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Lunchtime lecture: Bringing ghost data back from the dead

How do we protect the corporate memory within an organisation? How do we turn hindsight into foresight? What corporate knowledge gap has been created as a result of digitisation? How can we prevent this happening again? And do we really understand the scale and impact of this issue?

These questions formed a lecture and discussion on Friday afternoon last week at the Open Data Institute for their Friday lunchtime lecture series #ODIFridays. Today’s session – Bringing Ghost Data back from the Dead. The lecture was given to us by Michael Weatherburn of Imperial College, who also works as a consultant with clients to unlock and optimise high-value corporate knowledge.

It’s hard to argue that we don’t live in an increasingly digital world but it is worth remembering that most organisations started digitising back in 2005, so many of them don’t know what they were doing beyond 10 years ago. If you think that 2005 wasn’t that long ago to put it into context, this time 12 years ago George W Bush and Tony Blair were in power, London was awarded the Olympic Games, YouTube was founded, the annoying, yet incredibly catchy Crazy Frog spent four weeks at number 1 in the charts, President Donald Trump married his current wife Melania and I was in Year 9 at secondary school…

Considering the changes we have experienced since then it might not come as a shock to think that the technology used to digitise back then isn’t as useful as it once was. Michael made an excellent point that technology has changed so much since that there has been a degradation of data which has led to real problems. Such as, CDs are no longer widely used and only have a lifespan of 10 years roughly, PDFs and other programmes are updating so frequently that older files can’t be accessed. More needs to be done to preserve this data for the corporate memory. And what about that information from 15, 20, 30 years plus- where is that? This leads to data incompleteness. And how do we access it when so many people are only taught how to research using digital and online methods?

One particular quote from Friday which stuck with me was “If it’s not on the internet it doesn’t exist”. Whilst not strictly true, how many of us can honestly say we would know where else to look and if we did, would we really bother? Thinking about the difficulty this can cause organisations looking for data pre-2005 is very interesting. This is where the importance of paper records comes in and access to pre-digital records from the British Library and Bodleian Library and the importance of archivists, records managers, librarians and knowledge professionals in preserving data, making it accessible and helping to avoid a knowledge gap.

During an equally fascinating questions section, the conversation covered legislation, data protection, open data formats, XML and the importance of keeping some paper records- or as someone pointed out carving it in stone like the Egyptians- still the most effective way to preserve information.

The #ODIFridays lecture gave me so much to think about that I’m in danger of writing an essay rather than a blog post… but don’t take my word for it, the seminar was live-streamed on twitter and can be found here: http://theodi.org/lunchtime-lectures/friday-lunchtime-lecture-bringing-ghost-data-back-from-the-dead

As we were talking about #makingdatagreatagain (hat-tip to Michael for an outstanding opening line!) on the walk back to the office, something that came to mind was the preservation of social media and the digital history of the Obama administration. How timely that this piece was tweeted  by The White House, providing a really nice insight into how we might start preserving data like this: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2017/01/05/new-lenses-first-social-media-presidency .

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