Of Mice, Bugs, and Computer Crashes

By Nanette Pfiester, Program Planning & Research Specialist

Every day I speak with Texas government staff.  From state agencies and universities to local governments, many of your concerns are the same.  I’ve heard panicked stories of mice in the records storage area (a closet), inquiries about what to do with 8-inch floppy disks, and worries that data or digital images cannot be used with new or upgraded software or hardware.

I love computers, but am cautious about completely relying on them to be perfect, always available, and permanent.  At home and at work, I save often, backup frequently, and double check important work.  Computers change so frequently that I am resigned to always learning new twists and turns along the way.

What happens when government relies on computers for all of the day-to-day functions of government?  What happens when computers crash and the backup files don’t work?  How long can you afford to be unable to serve your customers?

A recent conversation with a county official underscored how important it is to have certain records available in multiple formats.  We were discussing microfilm copies of permanent records and the critical role microfilm plays in the County’s overall strategy for records protection, preservation, and disaster planning.  While discussing a challenging software upgrade currently underway, they mentioned learning that some other counties have gone entirely digital and stopped making microfilm.  In contrast, this County continues to routinely have digital images written to microfilm for extra protection.  They have copies of the microfilm reels on hand for immediate use and master reels stored offsite for access if their building was unavailable.  I mentioned a recent National Public Radio (NPR) article that underscores why this microfilm strategy is so important.  (Also, see our recent blog article:  Why do we still need microfilm? http://www.tsl.texas.gov/slrm/blog/?p=1167).

Have you heard of “bugs” in computers?  That term came from 1946 when a single computer filled an entire room.  It quit working properly and after much research someone found a moth between two relays (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_bug).  The log described the problem and the moth was taped to the page as proof:

How about some stories in more recent news?

The New Orleans Civil District Court has had a computer crash and failed backups plaguing them since October 26, 2010.  For more than four weeks, real estate transactions have been halted because title searches are unavailable.  They even sent the hard drive out of state to a company that specializes in emergency data retrieval and not all years can be restored when I last checked on the story (Glitch Shuts Down New Orleans Real Estate Data http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=131548549).

Or, in Alaska in 2007, a single mistake reformatted a drive and none of the backups could be restored (Oops! Techie wipes out $38 billion fund – Keystroke mistake deletes data for Alaska’s oil-funded account http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17702021/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/).  To meet their required deadlines, they worked around the clock to rescan and re-key all the data.

So, remember to follow this agency’s administrative rules for state or local government regarding electronic records, digital images, and microfilm.  These standards and procedures will help you plan for implementing and protecting records in these media.  You will find publications and information on our website at www.tsl.texas.gov/slrm.

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