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Friday, 7 July 2017

Preserving Google docs - decisions and a way forward

Back in April I blogged about some work I had been doing around finding a suitable export (and ultimately preservation) format for Google documents.

This post has generated a lot of interest and I've had some great comments both on the post itself and via Twitter.

I was also able to take advantage of a slot I had been given at last week's Jisc Research Data Network event to introduce the issue to the audience (who had really come to hear me talk about something else but I don't think they minded).

There were lots of questions and discussion at the end of this session, mostly focused on the Google Drive issue rather than the rest of the talk. I was really pleased to see that the topic had made people think. In a lightening talk later that day, William Kilbride, Executive Director of The Digital Preservation Coalition mused on the subject of "What is data?". Google Drive was one of the examples he used, asking where does the data end and the software application start?

I just wanted to write a quick update on a couple of things - decisions that have been made as a result of this work and attempts to move the issue forward.

Decisions decisions

I took a summary of the Google docs data export work to my colleagues in a Research Data Management meeting last month in order to discuss a practical way forward for the institutional research data we are planning on capturing and preserving.

One element of the Proof of Concept that we had established at the end of phase 3 of Filling the Digital Preservation Gap was a deposit form to allow researchers to deposit data to the Research Data York service.

As well as the ability to enable researchers to browse and select a file or a folder on their computer or network, this deposit form also included a button to allow deposit to be carried out via Google Drive.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Google Drive is widely used at our institution. It is clear that many researchers are using Google Drive to collect, create and analyse their research data so it made sense to provide an easy way for them to deposit direct from Google Drive. I just needed to check out the export options and decide which one we should support as part of this automated export.

However, given the inconclusive findings of my research into export options it didn't seem that there was one clear option that adequately preserved the data.

As a group we decided the best way out of this imperfect situation was to ask researchers to export their own data from Google Drive in whatever format they consider best captures the significant properties of the item. By exporting themselves in a manual fashion prior to upload, this does give them the opportunity to review and check their files and make their own decision on issues such as whether comments are included in the version of their data that they upload to Research Data York.

So for the time being we are disabling the Google Drive upload button from our data deposit interface....which is a shame because a certain amount of effort went into getting that working in the first place.

This is the right decision for the time being though. Two things need to happen before we can make this available again:


  1. Understanding the use case - We need to gain a greater understanding of how researchers use Google Drive and what they consider to be 'significant' about their native Google Drive files.
  2. Improving the technology - We need to make some requests to Google to make the export options better.


Understanding the use case

We've known for a while that some researchers use Google Drive to store their research data. The graphic below was taken from a survey we carried out with researchers in 2013 to find out about current practice across the institution. 

Of the 188 researchers who answered the question "Where is your digital research data stored (excluding back up copies)?" 22 mentioned Google Drive. This is only around 12% of respondents but I would speculate that over the last four years, use of Google Drive will have increased considerably as Google applications have become more embedded within the working practices of staff and students at the University.

Where is your digital research data stored (excluding back up copies)?

To understand the Google Drive use case today I really need to talk to researchers.

We've run a couple of Research Data Management teaching sessions over the last term. These sessions are typically attended by PhD students but occasionally a member of research staff also comes along. When we talk about data storage I've been asking the researchers to give a show of hands as to who is using Google Drive to store at least some of their research data.

About half of the researchers in the room raise their hand.

So this is a real issue. 

Of course what I'd like to do is find out exactly how they are using it. Whether they are creating native Google Drive files or just using Google Drive as a storage location or filing system for data that they create in another application.

I did manage to get a bit more detail from one researcher who said that they used Google Drive as a way of collaborating on their research with colleagues working at another institution but that once a document has been completed they will export the data out of Google Drive for storage elsewhere. 

This fits well with the solution described above.

I also arranged a meeting with a Researcher in our BioArCh department. Professor Matthew Collins is known to be an enthusiastic user of Google Drive.

Talking to Matthew gave me a really interesting perspective on Google Drive. For him it has become an essential research tool. He and his colleagues use many of the features of the Google Suite of tools for their day to day work and as a means to collaborate and share ideas and resources, both internally and with researchers in other institutions. He showed me PaperPile, an extension to Google Drive that I had not been aware of. He uses this to manage his references and share them with colleagues. This clearly adds huge value to the Google Drive suite for researchers.

He talked me through a few scenarios of how they use Google - some, (such as the comments facility) I was very much aware of. Others, I've not used myself such as the use of the Google APIs to visualise for example activity on preparing a report in Google Drive - showing a time line and when different individuals edited the document. Now that looks like fun!

He also talked about the importance of the 'previous versions' information that is stored within a native Google Drive file. When working collaboratively it can be useful to be able to track back and see who edited what and when. 

He described a real scenario in which he had had to go back to a previous version of a Google Sheet to show exactly when a particular piece of data had been entered. I hadn't considered that the previous versions feature could be used to demonstrate that you made a particular discovery first. Potentially quite important in the competitive world of academic research.

For this reason Matthew considered the native Google Drive file itself to be "the ultimate archive" and "a virtual collaborative lab notebook". A flat, static export of the data would not be an adequate replacement.

He did however acknowledge that the data can only exist for as long as Google provides us with the facility and that there are situations where it is a good idea to take a static back up copy.

He mentioned that the precursor to Google Docs was a product called Writely (which he was also an early adopter of). Google bought Writely in 2006 after seeing the huge potential in this online word processing tool. Matthew commented that backwards compatibility became a problem when Google started making some fundamental changes to the way the application worked. This is perhaps the issue that is being described in this blog post: Google Docs and Backwards Compatibility.

So, I'm still convinced that even if we can't preserve a native Google Drive file perfectly in a static form, this shouldn't stop us having a go!

Improving the technology

Along side trying to understand how researchers use Google Drive and what they consider to be significant and worthy of preservation, I have also been making some requests and suggestions to Google around their export options. There are a few ideas I've noted that would make it easier for us to archive the data.

I contacted the Google Drive forum and was told that as a Google customer I was able to log in and add my suggestions to Google Cloud Connect so this I did...and what I asked for was as follows:

  • Please can we have a PDF/A export option?
  • Please could we choose whether or not to export comments or not ...and if we are exporting comments can we choose whether historic/resolved comments are also exported
  • Please can metadata be retained - specifically the created and last modified dates. (Author is a bit trickier - in Google Drive a document has an owner rather than an author. The owner probably is the author (or one of them) but not necessarily if ownership has been transferred).
  • I also mentioned a little bug relating to comment dates that I found when exporting a Google document containing comments out into docx format and then importing it back again.
Since I submitted these feature requests and comments in early May it has all gone very very quiet...

I have a feeling that ideas only get anywhere if they are popular ...and none of my ideas are popular ...because they do not lead to new and shiny functionality.

Only one of my suggestions (re comments) has received a vote by another member of the community.

So, what to do?

Luckily, since having spoken about my problem at the Jisc Research Data Network, two people have mentioned they have Google contacts who might be interested in hearing my ideas.

I'd like to follow up on this, but in the meantime it would be great if people could feedback to me. 

  • Are my suggestions sensible? 
  • Are there are any other features that would help the digital preservation community preserve Google Drive? I can't imagine I've captured everything...

1 comment:

  1. Lots of food for thought here, and although many institutions do not use G-Suite, the same issues will apply to other cloud-based approaches like Office Online.
    As they appear in browsers, I would assume a cloud document is never a single entity, but a collection of related files, so putting the ball in the researcher's court to decide what best reflects the way the data/information is being used is a good idea - as long as they get it right!

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