Strategies for Keeping your Data and Documents Alive

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Strategies for Keeping your Data and Documents Alive

By: Craig A. Cox, CPG

Published in September 2019 Focus on the Environment Newsletter

Environmental projects and sites generate a large amount of data and documents. With each passing year, electronic data and documents become increasingly vulnerable to permanent loss due to changing storage technology, corruption of storage media, malware and viruses, operating system upgrades, or a general loss of our ability to run the original programs that created these data or documents.  Keeping these electronic data and documents alive can be a challenge, but it takes forward-thinking approaches to make it happen.  In this article, we will examine the issues and present solutions, some of which may surprise you. 

Your valuable electronic data and documents are subject to permanent loss due to many factors.  Those that may immediately come to mind include computer crashes, malware attacks, viruses, or human error.  These sorts of losses occur almost immediately and can be protected against through the use of commonly available backup/restore strategies.  Cloud backup systems are commonplace these days and should be a key element of every firm’s data management approach.  Managing data and documents on servers that include robust backup/restore strategies is perhaps the most important method today to keep data and documents alive.  However, there are other, more incipient factors, that can’t be solved through backup and restore procedures alone.  It is these factors that are the subject of this article.

Storage Media

It is not unusual for environmental projects to continue for a decade or more, or involve documents and data stored many years earlier on a variety of media.  If you take over a project from another firm, the only electronic data you receive may be on these media which, over time, have become obsolete.  Until recently, burning a document on a CD/DVD was thought to be a pretty cost-effective means of permanently storing and distributing documents and data.  However, with the advent of cloud computing, the CD/DVD became essentially obsolete and CD/DVD drives are disappearing from new computer hardware. 

What do you do when you open that box of documents and find that the data and documents are stored on 3.5-inch floppy disks, Zip-Drive disks, SD Cards, or even older 5.25-inch floppy disks?  There is no easy answer.  The first hurdle is to find the hardware needed to read the media.  The second hurdle is that all media, including CD/DVDs degrade over time resulting in data loss.  There is really nothing that can be done to overcome the second hurdle.  However, you may be able to find external drives that can be used to spin up the disks, if your operating system will support them.   

Native Programs

If you are able to resurrect the data from the storage media, the next factor to consider is that you may no longer have access to the native programs used to create these data and documents.  You may be able to open some of these files with your existing software packages, but don’t expect this to be seamless. Some loss of data should be expected.  You may be able to obtain the software packages again, but it may no longer be compatible with your current operating system.  There are some work arounds such as virtualization of older operating systems within your current operating system, but this can take a considerable amount of expertise to get it done correctly. 

Strategies to Keep Data and Documents Alive

The following strategies may be used to resurrect data and keep documents alive.

  • Keep some older desktop computers in your fleet with the older operating systems and native programs on them.  This can be a life saver in a pinch.  But take care not to keep them on your network, as they may present a number of security issues.
  • Invest in virtualization of older operating systems and programs on current hardware.
  • Attempt to archive or copy anything from older media to a portable hard drive for safe keeping before they degrade.  Develop and implement a plan to move away from CD/DVDs as well.  If you have access to cloud storage, take advantage of it.
  • Migrate database files from older database applications to newer ones, if possible.  This may be perhaps one of the more difficult tasks to manage as file formats and data types may not be compatible from one database program to another.  Once you have the data transferred, develop a robust backup scheme.  Many databases are finicky about being backed up by third party systems, so be careful not to do anything to corrupt them.  Also do periodic test restores to make sure the backups are sound.  
  • Consider scanning old maps and drawings into a database for storage as binary large objects (BLOBs).  The scanned files, which can be georeferenced for use in GIS systems, are a great way to preserve site history and make it available to multiple users in a more useable format.   

Finally, don’t assume that your consultant is adequately protecting your data and documents.  The best approach here is to verify, have access to, and regularly obtain copies of your data and documents, not just PDFs. At Cox-Colvin, we typically use the above methods and others to resurrect and preserve many of the older data and documents that we have inherited over the years.  In addition, we protect, manage and provide our clients with internet-enabled access, to their data, drawings, and environmental files as a routine business practice.  If you have a unique need, let us know, we would be very glad to help you through the process.          

Craig Cox is a principal and co-founder of Cox-Colvin & Associates, Inc., and holds degrees in geology and mineralogy from the Ohio State University and hydrogeology from the Colorado School of Mines. Mr. Cox has over 30 years of experience managing large environmental project implemented under CERCLA and state voluntary action programs. Mr. Cox is the inventor of the Vapor Pin® and has developed a variety of software products including Data Inspector, an internet-enabled environmental database application. Mr. Cox is a Certified Professional Geologist (CPG) with AIPG and is a Certified Professional (CP) under Ohio EPA's Voluntary Action Program.