5 reasons to keep everything- An argument for digital information hoarding in the government of Canada

A key theme of the upcoming  Government of  Canada discussions on the   “digital office” is going to be electronic recordkeeping.  This is not surprising since the prime mover for this initiative is Library and Archives Canada, an institution charged with preserving records of historical value, also because, one could hardly imagine a digital office of the future that doesn’t rest on well managed and accessible digital information.  With sound digital recordkeeping comes transparency, preservation of our legacy knowledge and, most importantly, the ability to contribute, find and share the right information. 

As these discussions gear up, government employees who work in information management will be facing a major challenge: coming to grips with the way digital information is fundamentally changing recordkeeping.  Digital information calls into question some well established recordkeeping roles and in no place is this more evident than in determining what information to keep and what information to delete.  In a paper-based world ‘keep or delete’ procedures enabled us to weed out older records so that we could manage the limits on physicial storage space and more easily find valuable records.  Digital records do not take up physical space and with dramatically improved searchability of digital information ie search engines,  the real question is why don’t we just keep all of our digital information?      

Here are 5 reasons to keep everything: 

1) Costs of storing digital information continue to plummet.   A gigabyte, (200,000 pages of txt) of digital storage costed $12,000 in 1989 and costs $.64 in 2010. 

2) Web2.0 and other new tools are compounding the complexity of determining what to delete.  These web20 tools do not behave like traditional records ie Wikis are continuously evolving, organic and integrated. 

3) Knowledge management is broadening the scope of what information is considered valuable.  In the past, final versions and major drafts of important documents were considered valuable records.  Knowledge  Management  has broadened the notion of what is valuable to include discussions, decision and evolutions in thought that go into the creation of these ‘official’ records.

4) Search engine and other technologies are enabling the management of much larger collections of unstructured (unorganized) information, to filter out the noise to get at the real information.  Eg. Google creates order to Internet Chaos.  Eg. Version control allows for the designation of major drafts and final documents without having to delete.

5) Unpredictability of the future value of information and knowledge.   It is harder to assess what will be of future business or archival value so it is safer just to keep the information rather than discarding it.  Eg Climate change scientists are finding valuable data in ships logs from the 17th and 18th century, recently published by the British admiralty

Seriously considering the idea of keeping everything does not mean that information should not be managed. It is still fundamentally important to have processes in place to identify major and final documents and to put rules around how new tools like wikis need to be managed in way that makes this information reliable and findable.

It is likely to be too administratively costly and even risky to continue to go through the age old processes of disposition (deleting) in a digital environment. At any rate, Information Management professionals need to examine fundamentally what this all means in a digital world.

Posted in IM, recordkeeping | 16 Comments

Enabling the Digital Office

Recently, ADMs from across the GC met to discuss a “digital office” initiative. This meeting, co-chaired by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and Treasury Board, was convened to launch an exploration of this digital office idea and look at some opportunities to pilot it inside the GC. This should give some hope that information management, if not growing in importance in the minds of senior public servants, is not fading away.

While the vision of the digital office is still a bit fuzzy, the idea is that all GC information is captured digitally, easily accessible, shared, and, last but not least, managed. One may wonder at this since GC has been doing nothing but digital for at least 15 years: email, WordPerfect, Word, electronic forms and now wikis, etc. (Is there any document or data set created in the past 15 years that isn’t digital in origin?)

The kicker is that while we may be generating digital information in breathtaking quantities, we have not come to grips with managing it, with making it easily findable shareable and useful, and with preserving the growing legacy of truly valuable knowledge that we all play a part in creating daily.

But why are we talking about it now?

Here are a few reasons:

  • A shift in policy direction to favour digital over paper i.e. TBS policy on IM


  • LAC’s decision to no longer accept paper records as of 2017


  • The information explosion – this has to be the longest explosion on record but the rates of expansion do not seem to be slowing – think of your inbox after coming back from vacation


  • We now have established tools and processes that will allow us to manage this digital information i.e. document management solutions, search engine technologies, a growing body of guidelines,  procedures and knowledge.


