IDCC11: Advancing research and technology to safeguard our digital future

13 December, 2011
Kirsty Pitkin

The closing keynote at the #idcc11 was presented by Natasa Milic-Frayling from Microsoft Research Cambridge (MSRC), who spoke about advancing research and technology to safeguard our digital future.

Natasa Milic-Frayling observed that when you deal with something on an everyday basis you can loose your sense of wonder. She asked us to step back and reflect on the wonder of digital, which is so vulnerable and yet has extended our lives and increased our capabilities in so many ways. We have committed to express some of our deepest insights and knowledge in a form we don't yet understand very well.

She moved on to discuss her work with the NanoPhototonic Research Centre at Cambridge, a department which manages all of its research digitally, replacing paper completely. She described their methodology, observing that the use of tablets and digital notebooks enabled the department to move from individual data collection and pondering to a state of collective pondering over the data. This included collective grooming at regular group meetings to question observations.  She noted that knowledge transfer is happening at a very low overhead for individuals because it is part of an ongoing process.

Milic-Fraying explained that when you consider the nature of digital within this context, you can see a transformation from the raw data to insights, which in turn create new digital artefacts. Eventually these insights mature into something that is ready to publish. It was the whole digital ecosystem in the department which provided value, not the individual digital artefacts.

MSRC provided the NanoPhototonic Research Centre with a Microsoft Surface which allowed them to link more between piles of digital artefacts. They created a simple application which provided a grid where they could link individual digital objects and add annotations. The department created a map of their project using this tool.

Milic-Frayling argued that they learnt more about the ecosystem and the nature of digital through this case study and what it means to maintain this type of environment and assign a value to the role of digital in the future. When they looked at the digital preservation problems associated with this project, they recognised that Microsoft, Google and all of the major players have a responsibility to ensure that everything that has lived before can live in a new ecosystem as software evolves.

Milic-Frayling outlined some of MSRC's other work in this area, including work with the PLANETS project, who invited them to help them think through the issues as so many of their documents are stored in Microsoft formats. MSRC are also involved in the SCAPE project, which is about scaling up preservation environments by automating processes. This involves a service which allows you to bring any type of document in and change it into another type of document. Milic-Frayling observed that the issues then become: “How do we evaluate what we have done?” and “How do we ensure the quality?”

Traditionally, evaluating the success of preservation activities involves identifying the properties of the document that you want to preserve and how you are going to measure it. The problem with this is that the focus is then on the digital format. However, Milic-Frayling wanted to stress that whatever we have on the desk, however we store the digital, we can't do anything without a viewer.

To illustrate this, she compared a Word Perfect document and an Office document, both written in Greek. However, she observed that we were looking at them both in a different programme, outside of their original context.  She explained how this could be countered by creating a common representation of both, which can be put in the same environment for comparison.

To conclude, Milic-Frayling suggested that maybe the digital is so different that we need to rethink how to keep it alive.  She argued that it has to be part of the contemporary computational ecosystem to survive. She conceded that it is hard to move from a drive towards authenticity to think about the utilities of the digital object that need to be enabled, but gave us hope that we are moving towards tools that can do the transformations we need to preserve digital objects within the contemporary ecosystem.