Wednesday, November 29, 2017
How long will your genealogy last online?
The last few days there have been a bundle of program and system upgrades on all my devices. Most of these are just a minor inconvenience, but sometimes they interrupt my workflow for a substantial period of time. These nearly constant upgrades also remind me that the preservation of my digital data depends entirely on keeping up with these changes.
The issue here is called "data migration." Over time, both computer hardware and software changes reflecting technological developments. Since the advent of the "personal computer" in the 1970s, there has been a steady loss of data as software and operating systems have been "updated." I am thinking of all of the floppy disks I have thrown away. I'm also thinking of the old hard drives that I have stored in boxes. In my case, I have tried to move the data as I have acquired new computers and new storage devices. As a result, I have a massive amount of data on my own devices. So this is not just an abstract issue for me personally.
But what I do see, is a stream of people talking to me about their old files. Just in the last few days, I have had a conversation about genealogical records that were still in Personal Ancestral File format. I also know that I have old GEDCOM files on my computers today. When we talk about backing up our computer data we need to include the concept of data migration. Old computer files are just as permanently lost, in some cases, as files that are lost through physical destruction.
One underlying issue concerning online file preservation also involves the concept of data migration. For example, most of the image files that we have today, including those containing genealogical information, are in the JPEG format. This JPEG format is as close to a universal file format as now exists. However, how long will that format be available? From a technical standpoint, computer programmers could write programs that would automatically transfer the data from one file format to another. However, there is a present example of new formats replacing the old.
My new iPhone 8 plus is programmed to create a new file format for all photographs taken with the camera. This file format is called HEIC or HEIF and it has automatically replaced saving files in the JPEG format. When I download a photograph from my iPhone's camera, it is automatically saved in the new file format. However, very few of the programs that I presently have on my computer including Adobe Photoshop recognize the new file format. In order for me to use the files created, I have to use another program and transfer the HEIC or HEIF files into JPEG format. Speculating, what if the new file format replaces JPEG? What happens to all the old JPEG files? This is a real question. Interestingly, I do not presently find any way to transfer a JPEG file into a HEIC or HEIF file. See "What is HEIC?"
By the way, there are hundreds if not thousands of different file formats. For practical purposes, most programs create their own unique file format. So abandoned programs often leave "orphan" file formats that cannot be read by any other program.
There are a number of things, as genealogists, we can do to minimize the impact of these file changes. First of all, we can be aware of the fact that data migration is our own personal responsibility. We should all realize that preserving our genealogical data is a dynamic process that requires us to make changes over time. As we operate our computers, our programs, and our storage devices we need to be aware of the need to upgrade software and to migrate our data to newer programs. This is a constant background process.