George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Broken Records: The Importance of Protecting Information

May 13, 2008

I carry a personal digital assistant (PDA), which my wife occasionally refers to as my "memory." On it are found my contact list and my calendar. When a potential client asks me if I have a date available, this is where I look. When I need to write a letter or make a call, it is where I find the info I need. But of all the functionalities, it is the calendar that is the most valuable. It tells me where I am supposed to be, and when.

So imagine my surprise when, in early May 2007, I tried to sync the PDA to my desktop computer and got an innocent-looking message that there's an issue with the calendar, something about "too many characters." This probably had to do with the fact that I still had information on the calendar about flights I had taken back in 2002 and places I had worked in 2000. You see, it truly was my "memory."

Anyhow, seeing the error message, I simply did another sync, and this time it came through with no errors. Unfortunately, what I had accomplished with the second sync was to delete every item in the calendar on both the handheld and the desktop. The first sync had cleaned out the PDA, the second the desktop. Mistake squared. Gone, clean gone. Oh, my goodness.

Only if you have suffered a data loss like this can you imagine the feelings that flooded through me in the next few minutes. You would remember those desperate efforts to find the data -- it had to be there somewhere. You would understand how stupid, how technically inept I felt. "Here I am," I thought, "a person who makes his living through supporting the purposeful use of technology, and I just lost my entire calendar." And you would realize what it feels like to start to come to grips with the reality and to begin to formulate a plan for how you are going to get through this.

Now, bear in mind that this was in May, just before the summer season, during which I would be traveling across the country several times. All those travel plans and dates, along with hotel reservations and the names of schools where I'd be working, had been on the PDA and on the desktop. Now, all that info was gone.

My reason for writing this humbling account of what happened to me is to introduce a conversation I had last Sunday at brunch with my friend Julie. In order to protect her anonymity, I won't give her last name as I share how one of the smartest people I know toasted her digital life. A highly competent person in so many ways, Julie is someone with whom I love to spend time and talk about big ideas and small realities. She was the professor (oops, did I just let slip that she is a professor?) who in 1993 helped me begin to understand how computers work. She has the rare gift of being a person who understands all the technical things as well as the human implications of same.

Well, a few weeks back, she put a flashlight she was using down on her laptop, right on top of the hard drive, and, as she described it, "In thirty seconds or so, strange sounds came out of the speakers, and then the screen went screwy, and then the screen went very, very odd, and then it just seized up." About then, she remembered that there was a powerful magnet on the back of the flashlight, and she realized she had toasted the drive. Talk about gone: Her hard drive, and in fact the entire laptop, was really, really gone.

I was able to cobble back together my calendar for the summer season of 2007 and beyond through my own real-life memory, online flight records, and emails and calls to clients in which I sought reconfirmation of dates. People and databases saved my bacon. But Julie lost everything. She had done a backup some two months earlier, but only of documents. This means that some of her most personal and most valuable digital resources, her pictures, were gone -- forever.

It was a humble conversation at brunch. Both of us looked to the future, and Julie suggested I take a look at Mozy and see how it provides two gigabytes of free backup to home users. I think I will, and I think you should, too.

So, 'fess up, y'all. Do you back up your data? Why? Why not? Come on -- you know everyone should be practicing safe saving. Share your stories and pass along your tips. I promise, I'll save them -- safely!

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