John Pelan

John Pelan

Last updated on 4 October 2019

John Pelan is Director of the Scottish Council on Archives and he attended iPres2019 with support from the DPC's Leadership Programme which is generously funded by DPC Supporters.


I attended iPres 2019 as a representative of the Scottish Council on Archives, not as a digital preservation or records management professional.  In my pre-event blog for iPres 2019, I wrote that I hoped that the conference would improve my knowledge of digital preservation and related issues which, in turn, would help inform SCA’s programme of work.  However, I was not prepared for the incredible diversity, complexity and technicality of subjects covered.  While I did, at times, feel like a fish out of water, I did come away from the event with a better understanding of the importance and increasing urgency of managing and preserving digital material.  My highlights included the presentation on the challenges and lessons of setting up an open access repository with four universities in Palestine; the panel discussion on preserving eBooks; the three keynote speakers; and, of course, chatting to new people at the conference reception.

Data is often described as the new oil.  Whether or not this is true is debatable but if we read the description as a metaphor there are some striking similarities between the two resources.  Like oil, data needs to be carefully managed and stored.  Both power the world’s engines, physical and digital, but oil and data in the wrong hands can be dangerous and unpredictable with lasting consequences.  Data, like oil, can be corruptible and corrupting.  Most importantly, both resources are slippery, prone to leakage and require enormous technical skill and manpower to manage and control them.  Data’s vulnerability to manipulation as well as its capacity for good were powerfully emphasised by the final Keynote speaker of the conference, Eliot Higgins, founder of the online investigative website, Bellingcat, which specialises in fact-checking and open-source intelligence.

Higgins explained how Bellingcat, working with a global network of researchers and collaborators, was able to use open-source data from Google Earth and other services to contradict official ‘evidence’ produced by governments in wars in Libya and Syria.  This mainly involved geo-locating sites featured in ‘official’ footage by identifying local landmarks such as roads, mosques, schools and other buildings. One particularly disturbing case presented by Higgins involved the bombing of hospital in Sarmin, Syria by Russian forces.  Although the Russian Government denied the allegations and showed aerial ‘evidence’ that the hospital was still intact, this was shown to be false by Bellingcat’s investigation.  The technique has also been applied in cases involving missing people and child abuse victims.

The key message from Higgins’ talk was the importance of reliable, verifiable evidence which must be accessible and usable in the future.  He explained how Bellingcat was working with organisations such as the Syrian Archive (https://syrianarchive.org/en) and the Global Legal Action Network (https://www.glanlaw.org/) to record and curate digital material to create an evidence-based tool for reporting and human rights purposes.

The iPres2018 talk by Eliot Higgins can be viewed here https://vimeo.com/362495589


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