Storing Data But Losing Information

We focus on backing up data and worry about the threat of data being lost through technical malfunction or data breaches.  However, we are storing data but losing information.

Changing Technology

Google’s vice president recently warned of the danger of losing precious photographs due to the age of changing technology (NewsX, 2015).  As new data formats and data standards are introduced with each advance in technology, older formats become not only obsolete but also inaccessible. He referred to this century as being the ‘lost century’ (Iol, 2015) as unlike previous centuries there will be few tangible records for future historians to examine and explore civilization.

Legacy Systems

Organizations regularly have to tackle the problem of legacy systems; information systems that are important to the running of the organizations that operate on hardware or software that is no longer aligned with the organization’s IS/IT strategy.  Decisions have to be taken about whether to maintain the legacy system, replace the system or create a wrapper around it so that it can exchange data with other information systems in the organization.  While organizations plan migration strategies to deal with legacy systems and the data contained within them, for consumers the decision is often made for them by the technology industry.

The consumer is forced to move to new technology as older media becomes no longer supported.  Consumers were forced to leave behind film reels, music and video cassettes, and picture slides in the move to digital technology as both the media and playing device became obsolete.  For years the memories held on the obsolete media were cocooned and unreachable until consumer technology became available to access and digitalize the data.  The data from the legacy media was released and preserved in the digital age but only for as long as the new storage media remains current.

Physical Artefacts

Google’s vice president recommends printing out important documents, suggesting that paper will withstand technological change.  But we are in a world where both business and entertainment is conducted electronically, and organizations and individuals have persevered to reduce paper.  Millions of paper documents have been digitally scanned and the paper versions have been destroyed in the rush to the digital age.  By digitalizing data have we been storing data but losing information?

Before everyone rushes to the printer we need to remember the fragilities and storage challenges of paper.

  • Storage: The contents of a two drawer filing cabinet can be saved on a CD-ROM
  • Risks: Fire, water, light, humidity all pose threats to paper-based information.

Security can however also be improved by paper-based information because physical access to physical documents can be restricted.  Security controls can prevent paper information from being digitalized, prevent information from leaving the building and control the number of copies of information being made. Security controls on paper-based information may therefore help to reduce data breaches.

Data have been digitalized to enhance preservation and yet in doing so the information may have been lost.  As information technology advances and current digital technologies become obsolete, we are committing to a strategy of continuous migration of old data to new technology or risk losing information.

Where Do We Go From Here

Whilst paper-based information may be more sustainable in the long-term, the short-term demand to access information fuels the need for digital information.  A fundamental principle of information management is that information needs to be accessible when it is needed. In the short term, digitalization provides greater access to information (though this relies on appropriate organization of the information so that it can be easily located when needed).  However, we must also consider the information needs of future generations and reflect on the importance of, for example, transactional documents, as cultural information artefacts.


Further Reading:  Legacy systems are discussed in Chapter 12.

NewsX (2015) ‘ Print out your photos or risk losing them, warns Google’, 14 February 2015,

Iol (2015), ‘Welcome to the ‘Lost Century’, 28 February 2015,


Please use the following to reference this blog post in your own work:

Cox, S. A., (2015), ’Storing Data But Losing Information’, 6 March 2015,, [Date accessed: dd:mm:yy]


© 2014 Sharon A Cox