From dusty archives to the cloud: A data Odyssey

As technology races forward, data stuck in old gadgets like floppy disks or zip drives are at risk of being technologically obsolete and inaccessible. But even those hidden treasures can be brought back to life. Find out how Martin Wassen of the Faculty of Geosciences was able to recover a wealth of data from 40 years of work with the help of the Geo Data Team.

As a young researcher, Wassen had already taken an interest in ecology and the environment. He participated in numerous projects. One of them took place in western Siberia, a region similar to the Netherlands but entirely untouched at the time. "We were dropped from a helicopter in an area where there were no phones or other lines of communication. The pilot told us he would pick us up again in 12 days at this place in the middle of nowhere. Doing science back then was not quite the same as it is now, especially when it comes to using technology to handle data. We collected data and put them on punch cards. We stored the cards in a shoebox, which you then cycled to the computer centre located 12 km away. If something went wrong on the way, everything got mixed up. After handing it in, it took approximately two weeks before you received something you could process."

Around 1988, we had one portable PC in the department.

From suitcase to smartphone

"Around 1988, we had one portable PC in the department. It was like a suitcase with a small screen in green font. You had to sign in to use it.  So we always had to coordinate who could use that computer on the weekend to work on their thesis," says Wassen. "It wasn't until the years following that you got computers in the department with a larger storage capacity and using a Unix system. Personal computers in those days you only used to send e-mails". You might wonder why you would still want to keep this old data, but it is precisely this kind of data that documents the state of the environment at that time. That is precisely what is very important with climate change in mind.

Four decades of data

Last year began the project in which the Geo Data Team retrieved this valuable research data, which Martin Wassen had collected over four decades. Maisam Mohammadi Dadkan, data steward at the Geo Data Team, says: "When we received boxes full of floppy disks, zip drives, and other data carriers, we knew, that the main difficulty was to locate suitable devices to read these outdated storage media. Besides, it was questionable whether they would still work, given their age."

A museum piece

It took several months to find suitable hardware and establish a system that could read data from floppy disks and zip disks. Surprisingly, most floppy disks turned out to be in good shape and data was successfully retrieved. CDs and DVDs on the other hand proved to be less robust than the floppy and zip drives. A substantial amount of data was also stored on magnetic tapes. To still retrieve this data, the Geo Data Team had to really think out of the box. They found a suitable tape reader at the Home Computer Museum in Helmond.

We knew, that the main difficulty was to locate suitable devices to read these outdated storage media.

More than just dusting data

All the retrieved data was converted and archived in modern cloud data repositories, where we immediately made sure they complied with the FAIR principles. "The beauty of this project is that the team not only retrieves and transfers data, but also turns it into open-source and interoperable formats right away. Every byte counts! Whether it's old floppy disks, floppies, or CD-ROMs. Don't underestimate the power of the past - it can be the key to future breakthroughs. I am happy that my research data will not go to waste and can still contribute to research in the environmental sciences long after I retire," Wassen said.

More information

Interested in advice on extracting your old research data? If so, contact RDM Support. They can explore the possibilities with you and give you tips on how to proceed.