Sustainable (Data) Development

A meeting last week highlighted how fragile digital data resources can be, when long term sustainability planning hasn’t been properly thought through.  A culturally valuable research project that I have been involved with for the past few years, and which has produced a substantial body of work in the form of an online encyclopaedia, is now experiencing a funding crisis.  While the research component of the project can be put on hold until funds are secured, the database – hosted on a server – needs continual maintenance to remain online and usable.

Digital heritage projects need, at the proposal stage, a discussion around what to do with the data once the project has run its course or, in a worst case scenario, if funding dries up.  If the project is situated at an institution, for example a university, then that institution should commit to maintaining access to the data once the research is complete.  Apart from the prestige certain research collections can bring to a university, the potential research benefits are great.  Further projects could be developed from this data and a substantial body of knowledge could be generated around a particular topic.

If the project has been funded by government, then the digital heritage asset created through that project belongs to the public who paid for it.  As such, government has an obligation to keep resource online – in a repository or linked to a museum or cultural institution – allowing public access to it.

So, what can be done if no forward planning has been done and you’re left with a rapidly depleting project fund and continuing hosting and maintenance costs?  The first option is donate your database to an institution that has the human resources and electonic infrastructure to maintain your data and keep it online.  Another option is to dip your toes into the murky waters of advertising, to see if you can cover costs yourself.  KZN Literary Tourism, a project which started out with NRF funding, has done this successfully by targeting advertisers who have a link to literature in some form and with banner adverts that don’t detract from the overall user experience of the website.

I’d like to end on an anecdotal note which I feel highlights the benefits of keeping heritage projects online and accessible.  A couple of years ago I was involved in a project interviewing people working and living along a specific, walking route into the city.  The project only took a couple of months to complete, with the end products an exhibition and book.  While the book is out of print and the exhibition long forgotten, the stories and photographs we collected have been archived online at, allowing the project to live on, being selected for Temple University’s ‘The World in My Street’ project, and generating constant interest from the public, to this very day.

Ma Dlamini from Along the Way
Ma Dlamini from Along the Way

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