- Associated Press - Monday, January 10, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO | Like every other dad with a digital camera, Kai Pommerenke started taking lots of photos after his daughter was born. But the more he researched, the less convinced he became that he could ensure those pictures would still be around when she grew up.

Hard drives crash. CDs and DVDs warp. Companies that store your photos online can go out of business.

Rather than trust his most treasured digital mementos to technology he saw as all-too-fallible, a team led by the University of California at Santa Cruz economist last month launched a nonprofit he calls the first online storage service to guarantee your data forever.

“People definitely have a false sense of security,” Mr. Pommerenke says. “Digital data is fragile. You have to do something active in order to preserve it.”

The era of the analog photo has ended. Just before New Year’s, the last photo lab in the world to process Kodachrome film stopped taking new rolls. That same weekend, Facebook said its users uploaded 750 million photos.

But as our keepsakes all become encoded in bits and bytes, experts agree with Mr. Pommerenke that the risk of losing that data to the digital equivalent of a house fire runs higher than losing a shoebox of old prints to the real thing.

Digital preservationists say that no one can really guarantee that data will be preserved forever. Even for a boutique service like Mr. Pommerenke’s that aspires to uphold best practices, computers have not existed long enough to be certain. You do the best you can, the experts say, but check back in 100 years.

And the concern does not stop at photos. Audio, video, text, blogs, status updates — anything kept in a digital format is vulnerable.

Universities and the Library of Congress have spent years investigating the best ways to archive their ever-growing collections of digital data. Mr. Pommerenke worries less about preserving important cultural or business information and more about saving the memories of milestones that make up a life.

His service, Chronicle of Life, aims to ease that worry by devoting the same level of care to personal digital files that large institutions give to their own data.

Mr. Pommerenke says his service will perform daily, weekly and monthly backups of all data to servers spread across the U.S. and in Ireland. Software checks all data regularly to make sure the files users uploaded have not been corrupted.

If specific file formats such as the now-ubiquitous JPEG format used for digital photos ever become obsolete, Mr. Pommerenke promises the service will convert all uploaded files to whatever the new standard has become.

More than any other measure, digital preservationists cite the importance of keeping multiple copies of data in multiple places. (An initiative led by Stanford University to preserve libraries’ digital data is called LOCKSS: Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe.)

Even then, relying only on your own media such as hard drives, CDs or flash drives have their own pitfalls.

“Time alone is a factor in your data breaking down,” says Bill LeFurgy, who manages digital-preservation projects for the Library of Congress. “The life span of most physical media is pretty limited.”

Backing up data to an online service can help avoid the issue of media breakdown, but relying on a company to keep files safe carries its own risks.

“They may promise they’re going to do this for a long time, but it’s not assured,” Mr. LeFurgy says.

Chronicle of Life claims to overcome this problem by working as a nonprofit. While companies can change their business models at will if they’re not making money, Chronicle of Life by law must commit all the money it raises to its promised mission of preserving data forever, Mr. Pommerenke says.

Yet even a nonprofit must raise enough money to keep operating. Chronicle of Life charges one dollar per megabyte of data stored, about the size of an average digital photo. Users must buy at least 10 megabytes.

That’s a huge markup over the cost of storage on today’s hard drives or flash drives, which run to a small fraction of a cent per megabyte. For-profit companies offer unlimited online storage of photos and other data for much less.

Chronicle of Life’s pricing serves as a reminder that Mr. Pommerenke intends the service as storage for a carefully chosen selection of a person’s most important files, not an all-purpose backup. Three-quarters of all payments received go into an endowment that sticks to conservative investments like government bonds to make the service self-sustaining.

The fledgling service needs 1,250 users on top of the money already raised to make Chronicle of Life financially viable, Mr. Pommerenke says. Most of the money spent to run the service pays not for the storage space on far-flung servers, but for the human labor needed to monitor and manage the data.

“All bits will die. You have to copy it. Otherwise, you’ll lose it,” says Tom Coughlin, a Silicon Valley data-storage consultant. “You have to keep it moving.”

Even then, LOCKSS program director Victoria Reich says human error typically outstrips technical issues as the primary cause of data loss.

Whether the problem is human or hard drive, Mr. Coughlin says that as digital technology allows for the convenient creating, sharing and keeping of more information than ever, preserving information for the long term has become more complex than ever.

He points out that some of the most primitive data records of all — the clay tablets of ancient Sumer and the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt — survived for millennia with virtually no maintenance at all.

“I think what we’ve shown is that with some good practices, it is possible to keep this information alive,” Mr. Coughlin says. “But it’s a much harder job than, say, maintaining the pyramids.”

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