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Public data and proprietary systems…

by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander on March 20th, 02007

There is a good story in today’s Herald Tribune on how costly digital loss can be:

“JUNEAU, Alaska: Perhaps you know that sinking feeling when a single keystroke accidentally destroys hours of work. Now imagine wiping out a disk drive containing information for an account worth $38 billion (€29 billion).
That is what happened to a computer technician reformatting a disk drive at the Alaska Department of Revenue. While doing routine maintenance work, the technician accidentally deleted applicant information for an oil-funded account — one of Alaska residents’ biggest perks — and mistakenly reformatted the backup drive, as well.
There was still hope, until the department discovered its third line of defense, backup tapes, were unreadable.” -AP

This whole article brings up an interesting issue however. How should we store our public data as a civilization?
Some of the details of this article made my antenna perk up… (starting with the fact that the qualified 800,000 Alaskan residents are getting $38 billion dollars). But it is quotes like this one;

“Over the next few days, as the department, the division and consultants from Microsoft Corp. and Dell Inc. labored to retrieve the data,…”

That really bring up another interesting point of where we are entrusting our public data. Data like tax records, property documents, census, birth, death and marriage announcements are being stored all over the country at city, county, state, and federal levels on proprietary systems. In other words we have public data who’s future is resting entirely on the hope that companies like Microsoft will both stay in business, but also make all their software backwards compatable — forever.

We are also seeing some governments, like Venezuela,  really understanding this issue before the rest of the world. It will be interesting when the future tries to look back on this time, our early digital history, only to find a bunch degraded mag tapes with proprietary file formats. They will likely know more about ancient Egypt than us.