The long and short of it – what data to keep and what to delete

My parents are in the process of downsizing their house to a smaller one. Part of the process is going through years of papers and memorabilia to determine what to keep and what to throw out. That seemingly important file from 20 years ago doesn’t look so critical when you look at it now. The collection of National Geographic Magazines might seem valuable but do you (a) need it and (b) do you have anywhere to put it. With digital data, there are many of the same issues and it’s important to be able to determine what is important for long term vs short term.

An important distinction to be made between physical and digital data is the amount of space it takes to store both. Having to find place for 500 magazines is not quite the same as having a big enough hard drive to store 500 digital copies of the same magazines. Hard drives continue to drop in price so it’s feasible to keep buying larger hard drives as your quantity of data increases. And it’s also like that your current hard drive purchase will be cheaper and higher capacity than the previous one.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help you think about what you should and shouldn’t keep.

This view of the Cabot trail in Nova Scotia is definitely a keeper

Photos and Videos

This summer we went on vacation in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We took lots of great pictures of the scenery. When we returned from the trip, I went through the hundreds of photos that we took and DELETED many of them. If there are 10 pictures of a statue then only the best one needs to be kept. The key thing here is to do your purging of pictures as soon as possible. If you wait until the end of the year then there’s a good chance you’ll never delete anything. The same goes for videos. Check your videos after you record them and if they’re no good, then get rid of them!

Financial Documents

These include all your digital bills and statements, receipts for products purchased and everything to do with taxes. I’m not one to give financial advice but I have been told to keep all tax related documents for 7 years. I have also heard that when there’s a tax problem, the tax department might go back even further. The reality if you save copies of documents then the files are not too big, at least compared to photos and videos. If you don’t do much else in digital filing, at least have a folder with files for years. Put everything in each year’s folder. Take it further by having folders for bills, statements, receipts, taxes, etc. This way if you decide to get rid of certain years, you know that the files are broken up by years. And it has the added bonus of making it much easier to find what you’re looking for.

Documents created in word processors and spreadsheets

Some of these documents are related to taxes or finances and should be filed along with the statements. Others are quick letters or notes that you might take that are never needed again. These too should be kept in folders by year so that you can quickly check through them at the end of the year to see what you actually need. Many of these are also small files that over time do not take up that much space on our ever increasing sized hard drives.

What to do with files that are kept?

The key take away here is to have an effective filing system so that you can better locate what you want to keep and what to get rid of. In future posts, we will talk about various methods for long and short term archiving. You should be able to actually find what you choose to keep!

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Hard drive preventative maintenance means less data loss

A device with many mechanical parts like a computer is a failure waiting to happen. That shiny new computer you just bought is edging its way to the day that parts start to break one day. Hard drives are rated for MTBF which means mean time between failures – how long until it fails. It’s not just a matter if it will fail but when. We can’t prevent failures from happening but with effective preventative maintenance, we can better handle the outcome of the failure.

All parts of a computer will eventually fail, but some matter more than others. The CPU / main processor or power supply failing means that the computer will stop running but if the hard drive is intact, it can easily be moved to another computer to recover the data. Memory chips failing can cause strange issues where programs crash all the time, but when the memory is replaced then the computer runs as good as new.  The problem is when the hard drive fails you may or may not be able to recover data. Some data recovery companies can get back your data but this could cost thousands of dollars.

Hard Drive Failure Warning

The first step in preventative maintenance when it comes to hard drives is running some type of diagnostic tool. A free one that I have used for several years is Crystal Disk Info. All modern hard drives have built in sensors that are able to report to software if the hard drive is showing signs of failure. A program like Crystal Disk Info will show you visually about your hard drive health. It looks like this:

A few notes about how to read the above information:

  • Health Status is the most important – if it says good then the hard drive is in fine health. An orange warning mean start considering getting a new hard drive and copy over your data. A red warning means it’s close to failure.
  • Power on Hours tells you how long it’s been in use. The above is from a very new hard drive so it has few hours powered on
  • The long list of attributes is likely more technical detail than you need to be concerned with. Just remember if any are orange or red (as opposed to blue) then start being concerned with the health of the hard drive

Crystal Disk Info can be configured to pop up an alert when it senses a problem. This is a very good option to have enabled so that you can take action when this occurs.

If you do one thing today to prevent future data loss, install Crystal Disk Info! If you have a Mac, look for S.M.A.R.T hard drive diagnostics for Mac.

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Don’t Forget about Maintenance

I listened to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Freakonomics, recently. This one was entitled In Praise of Maintenance. The idea here is that as a society, we always want to build and create new things but we neglect the maintenance of the structures and creations that we already have. Governments talk about building new highways and public transit, but it’s not so exciting to provide funding to fix existing roads or subway tracks. The same can be said be said for our own digital life.

plumber holding wrench

Computer and smartphone manufacturers market to us constantly to upgrade to the latest and greatest devices. High resolution screens, fast processors and huge hard drives are very enticing as compared to our ‘old’ two year old computers! If we aren’t taking proper care of our data, then buying new doesn’t solve the existing problems that effective maintenance would alleviate.

In previous posts, I’ve talked a lot about being mindful of where your data resides and ensuring that it’s backed up. With regular maintenance of our data, we can have our cake and eat it too:

  • we ensure that all of our data is safe and protected
  • we can get that exciting new computer or smartphone and be confident that all of our data will seamlessly move over to it

So what kind of maintenance should we regularly be doing? Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Check that backups are actually running on schedule
  • Do test restores to ensure that we can actually get back our data
  • Check how much free space is on our hard drives and online storage to ensure there is enough room for future growth
  • Evaluate if our existing backup needs are still appropriate, such as health of external hard drives and is our online backup service still the most cost effective
  • Do we have new types of data that we haven’t been backing up? This could be files related to a new project or old family videos that were recently converted to digital format

There’s many more that could apply. What types of maintenance do you need to do with your digital data?

Leave your comments here or fill out our survey / backup assessment.

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