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Inside the Project Trying to Save Datasets from Extinction

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The number of older projects in need of rescue can be daunting.

Technical advances are making data preservation easier and more reliable than ever before.

Credit: kyoshino/

ust after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon supertanker Valdez slammed into Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The resulting oil spill was an unprecedented disaster for the region, its fish and rich wildlife, and the people and industries who depended on them. In the aftermath, more than $150 million of civil suit settlement money was allocated to ecological research and monitoring efforts to help scientists understand and mitigate the long-term effects of the spill. 

Three decades later, most of the data collected in the wake of the disaster have gone missing. A five-year project that began in 2012 to recover the original data turned up just 30 percent—the rest were never digitized, never shared, or kept in a format inaccessible to outside researchers. In purely financial terms, a new study estimates that more than $100 million was spent to collect data that, effectively, no longer exist. 

"Truly wild" is how University of Arizona community ecologist and study coauthor Ellen Bledsoe describes the scale of the Valdez data loss. Tallying it up "was definitely eye-opening, just as a way of quantifying monetarily how much data is lost." Bledsoe and colleagues at the Canadian Institute of Ecology and Evolution (CIEE) published their estimate earlier this year alongside guidelines for the recovery and archiving of important ecological data. As part of CIEE's Living Data Project, their goal is to identify datasets in danger of loss and take steps to preserve them before they disappear into the ether. Data rescue is the official term, but Bledsoe says she likes to think of it as "data necromancy"—bringing data back from the dead.

From The Scientist
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