We’re all going to die. We all create digital content and most of us have no plan for archiving our data for future generations after we die. These are two harsh realities that smacked me over the head when I attended a panel at SXSW this year titled “Digital Immortals: Preserving Life Beyond Death“. The panel covered one of the most critical aspects that face us today in this newly minted digital world. The panel was moderated by Evan Carroll who both co-wrote a book and contributes to a website on the subject of the digital afterlife. You can listen to a recording of the panel here, follow along with the slides here, and read a summary of the panel by Evan here.

UPDATE: I have created a dedicated Digital Preservation section that I will maintain with updates over time as new tools and strategy tips as they become available.

I highly recommend you follow the links above to experience the diverse speakers covering several different topic areas related to this subject. This is a very important subject matter with many different layers to it. I remember leaving the room inspired to identify some of the themes that resonated during the talk for me and write about them. Many of the issues discussed have been on my mind ever since creating Lifestream Blog. While I originally covered the ability to aggregate our digital data across disparate services I quickly realized that much of what I was publishing may never be archived in a way so that my future ancestors could be able to view it. I’ve already written several posts on the topic of how death and the future may impact our digital diaries and most recently referenced Adam Ostrow’s TED talk who was on the panel in a post.

After the panel I started to think about the steps we need to take to preserve, prepare, and produce our digital legacy. I began to break down each of these 3 steps to try and provide methods and tools to achieve them before we die. Each of these steps are very broad and can have many different approaches and strategies to deploy them. Below I will break each of these down and provide some insight on how to tackle setting up plans for each of them.

Preserve Your Data

Before you can make plans regarding how future generations will be able to access your data, you need to ensure that you’re taking steps to preserve it. The tips here are to employ an archive and backup strategy. This includes both making sure that your personal physical storage data is backed up as well as the data you are creating and publishing to online services. For personal data on your hard drives you can find many good tips and articles online to help you do this. I recommend creating a 2 step backup plan. Create backups daily from your personal computer (multiple in your family if you have them) to an external storage device. I’d recommend using a RAID NAS (network attached storage) so that you can easily have multiple computers running backup software to save their data to this central location.

There are many people that employ the local backup strategy but then stop there. This isn’t good enough because in the event of a fire or burglary you risk losing everything. So besides simply doing local backups, you must also add a cloud backup strategy. These services will let you automate the process of backing up your data over the internet daily to remote servers. By taking this extra step you’ve ensured an important and extra critical measure to preserve your data.

Backing up your local data is a measure taken for all the content you create that is stored there. So documents, photos, videos and more. You should try to identify and backup as much personally created data as you can. Richard Banks who was on the panel that our sentimental objects aren’t necessarily secondary to our mundane ones, which will help others understand our lives from the day-to-day minutiae we now can preserve.

But what about content you create on the web? I”m referring to services that include Facebook, Twitter, Google Docs and more. In this case you need a way to get that source data into a format that can then be brought down and archived along with all of your local data. There are some unique services that do just this that need to be included as part of your backup strategy.

Some resource examples for this step:

Prepare a Data Access Plan

Airdrie Miller, who is the widow of blogger Derek Miller who wrote a gut wrenching farewell post before he died, discussed many of the challenges she encountered after Derek died on the panel. She told of not being able to access systems because she didn’t have Derek’s passwords and told of another situation having to deal with renewing a domain she wasn’t aware of. I’ve heard of the process of preparing all of this information for later access as creating a “digital will”.

Start by creating a detailed document with instructions on how to access all the digital data that you’ve been so good about preserving. Then I highly recommend creating a master password repository both for personal data and online data. Some of those passwords may also be linked to online accounts that are tied to subscriptions services such as blogs and domain registrars that will also require renewals and upkeep. There are a few online services that provide this as well as software. It would also be smart to have a designated digital trustee which would almost act as a data godparent to provide technical support in the event it was necessary. Accessing your data backups and working through services may be challenging for some family members so training and designating a technically savvy friend to help out in the event they’re needed will be helpful.

Some resource examples for this step:

  • Detailed instructions document and digital trustee
    • Provide information for password services / software with the master password to access
    • Designate and train a digital trustee on accessing your data and passwords to help out
    • Provide information for all on-going subscriptions to services related to digital data
  • Password Services and Software

Produce a Way to Access the Digital Archive
So now that you have ensured the preservation of all your data you need to create a good way to access all of it. This step can take on many different forms and will no doubt evolve over time into better methods we can only dream of. You should start by determining both the tools that lend themselves best to displaying the data in a way that you want, along with some good tagging and search capabilities. You also need to decide whether you only want the data to be displayed on a local computer or over the web as well. You may not find just one piece of software or web service to provide a method that suits you, and may need to incorporate several to achieve what you want.

Bill Lefurgy from the Library of Congress was also a speaker on the panel. He discussed many aspects related to “digital preservation” telling us they’ve built a  website at DigitalPreservation.gov where you can find many resources on organizing your digital data. I dug around a bit and found several useful things including a whole section on personal archiving as well as a PDF with details for archiving and organizing several different types of digital media.

Some resource examples for this step:

If you question why we need to create a digital legacy I ask you to watch this great video created by the LiveOn service and also remember our lives aren’t just to chronicle what we do for ourselves, but it’s to provide a record for our future generations. I plan to create a dedicated “Digital Legacy” section on this site in the near future that I will maintain with updates over time as new software, services, and strategies become available for this process.

 

Update: Here’s another good video I discovered on this subject at another good site resource at DeathandDigitalLegacy.com

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