José Borbinha

José Borbinha

Last updated on 28 November 2018

José Borbinha is Professor of Information Systems at IST / INESC-ID in Lisbon, Portugal

I am an engineer… as that, I’m “cursed” with the fundamental (lack of?) knowledge to understand the root causes of the digital preservation challenge… But let us not talk about that today! The crime was committed a long time ago, and the criminals have escaped for good… We have no option than to address it the best we can…

OK, so let us do all the necessary engineering for that! Let us move on!!! Let us analyse the problem, conceive the corresponding technological solutions, and… just do it! Correct? NO! WRONG!

It is wrong because even if it is true we need “engineering” to address the problem (good for me and my friends… we still have work… ;-), we also know it is not enough… Let us then restart…

My preferred definition for digital preservation is “communication with the future”. This was the slogan of the SHAMAN project (, but I’m sure we took it from someone else… unfortunately I could not trace it to its due source… my apologies!

Besides sounding poetic, “communication with the future” also is the perfect starting point to help me explain “my thinking” about this great challenge… In other words, how we really should understand and “do” digital preservation?

Engineering is about being predictable. It is about the ability of understanding a problem, matching that with the present state of the art of methods and techniques to solve these problems, identifying those that best apply for that problem in special, and finally make it happen. If we accept that, then also either we accept that we already have the ability to preview the future, thus making digital preservation predictable trough engineering, or… we must be realistic and accept engineering cannot be predictable at that point… It is of a huge help for that goal, it is even fundamental, BUT IT IS NOT ENOUGH!

OK, so… I that case… what next?

Don’t despair! I do not have the ultimate solution, but… think well… what do we do when we are facing an unpredictable future and cannot afford to stay quiet about that? Yes, we do “risk management”!!! That means we apply our best efforts to try to understand as much as possible about the things subject of our concern, which in “risk management language” we call “assets”, then we speculate about all the things plausible to harm those assets, and finally we take our best decision about the measures we should take (or not) to protect these assets from those potential harmful things (just in case they really occur). Yes, that’s it… just “google it”, and you’ll realize it already exists a lot of work in our community on “risk management for digital preservation” (myself including ;-)

So, it is done, right? Well… NOP! Not yet…

One other thing we also learned is that engineering and risk management can complement themselves, but that does not happen “naturally”! It must be framed by something else… And that “else” also already exists… is “maturity”. In very simple terms, maturity is a measure of how we do a thing against the knowledge that exists for doing that thing. That means an assessment of a maturity can inform us of not only “how far” we already went on our ability of doing that thing (“capability” might be the term to apply here…), but also can guide us for the next steps, in case we want to improve. Great concept, right? Would be great if we could bring all that together, I mean, wised risk management, competent engineering, and robust maturity assessment… we almost could convince ourselves that we’d have the key to “engineer for the future”… Wow…

Well, believe it or not, but if you are not aware, all that already somehow exists! Work on maturity models for information management and even for digital preservation already exists! Just “google it” and you’ll find it easily… we (yet) went not too far aligning that with the engineering for the purpose of digital preservation, but… good to see that many of us are working for that…

By the way, why don’t you join us? Come on!!! We might not be able to assure that we already can engineer “digital preservation as communication with the future”, but with a little help of risk management and maturity models we have a way to complement all those great engineering results we already reached. Let us do it?

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