Backing up — securing your files for the present and the future

In an increasingly paperless world more and more of our data is being digitised. While offering many opportunities, there are (at least) three challenges presented by this:

  1. Backup of data in case of loss or destruction of the host system;
  2. Accessibility of the data by others in the event of your inability to do so yourself; and,
  3. Usability of the data into the future (i.e. future-proofing).

Every inhabitant of the digital world needs to consider ensuring they maintain their data for now and into the future. This article addresses some of how I approach these tasks.

Over on SimplicityBliss, Sven Fechner recently outlined his comprehensive backup and emergency data access strategy for Mac.

Today I have not one, but effectively four different backups of my data. Three of them are always up-to-date, while the fourth one is the nuclear event’ offsite contingency.

Sven has very ably outlined an approach that addresses the first two points in detail, and I’d suggest you read his article and digest his approach.

My own approach is not dissimilar, at least for three of the four levels described:

  1. Onsite backups with Time Machine (I use Time Capsule for MacBooks and an old Drobo for my iMac);
  2. Data in Dropbox (aff) and Evernote, protected with strong passwords and 2 factor authentication (Dropbox only for now). I am also playing with the Transporter for having my own distributed data.
  3. Cloud backup using Crashplan.

As for the third consideration - future-proofing - we need to think very seriously about whether the masses of data we’re producing daily today will be readable into the future. We have an unprecedented opportunity to capture data for future generations, but we have a responsibility to ensure they will be able to read it.

There are two aspects to this problem - the storage media and the format the data is stored in.

Try listening to an old mixtape you made on an actual cassette tape. I’d bet that most people couldn’t find a (working) cassette player in their house, so unless you drive an old car, you’re quite likely out of luck! Having as much stuff in the cloud as possible deals with at least the media part of the problem, as most cloud solutions will incrementally migrate their storage media, progressively over time. You should do the same at home.

As for the format, this is an equally important consideration. While it might be inconceivable that your current .doc, .jpg or .xls files might not be readable in decades to come, try opening an early 1990′s WordPerfect document. I dare you.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and have no idea as to what formats will be readable in the future. But my gut feel tells me this:

Storing your data in the most raw form possible gives you the best chance of being able to read it into the future

In other words, applying as few photographic enhancements as possible, or using little or no rich text formating is your best strategy for future proofing your data. If you’ve tried to restore” an old photo, you’ll know you have more chance if you can use the original film (or negative) than if you use a print. If you’ve tried to scan old, heck, even read old text, you’ll know that the simpler the font the better.

My two main forms of data that I want to preserve are my photos and my writing.

I capture all photos in RAW format, and I keep the raw files of the keepers. Backed up.

This is also one of the benefits of having made the decision to write in plain text, using Markdown. Seriously, if you write and you don’t write in Markdown, go and learn more about it. It’s not difficult, and there’s even a great book to help you learn Markdown.

I only wish that I had started writing in plain text sooner. Some of my old writing is literally locked up on on 5.25″ floppy disks in WordPerfect format. I have a project to do something about that.

We are in the digital era. Being productive in this era means backing, ensuring others can access if and when needed, and ensuring your data is available now and into the future. I urge everyone to consider an appropropriate backup startegy, including an offsite solution like Crashplan. I also suggest that you learn more about future proofing your data by using the simplest possible formats for storage, including Markdown for plaintext.

How do you backup? And how do you future proof your data?

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