Jul 5, 2007

Warning of data ticking time bomb

Source: BBC News

The growing problem of accessing old digital file formats is a “ticking time bomb”, the chief executive of the UK National Archives has warned.

Natalie Ceeney said society faced the possibility of “losing years of critical knowledge” because modern PCs could not always open old file formats.

She was speaking at the launch of a partnership with Microsoft to ensure the Archives could read old formats.

Microsoft’s UK head Gordon Frazer warned of a looming “digital dark age”.

Costly deal

He added: “Unless more work is done to ensure legacy file formats can be read and edited in the future, we face a digital dark hole.”

Research by the British Library suggests Europe loses 3bn euros each year in business value because of issues around digital preservation.

The National Archives, which holds 900 years of written material, has more than 580 terabytes of data – the equivalent of 580,000 encyclopaedias – in older file formats that are no longer commercially available.

Ms Ceeney said: “If you put paper on shelves, it’s pretty certain it is going to be there in a hundred years.

“If you stored something on a floppy disc just three or four years ago, you’d have a hard time finding a modern computer capable of opening it.”

“Digital information is in fact inherently far more ephemeral than paper,” warned Ms Ceeney.

She added: “The pace of software and hardware developments means we are living in the world of a ticking time bomb when it comes to digital preservation.

“We cannot afford to let digital assets being created today disappear. We need to make information created in the digital age to be as resilient as paper.”

But Ms Ceeney said some digital documents held by the National Archives had already been lost forever because the programs which could read them no longer existed.

“We are starting to find an awful lot of cases of what has been lost. What we have got to make sure is that it doesn’t get any worse.”

The root cause of the problem is the range of proprietorial file formats which proliferated during the early digital revolution.

Technology companies, such as Microsoft, used file formats which were not only incompatible with pieces of software from rival firms, but also between different iterations of the same program.

Mr Frazer said Microsoft had shifted its position on file formats.

“Historically within the IT industry, the prevailing trend was for proprietary file formats. We have worked very hard to embrace open standards, specifically in the area of file formats.”

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