Your Personal Digital Archive
by Mike Shea on 7 June 2013
30 Second Summary
If you can't hold a complete copy of your data in your hand, you don't own it. If your data isn't in an open format you can open in multiple applications, you don't own it. Big commercial companies won't help you. They want to control your data so you will be forced to stick with them. They don't care what happens when they go out of business, but you will. As more and more of our lives move to "the cloud", we begin to lose ownership of our stuff. It takes a lot of work to maintain ownership of your data.
Principles of the Personal Digital Archive
Below are a few core principles to build and preserve our own digital archives.
- Store your data in files that can be opened with more than one program from more than one company without conversion.
- Stick to ubiquitous formats like HTML, text, jpeg, ePub, ping, mp3, and pdf. Proprietary formats like Word are bad. Video formats are a complete mess right now — I can't help you with those.
- Every time you begin to use a new program or service, know how you can get your data out of it. Try it out and ensure it works.
- Photos, music, and movies will be the hardest thing to handle. Text is easy.
- Any form of digital rights management (DRM) means you don't control the data. If you need a company to unlock your data for you, you don't own it, they do.
- If you died today, what would your loved ones need to do to recover your data. Could they reasonably do that? If not, fix it so they can. This, in particular, includes passwords.
A Personal Digital Archive Plan
Below is my own personal digital archive plan. It may work for you, it may not. The best thing you can do about this is write up your own plan, try it out, see what works, and perform it regularly.
- Store all of the files I care about in Dropbox. Dropbox stores files both locally on PCs or Macs and in the cloud. It's the best way I've seen to back things up both locally and remotely without losing control over my stuff. All the files I save are in open formats without DRM.
- Photos are a mess. I take pictures exclusively with my iPhone and use the Photostream to get them onto my Mac in iPhoto. iPhoto is currently a piece of shit, but it stores photos in a reasonably accessible structure. It also lets me export everything. I've started using Google's new photo backup service on my iPhone to store photos in Google Plus. Hopefully I can find a better way to manage photos but this will have to do for now.
- I used to use Time Machine but switched over to copying zip files of an iPhoto export, a zip of my documents, and a zip of some other big media I rarely touch over to Amazon Glacier. 10GB of storage on Glacier costs about $1.20 a year.
- Most of my writing is on the web. I have a set of scripts that creates a weekly Lifebackup of all my online writings, some select photos, an archive of tweets, an archive of my dad's writings, and archives of old websites, scripts, stories, books and writings. This is my last line in backup. If any one piece of my digital life remains, I hope it is this.
- I use iTunes Match for music and download my favorite playlists locally. Music is replaceable in a critical failure (like Apple shuts down iTunes Match without letting anyone download their stuff, which is unlikely). I'm mainly worried about data I created, though, so I'm not going to go through great pains to back up 20 gb of music.
- I use Twitter and Google Plus for social media. Both the Twitter archive and Google Takeout let you download a complete archive of your stuff from them. Facebook used to offer this but has since stopped. Most people probably don't care but the truth of this is scary. You previously owned your Facebook information but now you don't. Only Facebook has your stuff if you aren't carefully saving it locally, which I doubt most people do.
Every six months I'll do a full backup of my data. Here's the process:
- Export iPhoto to a folder, zip it, and copy it to Amazon Glacier.
- If any other big local data hasn't been archived in the past six months, zip that and put it on Glacier.
- Export Evernote to my Documents.
- Export Twitter to my Documents.
- Export Google Plus data to my Documents.
- Export Google Docs to my Documents.
- Export eBooks to my Documents.
- Download and expand my Lifebackup to my Documents.
- Zip my Documents and copy to Glacier.
- Copy these zips to a USB disk and make sure Michelle knows where it is.
A Dark Future for the Personal Digital Archive
As companies continue to move us to the cloud, we will continue to lose ownership of our digital stuff. It is not in these companies' best interests to give us full open access to all the stuff we own. The more we give them our stuff for "safe keeping" the more locked in we are with them. They are outspending us considerably in this and, the better their systems work, the easier it is for us to lose our ownership. Only by staying conscious of our personal data archive can we ensure we keep ownership over our stuff. We should review our procedures every six months. We should verify our archive is complete every six months. We should migrate our data to new current devices (USB drives, hard drives, etc) every five years.
Every time we start creating or buying digital stuff, we should know how we can get our stuff back out again. Some data, like TV shows, movies, and games, we will never really own again. We aren't buying that stuff, we're just licensing it.
For everything else, though, we should know how we can get our stuff out before we start putting our money, time, or creative effort in.