Risk modelling, Uncertainty, and Digital File Format Obsolesence (European Conference on Digital Archives (2010))

Risk modelling, Uncertainty, and Digital File Format Obsolesence (European Conference on Digital Archives (2010))

I have seen a lot of conversation about modelling uncertainty in the field of digital preservation recently. A paper I wrote for PLANETS, to be presented at the 8th European Conference on Digital Archiving (ECA) all the way back in 2010 talks about this very subject.

The synthesis for the paper for the ECA read as follows:

Title: The risky business of digital preservation. The application of risk models to digital file format obsolescence.


Scientific risk management methodologies as applied to digital file format obsolescence.


Format obsolescence is seen as a risk to digital preservation. Terms such as “ominous” or “threat” are readily applied to format obsolescence yet we know from experience that file formats created decades ago are still in mainstream use today. As long as these formats are in mainstream use there is an opportunity for us to handle the possibility of obsolescence – so where is the risk? While information loss and the impact of the loss of information are very real “risks” for digital preservation, risk itself, in the context of file format obsolescence may be a misnomer. Risk is an emotive term that can conjure the wrong impression in one’s mind perpetuating a subjective response that may lead to inappropriate or unnecessary preservation activities. The National Archives along with the EU Planets Project have undertaken research to look at the risk of format obsolescence in the context of formal, international standard risk models. This will provide an objective and scientific approach to the understanding of risk in the context of format obsolescence and any consequential loss of information.


The potential to re-position the digital preservation community’s view of the real risks associated with digital file format obsolescence.

Key words: Digital File Format Obsolescence, Risk Management

It is difficult for folks to fund the full paper online so for those interested in reading it I have made it available as a Google Doc at the following link:

It is a little bit clunks, and for my first digital preservation paper it is a little bit green behind the ears. The positives might be that it could provide a useful introduction to risk modelling and uncertainty for some. I use a Monte Carlo Simulation and various statistical distributions to try and estimate when a file format might become obsolete. There is a little bit about what we could potentially measure in a collection of digital-objects to model, and thus make decisions about how we handle archival material.

Hopefully there’s something useful to folk in here.

I am interested in your thoughts, please post them in the comments below.