Friday, 27 November 2015

Threats to Openness in the Digital World

This week our Project Cataloguing Archivist, Rebecca, has been in Newcastle to learn about one of the challenges facing records professionals in the digital era…

Earlier this week I attended a fascinating conference on ‘Threats to Openness in the Digital World’ at Northumbria University. The conference aimed to “consider and debate issues surrounding growing threats to citizens’ rights to access public archives in the digital world.” As a body that holds public records there were some interesting points raised that may affect LHSA in the future.

The move towards digital recordkeeping poses many issues for archivists not least because of the hugely increased and fragmented volumes of data, and this was the subject of the first session and a theme which ran through the whole event. Instead of coherent and carefully filed units of paper records, it was reiterated that digital records are often stored with multiple versions in non-standardised shared folders, or in email chains which are stored in multiple locations and not filed anywhere. The ease of creating digital records means that the number of records has increased massively, and this makes the job of the archivist much more difficult.

Potentially sensitive materials, such as those which contain sensitive personal data such as medical information or information regarding political affiliations, are usually reviewed prior to being made publicly available so that the record can be closed or sections redacted, and some of the panellists spoke of their experiences with these sensitivity reviews. With public records, which are open under Freedom of Information legislation unless specific exemptions apply, being able to process records is vital to determine if they meet those exemptions or to judge if their release would breach the Data Protection Act. Reviewing paper records can be time consuming and resource heavy, and the challenge of scaling up the sensitivity reviewing process to cover the massive volumes of unorganised digital records of all types that are being produced is going to be a major challenge for records professionals in the years to come.

Although information which could aid this process could theoretically be embedded in digital materials from creation, it was noted that in reality it can be difficult to persuade record creators to go through this process. The nature of the digital environment also poses a problem for records professionals: Determining the sensitivity of records relies heavily on understanding the context of a record, meaning that it is not suited to automation in the current computing context, but conversely it was highlighted that the use of search tools hugely increases the risk of sensitive material coming to light when it shouldn’t. Ultimately, the volume of materials and the requirement for access could mean that blanket destruction of digital records is carried out, if they are kept at all – a huge problem for governmental accountability, as illustrated in a fascinating talk by Mary Daly, President of the Royal Irish Academy, and for the archives of the future.

This is only a small part of what was covered at the conference, which you can read more about on the Threats 2 Openness blog: Overall it was a great event which generated lots of discussion and, after the final session, practical action points to take forward. It is clear that a strong recordkeeping culture is needed if we are to tackle these challenges, but we ended on a note of optimism that we should have faith in future technology to support our work as archivists.

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