An economic lifecycle model

8 Aug

Being clear about the nature of the lifecycle of the information that is being curated or preserved is important when assessing economic sustainability. One of the great ideas from the Blue Ribbon Task Force was “the case for preservation is the case for use”[i]. Use brings value, and value justifies preservation. It works the other way, too; if you separate use too far from the preserved content, then the value is reduced and the argument for preservation is diminished. 

Quite often in digital preservation circles the model is one I call “post-use”. The functional model of OAIS[ii] takes a resource, ingests it safely into the digital preservation box, where it is looked after until someone asks for it, when it is disseminated out to the consumer. It is just about possible to interpret this as part of a normal digital information service, but it’s clear from the text that this is not the OAIS intent, and to do so requires trivialising OAIS to the extent that it ceases to be very meaningful.

We looked at a few lifecycle models, including the Digital Curation Centre’s lifecycle[iii] (described in Higgins 2008[iv]). Generally they seemed too detailed for our purposes, and none expressed the economic realities we were keen to capture. So we have had a go at drafting our own economic lifecycle model (see figure below; it needs work from a better graphic artist, but I hope you can get the idea).

Pictorial version of the economic lifecycle model described in the text

We have tried to make this model work both for an individual data asset, for a data or information service (ie a service that makes data assets available) and for a data archive.

What is this diagram supposed to mean? It’s an economic view of the data lifecycle (time goes roughly clockwise, or anti-widdershins)… I’m using “data” here to include all forms of digital information.

Data are created (somehow, somewhere). Perhaps the data have been handed off from another service. Some of those created or handed off data are selected for this service, archive, whatever. The selected data have to be prepared for use; this is the “ingest” phase in OAIS, the editing phase in publishing, etc. It includes adding all relevant metadata required for use. This has been identified as one of the highest cost areas in the archiving world (Beagrie et 2008[v]), and it’s coloured red to indicate that it requires the addition of resources. Once usable, the data have to be made available in a service of some kind; this phase (also coloured red) continues on, as there are continuing costs associated with it for the whole time the data are made available through the system. Note that “costs” here do not necessarily mean money; they could represent other forms of support such as volunteer effort, etc.

Once made available, the data can be used. It’s only through use (or perhaps potential use) that the data create value, so we show the use phase in green. Value might be in monetary terms, but it might be in other forms. The economic case is that the aggregated value over many resources and significant time exceeds the aggregated costs (even if the two are expressed differently). It is of course easier to make the sustainability case if both cost and value are monetary. Aggregation is needed because of the long-tail effect: many data resources may not justify retention on their own (think how many journal articles are little-read, or how many library books are never borrowed), but these are supported in aggregate by the real stars of high-use, high-value resources.

If there is a reasonable perception of value, this situation can continue semi-indefinitely. But sooner or later, some sort of significant problem will arise. This could be a technical problem to do with the data (eg obsolescence); it could be a technical problem to do with the service (needs some kind of significant upgrade); it could be a business problem to do with the service (bankruptcy, change of ownership or focus, etc).

At around that point further decisions have to be made as further significant investment may be required. So we have another selection process. Some (or all) data will be retained, perhaps transformed etc to make it usable in the new environment. Some (or all) data will be disposed of, de-accessioned, handed off to another service or archive, etc.

OK, so that’s our draft economic lifecycle (currently in version 3). Any comments? Support? Major flaws? Minor flaws?

[i] BRTF-SDPA. (2010). Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information. P1. (A. Smith Rumsey, Ed.). San Diego. Retrieved from

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

[iii] DCC. (2008). The DCC Curation Lifecycle Model. Edinburgh, UK: DCC. Retrieved from

[iv] Higgins, S. (2008). The DCC Curation Lifecycle Model. International Journal of Digital Curation, 3(1), 134-140. Bath: UKOLN. Retrieved from

[v] Beagrie, N., Chruszcz, J., & Lavoie, B. F. (2008). Keeping Research Data Safe: A cost model and guidance for UK Universities. Bristol. Retrieved from

[Update to add links


Up to Table of contents

Partly revised by]


4 Responses to “An economic lifecycle model”

  1. Abby Smith Rumsey 10 August, 2011 at 17:27 #

    Chris, I am biased, and my biases are transparent as I was part of the sustainability task force. That said, I think this economic lifecycle captures the key actions and transactions succinctly and maps to the digital asset lifecycle clearly. I look forward to further iteration.

