The cold sweat. The spike in heart rate. The shortness of breath.
Few sensations equal those experienced by a computer user who can’t locate a collection of files, or a data set, on their machine. Search after search yields the same dreaded result: No items match your search. At this point there’s a strong urge to toss a sidewalk pizza.
Just as bad is the experience of the computer user whose machine or storage device gets stolen, or is lost. Weeks, months, or even years of work are gone. In the age of digital photography, the visual record of an entire period of time can disappear — and, as the song goes, it ain’t comin’ back.
“I’ve had students lose course papers when their thumb drive goes missing, or gets corrupted,” says Tanya Heikkila, associate professor and Ph.D. program director at SPA. “And I’ve personally collaborated on papers with colleagues where different versions are emailed back and forth, and the version that I spent hours editing and saved to my hard drive can’t be recovered.”
It Happens More Often Than You Might Think
A 2012 survey by online backup provider Mozy revealed the following:
- Nearly 70 percent of people have lost a data storage device at some point
- Over the last 12 months, on average 7.5 percent of people have lost their laptop
- Globally, big cities and areas where people use more public transit are hot spots for lost property; 19 percent of items are lost on public transport
- People who travel to work by car aren’t much more fortunate: 11 percent of lost and stolen items disappear from a car
- December, not April, turns out to be the cruelest month when it comes to losing things: 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays in December are particularly disastrous.
It’s important to note that none of these statistics consider data loss due to computer viruses or other malware. But that’s a whole other story…
Develop a Data Backup Plan and Stick to It
If you don’t already have a data backup plan, winter break would be an ideal time to explore your options. Currently enrolled SPA students have free access to Microsoft Office 365, which includes Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud-based storage. The free OneDrive account includes 1TB of storage space.
Keep in mind that your OneDrive account will expire once you graduate, or are no longer enrolled at SPA. At that point — or for those who would prefer not to use a school-based service — a wide range of data backup options is available. These include cloud-based services like Google Drive, Dropbox and iCloud. Most are free for a basic account with a reasonable amount of storage space, then charge fees for additional storage.
PC Magazine has a list of recommendations for the best cloud storage services in 2015, including a side-by-side features comparison (note that quoted prices are for 1TB of storage space). Wikipedia provides a similar, albeit less user-friendly, comparison.
Whatever option you select, read the privacy terms and conditions and make sure you’re comfortable with them. This is particularly important for students who may be using proprietary data provided by a client or agency.
“In that scenario the student should be sure that the data is de-identified and encrypted on their machine from day one, and definitely before backing it up to a cloud-based service,” says Rob Drouillard, director of information technology for SPA. “In the case of sensitive data, all applicable security protocols must be observed at all times.”
“To be safe, students should also make a copy of the original data set, before they start manipulating the data,” Heikkila adds. “And be sure that you’re abiding by CU Denver IRB regulations with respect to data storage and maintenance.”
Storage devices like external hard drives or USB flash drives also have their time and place. “They provide quick access to files and are particularly useful in situations where Internet access isn’t available, or reliable,” Drouillard says.
But the statistic cited above regarding 70 percent of people having lost a data storage device at some point is borne out at SPA.
“We have a box full of storage devices that people have left in the SPA computer lab,” he adds.
With some research you should be able to find a service that works for you and your computer (and other devices), and fits within your budget. Then develop a data backup plan, and stick to it. Some services provide file-syncing, which provides peace of mind from knowing that the backup process is fully automatic.
The main point is: don’t be the student who turns into the hard luck lesson that everyone else learns from.