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Project Aims To Preserve Data Formats

May 19, 2010

European researchers on Tuesday made their way into a top secret bunker in the Swiss Alps and deposited a “digital genome” that will provide the blueprint for future generations to read data stored using obsolete technology.

The researchers, escorted by husky security guards dressed in black, carried a time capsule through a web of tunnels and five security checkpoints to a vault deep beneath the slopes of ski resort Gstaad.

The capsule contains the key to unlock defunct digital formats and will be locked away for the next 25 years behind a 4-ton door strong enough to hold back a nuclear attack at the data storage bunker, known as the Swiss Fort Knox.

Adam Farquhar, of the British Library, is one of two computer scientists and archivists entrusted with transferring the capsule. He said 50 years from now the most important documents will most likely “be stored digitally and we might not be able to access them all.”

The capsule is part of a four-year “Planets” project, which draws on the expertise of 16 European libraries, archives and institutions to preserve the world’s digital assets as hardware and software become more outdated at an increasing rate.

“The time capsule being deposited inside Swiss Fort Knox contains the digital equivalent of the genetic code of different data formats, a ‘digital genome’,” Farquhar, coordinator of the $18.5 million project, told Reuters.

“I can’t even read my own dissertation anymore except in paper form, because we didn’t have anything like this when I wrote it,” he added.

About 100 gigabytes of data, equivalent to more than 25 tons of books, has already been created for every single individual on the planet, organizers of the project said, adding that the data amounted to over 1 trillion CDs worth of data around the globe.

But as technology has helped people live longer, the lifespan of technology itself gets shorter, meaning the European Union alone loses at least 3.6 billion dollars worth of digital information every year, they said.

Studies suggest that storage formats such as CDs and DVDs only last 20 years, while digital formats have a life expectancy of only five to seven years. Hardware even less.

“Unlike hieroglyphics carved in stone or ink on parchment, digital data has a shelf life of years not millennia,” said Andreas Rauber, a professor at the University of Technology of Vienna, which is a partner in the project.

“Failure to implement adequate digital preservation measures now could cost us billions in the future,” Rauber said, adding that the project had made software available online to allow people to decipher data stored in obsolete formats.

Without supporting software and compatible operating systems, knowing what is on a disc, let alone reading the files will be impossible, Farquhar told Reuters.

The project hopes to preserve “data DNA,” the information and tools to access and read historical digital material, and also prevent digital memory loss into the next century.

“If we can nail the next 100 years, we figure we will be able to nail the next 100 years as well,” Farquhar told Reuters.

People will be puzzled by what they find when they open the time capsule, Rauber said. “In 25 years people will be astonished to see how little time must pass to render data carriers unusable because they break or because you don’t have the devices anymore.”

“The second shock will probably be what fraction of the objects we can’t use or access in 25 years and that’s hard to predict,” he added.

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