Monday, 12 January 2009

Economics of Digital Preservation

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access published in December 2008 the report "Sustaining the Digital Investment: Issues and Challenges of Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation". 

This Task Force made up of international leading experts in digital preservation and curation has been brought together to investigate issues around the economic sustainability of digital information. This first report presents a conceptual framework that will guide the Task Force efforts in 2009. 

A definition is provided for economically sustainable digital preservation

“set of business, social, technological, and policy mechanisms that encourage the gathering of important information assets into digital preservation systems, and support the indefinite persistence of digital preservation systems, enabling access to and use of the information assets into the long-term future.” 

And a set of requirements to achieve this are proposed: 

  •  Recognition of the benefits of preservation on the part of key decision-makers;
  •  Incentives for decision-makers to act in the public interest;
  •  A process for selecting digital materials for long-term retention;
  •  Mechanisms to secure an ongoing, efficient allocation of resources to digital preservation activities;
  •  Appropriate organization and governance of digital preservation activities. 

The report goes into defining business and economic models explaining how "the economic model describes how economic reality works and the business models provide templates for acting within that reality". Consequently, the Task Force suggests that good business models will rely on complete economic models and they propose a minimum set of properties for the latter: 

  • They will account for the resources used to produce sustainability and access.
  • They will pay special attention to the role of time, in both the simple sense of the elapsed time that leads to bit rot, and in the more complicated sense that over time ownership of the data and available technologies may change.
  • They will enable us to examine the effects of different organizational and technical strategies on the quality of preservation and access.
  • They will enable us to assess the technical and the economic risks of losing data.
  • They will allow us to evaluate alternative policies, including changes in intellectual property law.
  • They will allow us to evaluate the implications of the five components of our sustainability definition, both individually and collectively. 

After this, a synthesis of a review of the literature on economics of digital preservation is provided and two UK projects are examined: 

  • The LIFE Project, a British Library and UCL collaboration which generated the lifecycle preservation model shown below that helps establishing the cost to preserve digital materials. 

Figure 1. LIFE’s preservation model (taken from Blue Ribbon Task Force report) 

  • The Keeping Research Data Safe study that focused on developing guidance to enable UK HE institutions to develop cost models to manage and preserve research data. The cost framework suggested by the study consisted of three parts:
    • key cost variables and units that affect the cost of preservation
    • an activity model that identifies activities with cost implications
    • a resources template providing a framework to draw the previous elements together 

The report finishes with six lessons learned: 

  1. It is easier to ‘sell’ outcomes than processes.
  2. Avoid excessive discounting of the benefits from digital preservation
  3. Separating preservation costs from other costs is difficult
  4. Diversity of funding streams is important for sustainable digital preservation
  5. Non-monetary incentives are important.
  6. Consider the full range of options when selecting an economic model to support digital preservation. 
Overall, this interim report provides an extremely useful synthesis of the issues around the economics of digital preservation for those organizations that are considering taking up the challenge. The next report promises to offer a set of scenarios with common conditions and associated suitable economic models for supporting long-term digital preservation.