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An Archiving Problem: Can You Read Your Digital Data after 100 Years?

Ramachndran Narayana Swamy
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Ramachndran Narayana Swamy
In the last twenty years, IT has taken over the lives of common citizenry in most countries. Today, most of our banking transactions are through ATMs, most of our travel and hotel booking is done online, purchases are through Amazon or eBay, movie rentals done online, yada, yada. The concept of e-governance has taken off and even land records in remote corners of Andhra Pradesh have now been digitized. This has given rise to a unique and grave issue.

Consider this. Around two years ago, we had to sell off an ancestral property owned by my grandfather (born 1897). The local authorities insisted that we produce the original birth certificate for completing the formalities. After a struggle (quite a hard one), the local tahsildar could get us the birth certificate that was ultimately accepted by the authorities, to the great relief of us all.

Contrast this with a 'document' that you created 20 years ago and stored it away. It would have been probably stored on an 8" diskette (outmoded now and not to be seen on today's computers) in a Double Sided Double Density Format (not readable now), using a MS-DOS 6.0 operating system file format (not understandable now), and using WordStar 2.0 (not traceable now). If this is what has happened in just 20 years, imagine the likely complexity of the problem another 80 years from now. And considering e-governance where all 'legal' records need to be retrievable after considerable durations of time, the problem is humongous.

This paper attempts to articulate the different issues around this and provides some starting points to the solutions.

The 100-year archive problem has two dimensions – Data corruption and readability. Data corruption corresponds to the problem of having moths eat up all your papers. The physical media in which the information is stored is corrupted due to natural causes – weather, demagnetization, whatever. We do not intend to address this issue here.

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