Digital information saved for future generations

Portsmouth researchers are part of a bold rescue plan to recover and safeguard the rapidly vanishing technology and cultural information about the generation born and brought up in the digital age.

They are helping build the world's first general purpose emulator, a piece of software which can recognise and ‘play’ or open all previous types of computer files from 1970s Space Invaders games to three-inch floppy discs. Other emulators exist which are specific to certain platforms or types of media but the new version will be able to emulate media in any format.

Computer historians Dr David Anderson and Dr Janet Delve and computer games expert Dan Pinchbeck at the University of Portsmouth are partners in a €4.02m Europe-wide attempt to ‘rescue’ digital files from a black hole.

The European project, KEEP (Keeping Emulation Environments Portable), aims to develop methods of safeguarding digital objects including text, sound and image files, multimedia documents, websites, databases and video games.

Dr Delve said: “People don’t think twice about saving files digitally – from snapshots taken on a camera phone to national or regional archives. But every digital file risks being either lost by degrading or by the technology used to ‘read’ it disappearing altogether. Former generations have left a rich supply of books, letters and documents which tell us who they were, how they lived and what they discovered. There’s a very real risk that we could bequeath a blank spot in history.”

Nearly €1m has been given to the faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries researchers to help create software that can look back in time and capture the workings of old computers, files, software and technologies.

They also hope to be able to future-proof the software so every single piece of data and software created can be encoded to be read by newer, faster, better computers in the future.

Every year a vast amount of new digital information is created – it has been estimated that in 2010 this will be equivalent to 18 million times the information contained in all the books ever written – and the rate of growth shows no sign of slowing. Britain’s National Archive holds the equivalent of 580,000 encyclopaedias of information in file formats that are no longer commercially available; research by the British Library suggests Europe loses £2.7bn each year in business value because of difficulties in preserving and accessing old digital files.

Dr Anderson said: “We are facing a massive threat of the loss of digital information. It’s a very real and worrying problem. Things that were created in the 1970s, 80s and 90s are vanishing fast and every year new technologies mean we face greater risk of losing material.

“Early hardware like games consoles and computers are already found in museums but if you can’t show visitors what they did, by playing the software on them, it would be much the same as putting musical instruments on display but throwing away all the music. For future generations it would be a cultural catastrophe.”

Researchers – and those in charge of national archives globally – have long been concerned about the threat of losing digital information.

Mr Pinchbeck said: “A vast bank of information needs to be catalogued and stored. Games particularly tend not to be archived because they are seen as disposable, pulp cultural artefacts, but they represent a really important part of our recent cultural history. Games are one of the biggest media formats on the planet and we must preserve them for future generations.”

Huge amounts of money have been spent trying to convert thousands of pieces of information into newer digital formats every time the old ones are made defunct or the fabric itself corrupts and degrades. The normal method of doing this is to 'migrate' obsolete media to new formats, but every migration carries the risk of corruption and degradation. Emulation recreates the platform used to run the media, so migration is not required and these risks are reduced.

Mr Pinchbeck said “The difference with emulation is that you are freed from these problems. Every time hardware, software, operating systems or anything else upgrade, the KEEP machine just emulates on this new platform. It means it is as future-proof as these things get.

“On top of that, you can actually boot up and experience these historical artefacts – not just read about them, but in the case of games, actually play, get a feel for what they are really like and how they work.

“Currently, there are lots of emulators out there, but they are all self-enclosed and can become obsolete just like the media they are emulating. KEEP changes all of that, it ensures that these emulators and their media will survive.”

Dr Simon Claridge, the Dean of CCI, said “This is a very important project that has far-reaching implications and we are delighted that researchers from the University of Portsmouth will be playing such a pivotal role. It is a clear indication of the international standard of research being undertaken at this institution.”

Other institutions involved in the KEEP project include the national libraries of France, the Netherlands and Germany and the European Game Developers Federation. 

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