Digital Curation

Unless you are devoid of any sense of wonder, you should marvel at the news that Voyager 1 has now officially left the solar system and has reached interstellar space. On the off chance that this fragile craft may one day be retrieved intact by intelligent life forms, NASA placed a “golden record” on board. This record includes samples of music, bird song, whale sounds, greetings in many languages, black and white and colour images of human society, our planet and the solar system.

They did not, however, include a record player in the spacecraft to playback this disk, and anyway that would only have helped for the sound tracks and would have relied on the unlikely possibility that alien life also uses a mains electricity supply of 120V 60 Hz with a type A electrical plug.

They did helpfully provide a stylus to get any alien started and a comprehensive set of instructions. This Wikipedia article explains how the instructions are meant to be understood, and you can look at / listen to some of the material here .

All this nicely illustrates one of the key challenges of digital curation – with our world being so dependent on digital material today, how can we preserve important digital assets and ensure that they will be accessible in the future? This is potentially a massive challenge for society and in the UK, the Digital Curation Centre has been established as a centre of expertise – a look at their web site illustrates the breadth of the challenge.

Of course, it’s not just long term digital curation that presents access challenges – ensuring at a basic level that file formats we publish are accessible across the exploding range of electronic devices is important. One great format is good old PDF – and given that the initials stand for “Portable Document Format” this should not be a surprise. Put a document into PDF format, and it is immediately accessible on Windows, Mac’s, Linux, IOS devices, Android and any web browser. Anyone using an iPad or similar is likely to have discovered a whole range of “apps” that also allow you to annotate PDF documents with comments, ink and even audio. On campus at RGU, Adobe PDF is available as standard on University PC’s and will allow PDF documents to be created and annotated.

Even better, although PDF was originally a proprietary format launched in 1993, it is now an open standard governed by the International Standards Organisation (ISO). It’s history spans 20 years so far – I can’t actually lay my hands on an original PDF version 1.0 document, but I’m sure if I could it would still be accessible with today’s PDF readers.

PDF of course does not cover all digital formats, but we should use it wherever possible in published material and documents to be stored long term. That may merit some policies and further guidance, but you don’t need to wait for that!

Of course, there’s also something ironic about a 1970’s spacecraft carrying an almost obsolete recording format into interstellar space. I have no idea how they would have put a PDF file onto Voyager 1 if PDF had been around at the time, never mind how to instruct an alien in its use.

We must have an app . . .

With the explosive popularity of the iPad and Android tablets, there is a great deal of interest in the development of “apps” to allow staff and student access to University information services. A number of Universities have already gone down this route. If you have an iPad and want some fun, go into the app store and do a search on “University” – you’ll see a few listed there, and of course being on the app store there is feedback. One of the apps listed has the following feedback:

“Still useless with no functionality”
“Surely the University can put more money into hiring a better company to create this app?”
“This app is clearly a failed student project”

Another app by contrast has the following:

“Such a useful app! Makes life so much easier” Fab idea!”
“Really helpful!! and Super!”
“Really useful for when around campus. Downside, can never have an excuse to miss a lecture again . . . oh man.”

We are getting a number of requests in from various Schools and Departments expressing their interest in having an app developed – that’s great. What we plan to do now is to create a clear guide on the criteria we should apply to decide when to create an app, and to guard against developing an app just to make some kind of fashion statement (and risk being the subject of ridicule on the app store). We also need to ensure that the University branding is protected and that anything launched into the app stores has been properly approved.

If we are developing apps for students, it will be essential to hear from them what they are really looking for and what they will value in an app. Many services which are web based will be accessible anyway from smart phones and tablet computers. The trick is to work out where the development of an app makes a compelling difference and to focus our energies on that.

Developing an app has all the challenges of any other software development. We would wish to ensure that it is multi platform (at least IOS, Android and Windows Phone), and we will need to have in place good support arrangements so that any glitches can be fixed rapidly, and if necessary we can release new versions quickly when operating system upgrades are released.

So, we’re on the case and will be working particularly with the School of Computing who have some experience of app development and will be able to help and advise on our options.