  • Most importantly, in my view, a culture that increasingly recognizes the value of our electronic and legacy information and sees it as a foundation for future science, policy and program delivery and a culture that is increasingly open to sharing this information both inside GC and outside.

Many of us in the IM space are going to be watching with interest as this truly important initiative evolves, and I, for one, will look for opportunities to contribute wherever I can.

Posted in IM | 5 Comments

Power of twitter

We all have stories to be told about how powerful Twitter can be as a community builder. I love the small, personal and inconsequential stories that show every day humanity.

Last night Peter Cowan, my namesake who lives in Portland and who I almost met last summer, tweeted an appeal for good news, any good news would do. As luck, or serendipity would have it within a few seconds huffington post tweeted a story about the first condor chick to be hatched in a California park in a hundred years. I retweeted the story to Peter and he got back to me a little later with a sincere thanks. I hope I made his day, he certainly made mine.

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Emergent social media culture in government

The coolest thing about launching a whole bunch of social media tools over the last 30 months was watching the emergent community take up the tools and gradually progressively learn to use them in inventive and novel ways.

The best thing we did in these early days was be honest and admit that we didn’t have a clue about this technology; how to best use the tools, what their business purpose was etc.

So we launched our wiki and our blogs and our nrtube without a lot of analysis of the business need, with minimal guidelines and an uncritical trust in community.

What we have been rewarded with is an emergent collaborative community that continues to gain momentum and real credibility at senior levels, advising on public service renewal and all things web20. The real test will be to see how far this community can go in supporting new government activities. Is it more than just an informal advisory community?

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Information management in the great “open” of openess

Im not a librarian or a curator or a IM specialist and i have been known to tick off these occupational category occupants from time to time in my role as restless government bureaucrat. But i have been working in this space for almost 15 years and i love the idea of information management. I also have a thing for underdogs. IM has not been an influential discipline having been marginalized in government decision making and the allocation of resources. It is also generally considered boring and irrelevant by public servants if considered at all. This is changing.

Its not surprising that IM is going mainstream. We live in an information age, work in an information economy and have taken to generating information at dizzying rates in our daily business of analyzing, informing and briefing the government heirarchy. But if anything is finally driving home the importance of managing information it is the opening up and sharing of data and information inside and outside government institutions.

Openness needs the basic IM principles of classification and filtering to thrive and grow. And you see them very actively used in the social media tools. Trending topics, hashtags, retweeting and social filtering are all IM and are essential to sharing an communication in the open environment of the Internet.

Posted in IM, Social Media | Leave a comment


I am really getting behind on my blog-a-day commitment. It’s been at least a week and a half since i last posted. My excuse is that the hard drive on my MacBook blew up and as luck would have it, I simultaneously ran out of will power. Actually I ran out of willpower before

Posted in Blogging, quantum mechanics | Leave a comment

Random Topic Generator #1

Earlier today i asked randomly selected individuals to suggest blog topics. I am not sure who first came up with this idea, i think i saw it on the twitter stream, but given the fact that i am falling behind on the blog-a-day new years resolution and i am also naturally inclined to save energy that might otherwise be expend by thinking up topics on my own, I decided to poll people at Raw Sugar, my local coffee house for topics. The server and 4 patrons volunteered the list below. The first three people I gave no guidance on topic areas instead trusting to chance. The latter two came after i decided that a bit of guidance was required after all.

1) Why do castrated moose’s horns grow back deformed
2) Where can i get decent DIM SUM in ottawa
3) My prediction on how Lost is going to end
4) Dealing with information overload on the internet
5) how does sm change the way govt and press control information

So, for this to play out properly i have to not only write on all these topics but research them and come up with a useful perspective. This seemed like more than I bargained for until I took stock of this randomness and it turns out i know of a scientist who studies moose populations; i hate dim sum but know plenty of people who dont; there is a writer at ew.com who writes on the philosophy of Lost, and I know something about the last two topics.

Location:Cambridge St N,Ottawa,Canada

Posted in randomness | 2 Comments