Wednesday May 03, 2017

Scientists Find New Hurdles in Accessing Old Data from Archaic Media

Scientists have found a new challenge in trying to recover data stored on old media. "Flippies" and other long forgotten and archaic data storage techniques were used by scientists in the 1970's to store important information that is useful for today's researchers. First a machine that can read the older media needs to be found. This is harder than it seems as most machines were either recycled long ago, or are no longer reliable due to age. Then the data on the disks is only readable in old programs without a modern equivalent. Sometimes old machines can be found to read it, but virtual machines are taking over that work. Using tools such as hex editors, computer forensic scientists can recreate the lost information stored on the media. Even then it will take even more time to figure out what the columns of 1's and 0's mean.

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Parker's experience encapsulates the problems that many researchers encounter. Retrieving information from defunct data-storage media is like unlocking a series of cages, says Bertram Lyons, an archivist with AVPreserve in Madison, Wisconsin. "Scientists have information trapped in older formats. Some are physical barriers, some are encoded structures. Both can go obsolete."

The biggest hurdle is sometimes not technological but human, digital archivists say. It's not enough to extract a file just to learn that it has 6 columns and 100,000 rows; researchers need to know what the numbers mean. Archivists led by Amy Pienta at the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, bought a refurbished punch-card reader to retrieve data from a large, longitudinal study of retirement from the 1950s. But after physical punches were converted to ASCII numeric codes, they needed preserved codebooks to know what the numbers referred to آ— did a code of '1' mean yes or no?