Like every other dad with a digital camera, Kai Pommerenke started taking lots of photos after his daughter was born. But the more he researched, the less convinced he became that he could ensure those pictures would still be around when she grew up.
Hard drives crash. CDs and DVDs warp. Companies that store your photos online can go out of business.
Rather than trust his most treasured digital mementoes to technology he saw as all-too-fallible, a team led by the University of California, Santa Cruz economist last month launched a nonprofit group he calls the first online storage service to guarantee your data forever.
“People definitely have a false sense of security,” Pommerenke said. “Digital data is fragile. You have to do something active in order to preserve it.”
The era of the analog photo has ended. Just before New Year’s, the last photo lab in the world to process Kodachrome film stopped taking new rolls. That same weekend, Facebook said its users uploaded 750 million photos.
But as our keepsakes all become encoded in bits and bytes, experts agree with Pommerenke that the risk of losing that data to the digital equivalent of a house fire runs higher than losing a shoebox of old prints to the real thing.
Digital preservationists say that no one can really guarantee that data will be preserved forever. Even for a boutique service like Pommerenke’s that aspires to uphold best practices, computers have not existed long enough to be certain. You do the best you can, the experts say, but check back in 100 years.
And the concern does not stop at photos. Audio, video, text, blogs, status updates — anything kept in a digital format is vulnerable.
Universities and the Library of Congress have spent years investigating the best ways to archive their ever-growing collections of digital data. Pommerenke worries less about preserving important cultural or business information and more about saving the memories of milestones that make up a life.
His service, Chronicle of Life, aims to ease that worry by devoting the same level of care to personal digital files that large institutions give to their own data.
Pommerenke said his service would perform daily, weekly and monthly backups of all data to servers spread across the US and in Ireland. Software checks all data regularly to make sure the files users uploaded have not been corrupted.
If specific file formats such as the now-ubiquitous JPEG format used for digital photos ever become obsolete, Pommerenke promises the service will convert all uploaded files to whatever the new standard has become.
More than any other measure, digital preservationists cite the importance of keeping multiple copies of data in multiple places.
(An initiative led by Stanford University to preserve libraries’ digital data is called LOCKSS: Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe.)
Even then, relying only on your own media such as hard drives, CDs or flash drives have their own pitfalls.
“Time alone is a factor in your data breaking down,” said Bill LeFurgy, who manages digital preservation projects for the Library of Congress. “The lifespan of most physical media is pretty limited.”
Backing up data to an online service can help avoid the issue of media breakdown, but relying on a company to keep files safe carries its own risks.
“They may promise they’re going to do this for a long time, but it’s not assured,” LeFurgy said.
Chronicle of Life claims to overcome this problem by working as a nonprofit. While companies can change their business models at will if they’re not making money, Chronicle of Life by law must commit all the money it raises to its promised mission of preserving data forever, Pommerenke said.
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