Managing your digital assets

As I sit down to write this article, in the wake of his untimely death, Michael Jackson’s albums dominate the iTunes bestseller lists in an unprecedented way, and he holds down 9 of the top 10 places.

This is surely testimony, not only to the enduring quality and universal appeal of the King of Pop’s music, but also to the huge shift that is taking place from music stored on physical media like CDs to digital-only music stored on computers and iPods. No doubt huge numbers of the iTunes downloads of albums like Thriller (which, after all, sold more than 65 million copies in physical formats) are being made by people who already owned the album on LP or cassette, and who can’t be bothered to find a way of converting that to digital format.

The trend is clear: more and more of us, at home and at work, are rushing to shed paper documents, printed photos and physical media and making the move to ‘digital assets’. It’s a process that requires a bit of advance planning and active management, however, if this shift is to be as painless as possible. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Use open formats

I can’t count the number of times that clients have in desperation sent us files stored in formats that they can’t access. This is usually down to someone having used a software application that stored its data in a proprietary format, and that application now being obsolete. It might have appeared a good idea at the time to use ABC image editor to store your photos, but how are you going to access all those .abc files now that you’ve upgraded your computer and you can now longer run the application?

Wherever possible, therefore, stick to open and widely-used formats to store your digital assets, formats that will still be usable in the future. For paper documents, PDFs are a good option, and formats like TIFs, JPGs and PNGs, rather than application-specific formats, are best for images.

When it comes to editable office documents, you can either bet on the market leader (currently Microsoft Office) or you can rely on genuine open standards like the Open Document Format built into applications like OpenOffice and increasingly favoured by governments the world over who don’t like the idea of locking their data into formats owned by an American corporation. While it’s unlikely the .doc and .xls formats will be inaccessible any time soon, remember previous dominant market leaders like Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3 have come and gone, and with digital archiving you need to be thinking about access to your information not just now, but in 20-30 years’ time.

2. Avoid DRM like the plague

Just as you don’t want to lock your data into a proprietary format that may be difficult to access later, try to keep your digital assets as far as possible free of ‘digital rights management’ (DRM).

There isn’t scope here to debate the philosophical basis or merits of DRM, but suffice to say that the embedding of licence information into data is just another potential stumbling block to later access.

The music industry, after years of burying its head in the sand, has finally wised up and you should no longer need to buy any music with DRM. Movies are a different matter, though, as are things like audiobooks, and it may be a while before those can easily be purchased without DRM.

Similarly, while encrypting your office data files might seem a sensible precaution, you will lose everything if you lose the digital keys. Better to leave the files themselves unencrypted, but put the overall collection behind an appropriate security system.

3. Back up!

Some people think physical media are somehow safer than digital assets as they are tangible whereas computer files are easily overwritten or lost. They have a point, but the solution is obvious: keep more than one copy of all digital assets, and make sure your backups are stored separately and offsite.

4. Value your time appropriately

Time saved in not having to store and manipulate physical resources is one of the main conveniences of moving to digital assets, but the process of digitally archiving a huge back catalogue of paper documents, photographs, music or video can itself be immensely time consuming.

It is tempting to do all this work yourself. You have a stack of 35mm prints and a scanner, perhaps even one that has a 35mm negative scanner built-in. What could be easier than dedicating a few afternoons to digitising the lot of them? Well, think again. The results from your cheap scanner will probably be less than satisfactory, anyway, and the time needed to tidy up the scans afterwards, to remove dust or other imperfections from negatives, for instance, is an enormous cost to consider.

Even if you could manage just 10 minutes per scanned image, weigh that up against paying less than 20p per scan to a professional service like ScanCafe (www.scancafe.com). There are similar services available for digitising other materials like paper documents or old video archives, and they are well worth considering if you place any value on your own time.

In short, it won’t be long before the whole idea of accessing data from physical media is looked upon as quaint and antiquated, but getting from here to there both at work and at home will require real effort, a process that can be smoothed with a little forethought and sensible planning.