Preserving our digital heritage

melanie-swalwell-left-2Researchers from Flinders University are on a mission to document Australia and New Zealand’s digital heritage – from amateur-made computer games of the 80s to a contemporary software program that forensically sanitises computers.

The Australasian Heritage Software Database (AHSD) is the first publicly-compiled record of Australian and New Zealand software history, documenting programs created for a range of sectors including the arts, business, banking and defence.

The database contains more than 120 contributions from both professional and hobbyist software writers so far, while a number of high-profile institutions such as the National Library of Australia have also become official supporters of the project.

Programs on the database include Dinky Kong, an amateur spinoff of the cult 1980s videogame Donkey Kong, a software device developed in New Zealand in 1984 to label, price and dispense medication in pharmacies, and a modern data removal system called Destroy which is used by police, government and defence departments to forensically clean data from computers before they are sold.

Flinders Screen and Media senior lecturer Dr Melanie Swalwell, who co-created the AHSD with Flinders computer scientist Dr Denise de Vries, said local software history is largely undocumented, with very few repositories of software or information.

“The problem with software is that until recently, it has not been seen as something that should be collected so the local histories of software creation are not well known,” said Dr Swalwell (pictured left with Dr de Vries).

“Much of it is outdated and runs on obsolete systems so it’s at considerable risk of being lost unless we create sites like the AHSD where the diverse and dispersed knowledge of computer software can be pooled and shared,” she said.

Dr Swalwell said the database would provide vital insights into Australia and New Zealand’s software history, from the birth of electronic computing to the present day.

“Computers impact almost every part of our life so it’s a remarkable oversight that no one has ever thought to document it – software doesn’t last forever so we need to do something to keep it alive or else there will be no records to prove it ever existed.

“It’s not just early accounting or word processing packages either – in the early days of computing people often wrote their own software on weird and wonderful subjects so this project will give us insights into how the first generation of home computers was used.”

Dr Swalwell said she is appealing for public help to build the database.

“The knowledge is out there but it’s in the community, not in libraries or other record-keeping collections and the software itself is deteriorating fast – already some of it doesn’t work and we don’t want this material to be lost forever.

“The general public and specialist fans and collectors know a lot about software and computer history, that’s why we’re asking people to pitch in and help us build a publicly accessible database of this information.”

The AHSD builds on an ongoing project by Dr Swalwell and Dr de Vries to preserve locally made computer games of the 1980s.

The project, Play It Again, has just won a $186,000 grant from the Australian Research Council to create a playable history of Australasian digital games while addressing some of the challenges of both documenting and preserving complex digital artefacts.

For more information, or to submit software to the Australasian Heritage Software Database, click here.

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