Reference Model for Economic Sustainability of Digital Information (ESDI) – background

5 Aug

 This is one of a series of blog posts about a project that Brian Lavoie of OCLC Research and I are undertaking for JISC. Much of the work described here has been done by Brian. This introductory post is based on a presentation we did at a Tallinn workshop organised by Neil Grindley of JISC who is funding part of the work. In a sense, what is reported here is not what I really want to talk about (which is more some further aspects of the work), but it seems helpful to have something to refer back to as background material. Note, we have also moved on from some aspects of this, but it seemed best to start with a recap of our public statement.

Brian’s picture below summarises the foundations of the work:

Foundations for progress slide

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access ( was supported by NSF, Mellon, JISC, Library of Congress, CLIR and NARA. It was cross-domain, with members from the cultural heritage, academia, public sector and the private sector, and it was cross-discipline, with members who were computer scientists, economists, archivists, librarians and others (myself included in that category).

The Task Force’s goals were to:

  • Frame digital preservation as sustainable economic activity
  • Define and characterize the problem space
  • Provide practical recommendations for key decision-makers
  • Establish foundations of an economics of digital preservation

The final report of the project[i] provided

  • a comprehensive description of the fundamentals of the economics of digital preservation
  • a definition of economic sustainability in digital preservation context
  • identification and explanation of core economic attributes of digital preservation, and their impact on sustainability

The report did include practical findings and recommendations to aid preservation decision-making, based on detailed economic analysis of 4 key digital preservation scenarios. “Second-order results” from the report included concepts, vocabulary, and an organizing framework to shape future work on economically sustainable digital preservation. However, while the report was and remains useful in many ways, its lengthy, narrative format was aimed more at senior decision makers than as a practical tool for developing a sustainability strategy in a particular digital preservation or curation context.

So what’s a Reference Model? Wikipedia suggests it is a “model … that embodies the basic goal or idea of something  and can then be looked at as a reference for various purposes.”

The attributes of a reference model include:

  • Abstract: not real things, but abstract representation of things (concepts)
  • Entities and Relationships: things that exist, and how they relate/interact
  • Within an environment: describes a particular problem space
  • “Technology agnostic”: does not make assumptions about the real-world environment that would reduce its applicability

The uses of a reference model include:

  • Create standards for entities and relationships
  • Educate (deconstruct and analyze the problem space)
  • Improve communication
  • Create clear roles and responsibilities
  • Compare implications of alternative solutions

The Open Archival Information System[ii] is a well-known example of a reference model in the digital preservation space.

A Reference Model for Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation, then would be a model that embodies the basic goal of economically sustainable digital curation and can then be looked at as a reference for building a sustainability strategy for a curation activity. Its attributes would include:

  • Abstract: key concepts of economic sustainability
  • Entities and Relationships: ecosystem of stakeholders and relationships
  • Within an environment: focuses on economic aspects of digital curation
  • “Technology agnostic”: applicable to most digital curation contexts

Generic uses:

  •  Create standards & best practices for building sustainability strategies
  •  Educate (deconstruct and analyze the sustainability problem space)
  •  Improve communication  about economic sustainability issues

Specific uses:

  •  Create clear roles and responsibilities regarding economic sustainability
  •  Compare implications of alternative sustainability strategies

Moving on to the reference model itself, we had this diagrammatic structural representation:

Initial reference model

The next stage would be to identify the properties of these entities relevant to sustainability. Clearly a major question will be on the nature of these properties. Next we had a stage described as “Map sustainability properties of the Digital Assets, Preservation Processes, and the Sustainability Ecosystem to the findings and recommendations in BRTF Report”. We don’t mean “go read page 42” here; we have to find a way to bring those findings and recommendations across to the reference model.

So for example, one property of digital assets from the report is that their preservation is a derived demand (people want the asset, not its preservation). So a sustainability condition is that we have to express a value proposition that’s clearly understandable to decision-makers. A second property is that digital assets are depreciable and durable (technical terms, see the report), and the sustainability condition is ongoing investment. A third property is that digital assets are nonrival in consumption; this means there is no real scarcity for a business case to build on (the heart of the disruptions in the music business, for instance). The sustainability condition then is some form of incentives to compensate.

Moving on to the preservation process, one property is that preservation is a stream of decisions over time, that the process is path-dependent (you can’t easily stop and restart preservation), and it has finite resources. The corresponding sustainability conditions include using finite planning horizons, evaluating the opportunity costs of inaction, and using selection to ensure you re spending your scarce resources on valuable assets.

We next talked about the sustainability ecosystem, which relates to the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders. We can divide this into lifecycle management as a key substrate, and with both a supply-side and a demand-side (yes, there’s lots of economist-speak here!). This is perhaps best represented as Brian’s picture (it’s important to note that these are roles rather than separate entities; several roles may carried out by the same entity):

Ecosystem roles

In any particular circumstances there will be (differing) key relationships between these roles, and these can get quite complex. We’ll come on to more detail on this in a later post.

So in summary, the approach we were presenting (which remains much the same although changing in some ways) was:

  1. Evaluate sustainability conditions related to Digital Assets
  2. Evaluate sustainability conditions related to Preservation Process
  3. Configure ecosystem:
  • Identify key roles
  • Identify/characterize key relationships  between roles
  1. Evaluate BRTF findings & recommendations relevant to ecosystem configuration
  2. Use results from 1-4 to inform development of sustainability strategy tailored to the curation context in which it will operate

[i] BRTF-SDPA. (2010). Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information. (A. Smith Rumsey, Ed.). San Diego. Retrieved from

[ii] CCSDS. (2002). Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System (OAIS). NASA. Retrieved from

[Update to add links


Up to Table of contents

Revised by?]


3 Responses to “Reference Model for Economic Sustainability of Digital Information (ESDI) – background”

  1. Andrew C Wilson 7 August, 2011 at 23:38 #

    Well, it was an excellent piece of work, but not one of the Task Force members was an archivist or from an archival institution. The only representative from an archival institution (NARA) was a computer engineer who was one of the liaisons.

  2. Chris Rusbridge 8 August, 2011 at 10:28 #

    Andrew, I don’t think you read the member list properly; one member was Director of the Smithsonian Institute Archives, and had been a member of the American Society of Archivists since 1976…

  3. Andrew C Wilson 28 August, 2011 at 23:51 #

    Chris, Apologies, I did over look Ms Van Camp.

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