The world’s most at-risk digital materials identified

Thursday 30 November 2017

A ‘Bit List’ of the world’s endangered digital species has been unveiled for the first time today (30 November) as part of an international campaign to raise awareness of the need to preserve digital materials.

Co-ordinated and published by the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC), the Bit List draws parallels with the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and identifies a number of data, software and storage types which, if appropriate action is not taken, could become ‘practically extinct.’

‘We have previously been concerned with technological obsolescence or ‘media’ rot, but that concern has been replaced by one related to human risk,’ says Jane Winters, professor of digital humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and chair of the international panel of judges who evaluated the Bit List before its publication. ‘Technological obsolescence is still a challenge, but we know what is possible and how to address it now; what is more of a problem is human behaviour. We all need to need to take responsibility for preservation.’

DPC’s executive director Dr William Kilbride explains that Teletext and the BBC’s Ceefax are an example of digital material which is now practically extinct and cannot be accessed by any practical means. He says that ‘While this might not be seen as critical information, and the service has been replaced by a modern equivalent, it matters for two reasons. Our libraries and archives have good collections of printed newspapers: but for the late 70s, 80s and 1990s there’s a gap relating to this genre of online news. That’s a concern for historians and journalists. But more importantly, it demonstrates the trend to data loss, even for popular and well-funded services. That matters to us all.’

Another example on the list is digital photos. More than 2 billion people worldwide use smartphones, and will take hundreds and thousands of digital photos per year, sharing them on social media with friends and family. There is currently no in-built mechanism for these photos to be archived at the point of creation and accessed in the long term. The DPC is calling for us all to demand more from the vendors and platforms which facilitate data creation and sharing.

‘Not everything on the Bit List will interest everyone equally,’ adds Dr Kilbride, ‘but everyone will find something on the list which resonates with them, so digital preservation matters to us all. By the same token, not everything needs to be kept: quite the contrary.  But we need to make informed decisions about what to keep, and develop coherent strategies to protect them.  This is much more than simply a question of technology.’

One suggestion on the Bit List, which is likely to mean something to a large number of people, is politically sensitive information. The DPC received an overwhelming number of nominations in this category ranging from US environmental data where the recent U-turn by the current administration on policy relating to access to and openness of this data has caused concern, through to online records of promises made by the UK government in the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland and by '' during the UK/EU referendum in 2016; both of which are at risk of loss, but tell an important story about our political history.

Chair of the DPC Laura Mitchell observes that ‘We have been warning about the need for digital preservation for years and in the past, we worried about a “digital dark age”. But by compiling and maintaining the Bit List over the coming years, the DPC can begin to celebrate great digital preservation endeavours as entries become less of a “concern”, while still highlighting the need for efforts to safeguard those still considered “critically endangered”.’

In response to the Bit List, the DPC wants action to be taken, and in some cases urgently. They observe that in all cases assessment is needed quickly as the scale of the challenge gets bigger and bigger, as the importance, scale and complexity of data grows. 

In some cases, they are calling for industry regulators to become involved to impose more onerous stipulations for the preservation of digital material. The IT industry will certainly be asked to take responsibility for ensuring that simple preservation functions can be built into infrastructure, so that objects and code are robust at the point of creation rather than having to be reconstructed afterwards.

Regulatory reform is also required. While there is a very active and very capable global community of digital preservation expertise, their efforts to preserve digital materials are often thwarted by copyright laws. There are some exceptions to these laws to enable copies to be made for preservation purposes, but these have not always kept pace with technological advancements or apply universally to all preservation activities.

The Bit List is published as part of International Digital Preservation Day which aims to raise awareness of the strategic, cultural and technological issues which make up the digital preservation challenge.  

Read the full Bit List

For further information email / Telephone: 0141 330 2252