'Born-digital' records pose a major challenge for government agencies

'Born-digital' records pose a major challenge for government agencies

New Zealand's chief archivist is concerned about the state of government's digital records.

Archives NZ faces major challenges ensuring the preservation of born-digital records. Photo: Nick D, Wikimedia Commons.

Archives NZ faces major challenges ensuring the preservation of born-digital records. Photo: Nick D, Wikimedia Commons.

Shortcomings in the management of "born-digital" records could impact the effective operation of government, an Archives NZ report has found.

Archives NZ's work on the management of born-digital records in government during the 2016 financial year have reinforced chief archivist Marilyn Little's concerns about the state of the digital record of government, she wrote in a report.

"While Archives has improved our capability to accept the transfer of born-digital records as public archives, we are concerned that some public offices may not be able to prepare properly for these transfers," Little said.

"If digital records cannot be readily prepared for transfer as public archives, this casts doubt on the effectiveness of their management prior to that point, when these records were needed to support current government business." 

The report, which was delayed because staff were unable to work from their Wellington office after the Kaikōura earthquake, explained that Archives NZ  had developed and trialled an operational model for receiving transfers of born-digital archives. 

The trail with an unnamed agency, however, did not reach full completion due to massive technical challenges.

"A notable characteristic of this partnership was that it involved digital records from an enterprise content management system used to manage older digital records migrated from systems that were inherited from predecessor public offices," the report said.

Archives developed a solution involving the enhancement of an existing model, providing procedural guidance and templates to assist with planning, and using tools to map the metadata provided by the public office into a format that could be processed by Archives NZ.

One trial transfer went to the point of final transfer but was aborted because the results indicated more work was needed to fully “sentence” born-digital records before transfer. 

Sentencing is the process of applying a disposal authority and disposal actions to records. These will generally be to destroy, retain for a specified period, or transfer to Archives.

"The very large volume of records generated in digital systems multiplies the complexity of sentencing," the report said. "The multiple sources of the legacy information in this trial made systematic sentencing challenging for the public office."

Large sections of the legacy records lacked the metadata required as a foundation for successful sentencing and transfer. 

"The content, nature and value of the records could not be determined with sufficient confidence to sentence accurately," the report said.

Archives said it was likely that this experience would be repeated across other public offices, meaning there are "major challenges in preparing a generation of born-digital records for transfer as archives or for other disposal action". 

Furthermore, the problems are likely to inhibit the accessibility and use of records for current business.

"The trial achieved a degree of assurance that the necessary technical quality of the files to be transferred could be attained, for example, file formats and system-generated or empty files were successfully identified'" the report said.

"The processes for ensuring integrity through to the point of transfer also appear robust."

A second trial was expected during 2017.

Archives also reported two requests for intervention were received from a lawyer trying to access call centre recordings from a public office during the year.

The lawyer argued that theri clients had been disadvantaged by failings in the management of recorded conversations between their clients and the public office’s call centre. 

The lawyer complained the technology used by the agency was not operating as designed and was deleting recordings sooner than intended, potentially to the detriment of their clients, the report said

"Archives sought information from the public office about the nature of the technology problem and the remedial action taken. The information supplied was sufficient to assure Archives that adequate precautions had been taken against unauthorised loss of recordings."

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