Historians grapple with data overload

Ability to collect data now outstrips means to save it, experts say

In the past year, more technical data has been collected than in all previous years since science began, the Wall Street Journal reports—but as digital documents pile up, how will they be preserved? Today, scientists collaborate over email, Google, YouTube and Facebook, just to name a few, leaving few paper trails behind. Meanwhile, technologies that store the data (think floppy discs, for example) quickly become obsolete, making retrieving the information a challenge. Never in history have we been able to generate so much information, and lose it so quickly, experts say: in fact, computer users around the world create enough digital data every 15 minutes to fill the US Library of Congress. With research projects growing ever bigger, the problem’s only intensifying. Take, for example, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in New Mexico: in its first two days of operation, it gathered more data than in all previous history of astronomy. And the Large Hadron Collider, in Geneva, will create enough data to fill 1.7 million DVDs every year. How to save all this information in a way that will make sense to future researchers? Japanese researchers recently unveiled a memory chip that should last for centuries, and in April, U.S. physicists revealed the design of a digital device that, in theory, could store data for a billion years. “Digital information lasts forever—or five years,” says RAND Corp. computer analyst Jeff Rothenberg, “whichever comes first.”

The Wall Street Journal




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