"Digital genome" safeguards dying data formats

Wed May 19, 2010 4:18am EDT
 
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By Jason Rhodes

SAANEN, Switzerland (Reuters Life!) - In a secret bunker deep in the Swiss Alps, European researchers have deposited a "digital genome" that will provide the blueprint for future generations to read data stored using defunct technology.

Accompanied by burly security guards in black uniforms, scientists carried a time capsule through a labyrinth of tunnels and five security zones to a vault near the slopes of chic ski resort Gstaad.

The sealed box containing the key to unpick defunct digital formats will be locked away for the next quarter of a century behind a 3-1/2 tonne door strong enough to resist nuclear attack at the data storage facility, known as the Swiss Fort Knox.

"Einstein's notebooks you can take down off the shelf and read them today. Roll forward 50 years and most of Stephen Hawking's notes will likely only be stored digitally and we might not be able to access them all," said the British Library's Adam Farquhar, one of two computer scientists and archivists entrusted with transferring the capsule.

The capsule is the culmination of the four-year "Planets" project, which draws on the expertise of 16 European libraries, archives and research institutions, to preserve the world's digital assets as hardware and software is superseded at a blistering pace.

"The time capsule being deposited inside Swiss Fort Knox contains the digital equivalent of the genetic code of different data formats, a 'digital genome'," said the grey-bearded Farquhar, coordinator of the 15 million-euro ($18.49 million) project.

"I can't even read my own dissertation anymore except in paper form, because we didn't have anything like this when I wrote it," he said.

Around 100 GB of data -- equivalent to 24 tonnes of books -- has already been created for every single individual on the planet, ranging from holiday snaps to health records, project organizers said, adding this amounted to over 1 trillion CDs worth of data across the globe.   Continued...

 
<p>A security guard stands near Adam Farquhar (C), Head of Digital Library Technology at the British Library and Andreas Rauber (L), Professor at the Institute of Software Technology and Interactive Systems of the University of Technology of Vienna, as they carry a box containing a "digital genome" in front of the Swiss Fort Knox bunker in the mountains near the Swiss Alpine resort of Saanen May 18, 2010. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann</p>