Data continuity plan to fight 'digital landfill'

Digital Continuity Action Plan aims to keep data accessible, perhaps for decades

A plan to persuade public sector organisations to put more emphasis on long-term continuity of their data, should benefit from an increasing impetus towards “joined-up thinking” across agencies, says John Roberts, acting group manager of government record-keeping at lead agency Archives NZ.

The Digital Continuity Action Plan, launched earlier this month, aims at ensuring data being created in the public sector (including local government), will still be accessible for as long as it is relevant. For some information of historical relevance this may mean decades.

High-value information should be migrated continually to current media and appropriate pointers kept to it, so the information does not disappear into hard-to-access “digital landfill”, the plan states.

To achieve continuity, there must be effective communication across agencies, among those staff responsible for digital continuity – from policymakers through archivists to technical ICT experts, to bring about “a common understanding of the problem space”, the plan states. Continuity, like security, must not be an afterthought, but built into any system from the first stage of development.

“Robust, cross-agency infrastructure should exist to support interoperability of systems and efficient digital continuity,” it is stated on the plan.

Roberts acknowledges that in a decentralised public service, Archives can’t require agencies to take appropriate steps. “It’s not about forcing them to do it. It’s more about connecting up minds.” There is, however, “a regulatory basis” in the Public Records Act, Roberts says. Section 17 of the Act states: “Every public office must maintain in an accessible form, so as to be able to be used for subsequent reference, all public records that are in its control, until their disposal is authorised by or under this Act or required by or under another Act.”

The goals and actions of the plan are expressed in terms of management practices rather than technical detail, precisely because the available technology will change over the years, Roberts says.

The Minister for Archives New Zealand, Nathan Guy, speaking at the launch function for the Digital Continuity Action Plan, made the point by brandishing a 1980s-style eight-inch floppy disk, followed by the 5.25-inch model that succeeded it, a 3.5-inch disk and finally an example of “these amazing memory sticks”.

Similar revolutionary enhancements can be expected in reading and writing devices, along with the business and software thinking behind data organisation and access, Roberts says.

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