Friday, January 2, 2009

Bush e-records: an update

A few days ago, I noted that the New York Times had, in my view, done less than a stellar job of explaining the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)'s implementation of a "contingency plan" for the transfer of electronic records created by the Bush White House. I'm happy to report that Julian Sanchez, who wrote a follow up piece on the Times story for Ars Technica earlier this week, is much more astute:

As the New York Times reported this weekend, many of those eager to get their hands on the outgoing administration's treasure trove of documents—like the folks at the National Security Archive and the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington—are skeptical of the Archives' ability to quickly absorb a data dump that the contingency plan estimates at "50-100 times the volume of electronic materials" left behind by the Clintons at the close of the millennium . . . .

Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper argues that these concerns are exaggerated. She calls the Times story "misleading," noting that the contingency plan approved last month concerns only two types of data: the massive White House store of digital photos and the Records Management System that serves as the master index to most of the administration's text documents.

According to Sanchez, Cooper also challenged the Times' assertion that relations between the White House and NARA, which she characterized as "'cooperative and working'" were strained. This sort of cordiality isn't really consistent with the Bush White House's past interactions with NARA or handling of records-related issues, but I'm hoping that the imminent departure of President Bush has brought about a genuine change of attitude.

Sanchez provides an good overview of the "contingency plan," efforts to recover missing White House e-mails, and NARA's role in converting, at the time of transfer, all records created in proprietary formats (i.e., formats owned and controlled by software companies) to open formats (i.e., formats for which the full technical specifications are freely available to any software developer) that facilitate long-term preservation. He also wraps up with one of the smartest-- and most succinct -- media treatment of electronic records issues I've ever encountered:
. . . The eleventh-hour data migration may . . . make it harder to spot lacunae in the records before the president and his entourage are back in Crawford clearing brush. If the next administration wants to demonstrate its commitment to open, high-tech government, it can start by preserving its own records in open formats.
Here's hoping that the Obama White House takes this piece of advice -- and, better yet, uses open formats to create records, not just preserve them.

BTW, Sanchez's story is accompanied by a really cool nighttime photo of NARA's Archives I facility in Washington, D.C.; alas, there is no photo credit.

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