Added on 23 July 2020

A letter to the Editor of the Daily Telegraph, published on Friday 24th July 2020

Dear Editor,

In the House of Commons on Wednesday 15 July, the Prime Minister committed the UK government to an independent inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic.  As he stated, this will require “huge amounts of official time” as we seek to learn the lessons of the pandemic.  

Both this inquiry, and any future research into the pandemic, will require significant amounts of evidence.  This evidence will not be captured on paper but almost entirely as digital records: email, text messages, recordings, data sets and documents sitting on thousands of servers, with long chains of dependence upon platforms, interfaces, and applications.  These records will have been created by politicians and their staff, by government officials, advisors, and by a host of individuals outside of government, including private contractors.

The forthcoming inquiry, however it proceeds, will therefore be a forensic assessment of the digital traces of the actions of government.  Although daunting, this digital evidence enables the inquiry to proceed effectively, efficiently, and transparently. For example, information about what messages were sent by whom, to whom, and when will be recorded as metadata; as will receipt, opening and deletion of messages. This is essential to sequencing actions and decisions. Forensic tools can search and analyse records, testing their authenticity and ensuring their reliability.  Vital records, erroneously erased, may yet be recoverable.

The quality of the inquiry will be in direct proportion to the quality of the evidence from which it draws:  This inquiry will only succeed if the digital record is preserved through deliberate, active management.  Whilst organisational inertia can sometimes retain paper, this is not the case for digital records where active preservation is essential. 

Whilst some organisations can ensure digital records are preserved, too many cannot.  The continued accessibility of data and our ability to interpret it, depends on continuously changing software whilst the concept of a trustworthy ‘original record’ is very different in the digital world.

This changing nature of record keeping is not news. For more than two decades, UK agencies like The National Archives, the British Library and others have made genuine, world-leading contributions to the development of digital preservation solutions.  But this success has not been resourced to anything like the scale of the digital challenge that now sits before the nation.  Recent research shows that the majority of archives lack sufficient funding and skills to deliver basic digital preservation requirements, and that too often senior leadership do not understand this emerging need.  Barely one third of archives are resourced to preserve digital documents. It is no surprise that such records should feature so prominently on the ‘Bit List’ of Digitally Endangered Species. *

Digital infrastructures have come of age during the pandemic. Time alone will tell if digital record keeping has come of age too. The evidence thus far is not promising. Only through the renewal of skills, renewal of policy and rapid deployment of emerging capabilities can we ensure that digital loss will not impede the inquiry.  The price of the records which will already have been lost is the cost to the public of the accountability which could have been. 

Yours sincerely, 

 Karl Magee, Chair 

Archives and Records Association

Gary Tuson, Chair

Chief Archivists in Local Government Group

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Richard Ovenden OBE, President

Digital Preservation Coalition     

Dr Juan Bicarregui, Chair 

Digital Preservation Coalition     

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Reynold Leming, Chair

Information and Records Management Society

Jaana Pinnick, Vice-Chair 

Information and Records Management Society


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