Data disappears.Whether it be through misplacing important tax records that never gets found, or losing millions of dollars in customer information by way of natural disaster, important data can be lost for good. And documents that were once in the most current format may be obsolete in many years.

Imagine it is twenty-five years in the future. Your financial services firm is mired in a class-action suit that could bankrupt the company. However, preliminary legal research points to an existence of evidence -- an e-mail string created 25 years ago, complete with electronic signatures -- that will clear the company of any negligence or wrongdoing.

As the legal team sorts through stacks of CD's in cartons brought up from the sub-basement of corporate headquarters, hope for a successful dismissal quickly turns to despair. Some CD's have been delaminated. Testing reveals that the files on the intact CD's require application software that has been superseded by many generations. The media was not upgraded and migrated to a more current format. The evidence that is key to the company's defense cannot be accessed.

This scenario, admittedly an extreme example, reveals one of the major dilemmas for organizations in the digital age. Digital informaiton is only as permenant as the hardware and software that give it intelligibility. As technological evolution over even the past ten years has shown, there is little assurance that today's information will retain any more value than a 1989 VisiCalc file stored on an 8-inch floppy disk. Retaining digital information requires constant human attention.

Reports started appearing in the press in the late 1990's:

  • Magnetic tape containing 1970's era satellite photo survey data of the Brazilian Amazon cannot be accessed to establish deforestation trends
  • Twenty percent of the data collected during the 1976 Viking Mars mission can no longer be read.
  • In the state of Oregon, the primary database of people with disabilities vanished.
  • Some POW and MIA records and casualty counts from the Vietman War can no longer be read.
  • As Pennsylvania State University, all but 14 of some 3,000 computer files containing student records and school history are no longer accessible.

Much more has probably been lost over time. The problem is that you dont know you have a gap in your digital records until you try -- and fail -- to retrieve something. By then, its too late.