    Economic value includes social value, which can be monetized only partially and only sometimes, as you hint at. Based on our experience on the task force (and in life), a lot of work remains to be done to fill out people’s understanding of what constitutes value, how it is created and shared and stewarded, who benefits and who pays, and so on. Our preconceived notions of value and money/marketplace are holdovers from the pre-digital era. They hamper our ability to see how much value is generated in digital assets simply by making them available for use and re-use.

  2. Mark Conrad 12 August, 2011 at 16:32 #

    “The selected data have to be prepared for use; this is the ‘ingest’ phase in OAIS, the editing phase in publishing, etc. It includes adding all relevant metadata required for use.”

    All relevant metadata for use cannot be added at the time of ingest if the information is to remain usable over anything but the very short term. In OAIS parlance, the knowledge base of the designated community changes over time. More metadata has to be added for the information to remain usable by the designated community. See for example section 4.3 of ISO 16363.

    • Chris Rusbridge 12 August, 2011 at 16:48 #

      Fair comment, Mark. But my point here was that there is a major initial investment and a low continuing investment. For the latter I was mostly thinking of hosting and other similar costs, but minor upgrades would fall into the same bag. Ingest as a major cost was confirmed by Neil Beagrie’s KRDS studies from several archives, and it makes sense.

      In my post I’m deliberately blurring the boundaries between a formal archive (in the OAIS sense) and a data or information service. I think the parallels are strong enough, but the orientations differ. In both cases I think there’s a selection, an initial investment (major) and continuing investment (minor) in parallel with use (creating value), and this can continue until… something happens that will basically require another major investment. It’s only at this point that further decisions will be made on de-accessioning either some or all of the content. At which point it’s either destroyed/lost, handed off to another archive (historically mostly rather ad hoc from the few cases I’m aware of), or upgraded/migrated/re-ingested etc, when the cycle continues.

  3. Simon Fenton- Jones 26 August, 2011 at 02:34 #

    Hi Chris,

    Nice to see your back blogging. Even nicer to see someone from the blue ribbons using some modern tools. (You got a blog roll?)

    I can’t say the model means anything to me. So far as “economic realities” are concerned it appears that you’re addressing the change in publishing (only) from the back end. I say only as there’s no consideration of the communication which goes with/between the “objects/assets”. Also I can’t understand where this model sits in cyberspace. You’ve got a “handoff” in and out, with a “select” between, so someone is making a value judgement on what’s worth diseminating and preserving. That must be an editor/curator for an institution or a peer group for a discipline.

    Regardless, ones man’s bunkum is another’s treasure. So if this is an institutional view it’s a reasonable representation of why original/unusual/cross-disciplinary ideas can’t penetrate. Hand it on. Where to?

    “Scholarly communication doesn’t exist in isolation”, I’ve heard said often. And media has changed entirely since the web’s invention. It’s changed the way global disciplinary groups communicate, aggregate and disseminate. So I think we can safely say that archives are now required to be built around them. They make the value judgements. (We can talk about langauge problems later)

    From where I sit, the question is how do we come up with a classification system for global disciplinary groups – Virtual orgs if you prefer. At least that way, if they do need to make a “hand on”, they know where to hand on to. The more pro active, on the other hand, may make a “hand in”, like you’ve done on this blog. Thanks.

    To finish on the econonomic imperative. In commercial media, it’s a choice of/balance between subscription or advertising/sponsorship. In funding global groups with public money, it will require the coordination between national funders (who are an uncoordinated global disciplinary group, excepting the major projects, like CERN, LIGO, etc). That’s one discussion will will be happening here now. . Without them, the duplications are endless. That’s the one economic imperative which education and government don’t appear to have accepted yet.

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