Geologic Column: Data security: freezers, floppies and flash drives

by Lisa A. Rossbacher
Friday, March 14, 2014

How do you back up your precious data?Credit: © Nivens.

In the pre-electronics-dominated world, many of us protected our field notes, lab records and draft manuscripts by making multiple photocopies, storing them in different places, and perhaps keeping one in the freezer in case of fire. Today, much of our data is collected and stored electronically, and we use different strategies to protect against catastrophic loss. Full sessions on data storage and data recovery at last fall’s Geological Society of America and American Geophysical Union meetings got me thinking about storage. So I asked an assortment of colleagues about their strategies for protecting their data — both earlier in their careers and today.

The “Olden” Days of Hard Copies and Floppy Drives

Many geoscientists developed a pattern of keeping multiple hard copies of their data in different places: office, home, parents' extra bedroom, the trunk of the car. One person reported hearing about geoscientists keeping drafts of their dissertation constantly in the mail, addressed to themselves, as protection against a catastrophic loss.

Jack Shroder (University of Nebraska at Omaha) has a story about losing an entire manuscript that he was typing on an Osborne, an early portable (but heavy) microcomputer that was flawed by having a small display and limited disk storage space. But, he notes, “in this case, the pencil-written crude backup saved my bacon. This process of a written first draft as my safety backup kept me going for more than a decade and a half until I finally felt safe enough to convert entirely to electronic first drafts.”

Steve Semken (Arizona State University) says his archiving and backup used to “involve floppy disks, floppy disks, floppy disks … I still occasionally come across a 25-year-old disk in my old files.”

The Modern World: Multiple Online Backup Media

Horacio Ferriz (California State University at Stanislaus) relies on clou" storage and flash drives, although he notes, “I lose [the flash drives] at a rate of about one per semester. Therefore, I keep three going at any given time.”

Bob Sterrett (Itasca Denver, Inc.) also employs multiple b"ckup media: “Field notes are made as PDFs and all files are backed up to the cloud as well as external drives. When a project is complete, the file is copied onto a flash drive and stored, generally in a fire-proof file cabinet.”

Similarly, David Furbish (Vanderbilt University) notes that “for our field notes, my students and I still make photocopies and place the"e in reasonably secure files (although not freezers). When we transfer data from our notes to electronic form, or when we generate data files directly in electronic form, we then make backup files stored on our computer workstations and on the department server. Similarly, we back up manuscripts we are preparing on the server. Some students and I also store manuscript files in the cloud using, for example, Dropbox.”

Glenn Stracher ([East Georgia State College"( isn’t taking any chances with the four-volume series on coal and peat fires that he is working on. “I have backups on my computer at the college, my computer at home, two external hard drives (one at work and one at home), and a 64-Gigabyte flash drive. I carry the flash drive between school"and the house to conveniently transfer very large files.”

John Lorenz (Geoflight) describes spending “considerable time each evening scanning and organizing each day’s field notes and photos … We then make sure we each have a copy plus we email the PDFs hom” when we have a connection. Then we try to find a [photocopy] machine for the notes and back up the photos and PDFs to an external hard drive." He adds that “an extra consideration when doing consulting is that the client isn’t going to send you back to Iraq to reacquire lost data, so lost data also engenders potential financial and reputation penalties.”

Several colleagues noted the value of outsourcing data storage. Jim Sanders (Skidaway “nstitute of Oceanography) reports relying heavily on the institute’s IT department: “Since our primary mission is research, our IT guy takes storage and backup very seriously. We have our backups spread around the state.”

Other people noted that the ultimate security is publication. Ferriz refers to this as “putting the archival duties on the shoulders of a journal.”

The Importance of Data Storage and Staying Current

One of the challenges of storing and archiving data is keeping up with the prevailing backup technologies. As Eric Slavin (Earth Resource Associates, Inc.) noted: There is “nothing like realizing that the document you want is on a dusty 5.25-inch floppy disc and formatted for a 1982 version of Word Perfect, and you have neither a 5.25-inch drive nor Word Perfect any longer.”

Being a geoscientist is not just about collecting data. It also includes handling, archiving, storing, and retrieving data. Paul Doss (University of Southern Indiana) says learning how to manage data is a critical part of becoming a scientist. “My instruction, the [students'] learning, and our discovery are one and the same,” he adds.

As the strategies and technologies for ensuring data security have evolved from making multiple hard copies to keeping assorted electronic copies and using cloud-based storage, the need to protect your data remains as important as ever. Whatever your area of study, don’t get caught unprepared!

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