Tuesday, 11 November 2008

NASA and the 1973 Corolla fan belt

Important lesson in data continuity here. Even though you have the data available it's no use unless you can read it, as the report in yesterday's Australian showed.

With rewritable magnetic media you need to keep on transferring the physical data, the 1's and 0's, to new media otherwise you risk losing access to the data.

To ram the point home consider the Amstrad PCW8256 - absurdly popular among research students in the late 80's. Cheap, good, and got wordprocessing out among the masses. But it had a couple of drawbacks

  • It used a very nonstandard 3 inch disk format
  • Its own word processor was not particularly compatible with anything else though third party export software did appear in time
At the time I was was looking after data and format conversion for the university I worked at, and we realised it would be a problem down the track, so we went through the process of encouraging people to do their work using a third party word processor that wrote wordstar compatible files, and providing facilities to transfer data off the disks onto other media with greater longevity.

Some did, some didn't. Which probably means that there's piles of documents, including drafts of papers, out there that are totally inaccessible. And it's not just Amstrad. Vax WPS+ or Claris Works on the Mac Classic are just as much a problem - dependent on having suitable hardware if you only have the media.

Of course if you have 1's and 0's you then have a different set of problems around your ability to parse the file and the lossyness of any conversion process ...

And this can be a real problem in a lot of the humanities - when I worked in the UK I kept coming across working on things like tudor church records that had kept on using old computers and old software for transcription as they were doing it as something in addition to their day job, or because they were wildly underfunded, or whatever, but which basically mean that their data was inaccessible the moment they created it, and that getting the data off these elderly systems an onto something more sustainable was a major challenge ...

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