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.

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OOPS! – Working from Home

There is a cracking article in a recent edition of “The Economist”, which is available online and in which Yahoo’s new Chief Executive, Marissa Mayer, appears to be driving Yahoo employees to come in to the office unless they have a very good reason to work from home. The memo from the Human Resources Manager is addressed to “Yahoos”. If you are cringing already, read the article!

This is contrary to the direction that most enlightened organisations are travelling in – the ability to work from home or anywhere else off Campus for that matter is increasingly one aspect of a more flexible approach to working life. Of course, there are occasions where face to face contact and participation cannot be easily replaced, but equally there are many activities which can be easily carried out anywhere.  An important aspect of our IT Strategy is to ensure that access to our core IT services can be provided easily to any location, on any device, whilst maintaining security of information and access. A key part of that is the MyApps service, which I have mentioned before and which gives  you access to your University IT resources from anywhere – at work, at home, on the move, on a Pc, on an iPad – even on your phone if you can cope with the small screen size.

The great thing about MyApps is that information and data never leaves the University servers. This is important if you are working from home and relieves you of many responsibilities. Did you know that if you use your personal e-mail account for work then these e-mails are covered by the Freedom of Information Act? Likewise, if you store University documents on your home computer, or take paper documents home, you could be personally liable for any breaches under the data protection act? There are a few things to think about if you are working from home – have a look at the page on the Staff Portal if you want a very comprehensive guide:

We’ve also published an interactive guide to data security for mobile devices under the banner of “OOPS” – “Out Of Protected Spaces” and if you are a member of staff you will already have received that guide in hard copy as well as interactively. We’ve had really good feedback from that – with many people making positive suggestions and asking very relevant questions about particular situations and also requests for additional copies. We did have one person who returned the printed cards with an anonymous note saying “waste of money”. That’s a real disappointment and completely out of step with all the other feedback we have received. Given the amount of press coverage of authorities being fined 6 figure sums of money for data protection breaches, and given the fact that this whole issue is important enough to grab the attention of the University’s Audit Committee, I hope that person has a change of heart on further reflection.

Here is the “OOPS” guide:

OOPS

Files on Fire

 

Last week we had our annual Health and Safety internal conference at RGU. We heard first hand from another University which had experienced a major fire, and was willing to share with us their lessons learned. We’d had a similar talk two years ago from another University which had experienced a major fire. You would think these were rare occurrences, but it was suggested that we should search on the Internet for “University fire explosion” – try it yourself and see what comes up.

It’s a great feature of the HE sector that we have such open sharing of experience and lessons learned. Following each of these major fires, the institutions quickly discovered that many staff were still storing the only copy of some electronic files and documents locally, on their laptops or desktops. They weren’t backed up. In some cases, there were also some local servers with important departmental data on them. They weren’t backed up either. 

For each presentation, we were shown images of burnt and/or soaking wet IT equipment being dried out in large dehumidifier arrangements before some IT recovery firm then set about recovering the precious data. In many cases this was important research data. Amazingly, the recovery was able to retrieve a lot of this data, but it took some weeks and the data was inaccessible during that time. For equipment unfortunate enough to be near the seat of a large fire – forget it.

None of this is anything new. You shouldn’t have to have experienced a car crash to know the importance of wearing a seatbelt. So, we shouldn’t have to experience a fire to know the importance of making sure our important electronic information is securely stored and backed up. If you place it on one of the University Shared Network Drives, or any of the main University systems such as Moodle – it’s all safe and secure.

If, however, you have the only copy of something important stored on your desktop computer, and no backup anywhere else, then as you close the door tonight to go home just imagine that’s the last time you see your office in one piece.

How does that feel?

 

 

 

 

Paper – from Mountain to Molehill

With the advent of the computer age, many people have heralded the anticipated demise of paper. A quick look on Google, however, reveals that according to the Mail Online paper consumption globally has increased by almost half since 1980!

However, achieving a reduction in paper storage still remains an aspiration for us, and particularly at RGU with a move to a new modern Campus building the thought of moving all that paper, never mind where to put it, presents a great opportunity to get rid of it. Over the past few years, our Records Manager, Keith Fraser, has developed a records management strategy for the University and has been working with Schools and Departments to help them with their approach to records management.

A key priority has been to work with the Schools who are moving into the new Campus building, to make sure they are reducing as much as possible their paper filing. One of the early achievements in the records management strategy was the creation of the Master Retention Schedule, or MaRS as it has become affectionately known.  Based on advice from a whole range of sources, this set of documents tells you what you can destroy, and when. It also tells you what you need to keep and for how long.

Using MaRS, Schools are making great progress in eliminating unnecessary paper stores. Our School of Pharmacy and Life Sciences, for example, disposed of 200 bags of paper in the last 12 months.

One thing that became clear, however, was that student files represent about 70% of all paper storage in the Schools. These include:

  • UCAS Forms
  • Medical Certificates
  • Transcripts for each year
  • Email and letter correspondence
  • Private and Confidential Correspondence
  • Withdrawal / Suspension Confirmations from Student Administration
  • Industrial Placement Forms
  • Completed Exam papers in circumstances where special exam was sat. etc
  • Absence forms
  • Record of personal interviews
  • Withdrawal / suspension forms (signed by staff)
  • Fitness to practice information  etc

These paper files can be disposed off once students have left, but that still leaves a lot of paper for students who are here for 4 years. So, we have decided to add an electronic document management module to our student records system.

The new module has been purchased and installed, and what we are doing at the moment is scanning all the paper records into the student record system. Our internal graphics and printing department, “The Gatehouse”, are doing the scanning – and it’s not a simple process. The original paper records have to be bar coded with the student ID number, and then the scanning can correctly match them up to the student entry in the system. For the first 3 Schools (School of Computing, School of Engineering, School of Pharmacy and Life Sciences), that’s about 1,700 student files but the Gatehouse is making great progress. Once these are done, we’ll look at the remaining Schools – that’s about another 5,500 student files.

Once this is done, properly authorised staff can look at the student record for any student and see digital copies of all the paper records for that student. The actual paper originals can then be securely disposed off and we will have eliminated a very substantial storage of paper from across the Campus.