code necessary to describe how to access these file formats in future; translations of the required code into multiple languages to improve the chances of being able to interpret them in the future; and copies of all information stored on a complete range of storage media. These media include CD, DVD, USB, Blu-Ray, floppy disc, solid state hard drives, audio tape, microfilm and even paper print outs.

Since 2007 the volume of data produced globally has risen from 281 exabytes to over 700 exabytes and much of this is now considered to be at risk from the repeated discontinuation of storage formats and supporting software.  Current studies suggest that common storage formats such as CDs and DVDs have an average life expectancy of less than 20 years, yet the proprietary file formats to access content often last as little as five to seven years and desktop hardware even less.  Backing up this data is a start, but without the information and tools to access and read historical digital material it is clear huge gaps will open up in our digital heritage.

'Even if you possess the necessary hardware to access a particular storage format and the files haven’t become corrupt, without the supporting software and compatible operating systems, knowing what is on the disc, let alone reading the files in question will be impossible,' said Adam Farquhar, head of digital library technology at the British Library and Planets project coordinator.

Planets is a four-year, €15 million project, co-funded by the European Commission to build and provide access to commercial software to preserve digital content. Members are: the national libraries of Great Britain, Austria, the Netherlands Denmark, the State and University Library of Denmark; the national archives of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland; commercial companies: IBM, Microsoft Research, Tessella and Austrian Institute of Technology and research institutes: the Vienna University of Technology, Glasgow, Freiburg and of Cologne. The Planets time capsule was created by a team of researchers based at the Vienna University of Technology.