T.E.D videos and digital archiving

A recent post by David Pogue points to a fascinating set of videos that are as interesting as they are thought provoking, covering a broad range of issues and featuring some of the best known thinkers, politicians and writers of today.

The videos are from the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, which cost more than US$4,000 to attend in person. That through the web resources and ideas hirtherto enjoyed only by a few to date is now open to a much larger audience is proof of the web’s potential as a vehicle for the democratic diffusion of knowledge.

David mentions in his post that the videos of the TED conference are available in “every conceivable format”. This is an interesting point, as it highlights a common assumption that the digital media and digital file formats we use today are those that will be in use 5, 10, 20 years hence.

I think not.Which brings us to a central challenge of ICT4Peace in particular, but also of digital archiving in general – how do we ensure that the knowledge we increasingly capture digitally is stored, without data loss, for posterity?

Given the perishable nature of the file formats and storage media we have today, and the inability, to date, to fashion a digital technology as long lasting under adverse conditions as parchment or manuscript papers, this is a very real problem that many leading libraries around the world are grappling with.

On the one hand, there is the problem of exchanging knowledge between diverse systems. As the work of Paul Currion shows, discussions in related fields such as humanitarian systems design show us that data storage and exchange between various systems is a pressing issue. Even the field of Online Dispute Resolution has engendered discussions on a common format for information exchange.

On the other hand, there is the problem of data integrity. ICT4Peace systems need to capture and store information for decades, if not centuries, with zero data loss. Entire histories of peoples and nations, coupled with irreplaceable discussions at peace negotiations and the historical record of public voices in a peace process are digitized knowledge that form the foundations of social contracts. However, given the high failure rate of existing digital storage techniques, when measured in decades or centuries, results in the understandable resistance to the greater adoption of technology for peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

While projects such as Dropping Knowledge, or initiatives that like TED, seek to transform private events into public knowledge must, at some point, grapple with the fact that the manner in which they make available the content may need to radically change to accommodate new ways of content access, storage and dissemination.

The printed word needs no electricity to be readable. Humidity, dust, floods, fire and general acts of vandalism such as the etching of one’s initial’s on pages aside, the printed word is still the most reliable, energy efficient long term storage solution we have today. No such technology exists for video and audio.

This said, projects such as digitalpermanence are useful in this regard.

digitalpermanence is a McGill University Archives initiative, promoting the collaborative, strategic, long-term management and preservation of McGill University’s electronic records.

Records–in all formats–support McGill’s ability to pursue its mission, demonstrate accountability, defend its interests, and maintain institutional memory. The increased reliance on electronic media for essential administrative record-keeping provides unprecedented opportunities for rapid response, collaboration, and sharing of corporate data. With these benefits come the challenges of strategically managing and preserving the resulting volume of digital records. How can we ensure McGill’s digital legacy is not vulnerable to quick deletion, media instability, and software/hardware obsolescence?

Responding to these challenges requires the cooperation of records creators, archivists, and information technologists. digitalpermanence is a McGill University Archives (MUA) initiative launched in December 2003 to promote the collaborative, strategic, long-term management and preservation of McGill University’s electronic records.

Initiatives such as this go beyond open standards based information exchange frameworks and information management.

The long term success of ICT4Peace in particular is pegged to the integrity of knowledge capture and management systems. Information and knowledge, in a peace processes, are assets sometimes more valuable than the lives of any one single individual in the process. While sophisticated negotiations systems are envisaged in future projects such as Peace Tools, as yet, there is a dearth of interest in the design of technologies for long term archival of mission critical information in a peace process – future proof data-centres in other words, that continuously update storage media and formats to ensure that what is captured today is as easily accessible 25 years hence as it is for users today.

As a paper titled Digital archiving, knowledge management and the persistence of digital data: managing access to digital resources as technologies change points out:

It is essential that the issue of long term access be addressed at the point of creation of the digital resource. Changing technologies, hardware and software will continue to present problems for long term access unless appropriate procedures are put in place to ensure that essential digital resources are preserved and continued access assured. The methods suggested to date: archiving the technology, migration of data, and emulation, all present problems of cost, practicality and loss of data. Today, our ability to store information is unparalleled. The wealth these stores contain is essential to our economic and social wellbeing. This wealth is of little use, however, if we lose the key.

There is no need to re-invent the wheel – ICT4Peace can use existing standards, such as those which respected digital archive agencies such as U.S. National Archives and Records Administration use.

The call here is for ICT4Peace to explore, with far emphasis than displayed to date, ways through which the digitization of our knowledge is accesible by future generations, to whom the most sophisticated digital media creation, storage and dissemination systems in use today are, inevitably, going to look as ancient as the Sinclair ZX-81 (my first computer!) does to us today.

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