We haven't even reached April yet, and already there have been a number of major natural disasters this year: the Australian, Brazilian, South African and Sri Lankan floods in January, the New Zealand earthquake (and reflooding in Sri Lanka) in February and the massive Japanese earthquake and tsunami of last week. Many of these disasters have struck "digital-intensive" societies, where the loss of digital assets has almost as great an impact on the speed of economic and emotional recovery as the replacement of brick and mortar assets.
It will take some time to see how exactly well business continuity plans fare in the wake of the Japanese disaster. Reports from papers like the Financial Times of London, for instance, predict that many of the world's largest companies are likely going to experience some sort of supply-chain problem. No doubt many Japanese corporate and government IT systems have been destroyed or damaged as well because of the quake and or flood, and those that have not, have had to cope with rolling blackouts. At least the Internet wasn't completely lost.
While most major Japanese and international corporations operating in Japan have data back-up facilities, the majority of individuals probably do not. It is sadly in times like these that remind us of the importance of getting our digital lives - and afterlives - in order.
Estimates range that 300,000 to 500,000 Japanese are or will soon be homeless. When things get back to "normal," which may take months or even years for some, restoring and updating their digital lives will be a monumental undertaking, unless remote back-up services such as those offered by a company like an Iron Mountain, Mozy or similar one have been used.
In addition, as I noted last July, Facebook (as well as other social media companies) has had to come to grips with the problem of what to do when one of its users passes away, which supposedly happens about once every three minutes on average.
While there are only 2.5 million Facebook users in Japan (2% of the population), with the death or missing toll already exceeding 10,000 because of the disaster, some 200 families are possibly going to have the sad task of determining exactly what to do with their departed family member's digital Facebook afterlives.
Recently, a new book called, "Your Digital Afterlife," was published by New Riders Press. It was written by authors Evan Carroll and John Romano, who are editors for the web site The Digital Beyond, which basically tries to answer the stark question that was lately posed on their web site: "You're dead: your data isn't. Now what happens?"
While I haven't read their book yet, National Public Radio did an interesting interview with authors Carroll and Romano in January of this year. They point out that, for instance, that there are no standard set of rules regarding how Internet service and social media providers treat the digital accounts of deceased persons, so family members need to find out which provider(s) was used and for what purpose(s). They also point out that as more financial accounts exist only on-line (financial as well as those involving virtual worlds, for example), it is important that some family member or trusted friend have access to those accounts in case of your death.
Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster before we start to think about such an event as our own passing, but getting one's digital life as well as afterlife in order is probably long overdue for most of us.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.