Having spent more than a few years in campus communications, part of me has been thinking about what is happening at the University’s communications shop this afternoon, in the wake of the revelation that a car breakin that occurred while the researchers (who are also a couple) were eating has left them without years’ worth of research data on prostate cancer.
The data were stored on a MacBook not unlike the one I’m typing this on. According to the researchers, there are no backups of the data.
Obviously, this is a tragic turn of events. While I don’t think the media hype on the story is necessary — CURE FOR CANCER LOST — who’s to say that the data in question isn’t valuable? Certainly not me. The tragedy here is that the data need never have been lost. I’m a single person office, and I have two separate backup systems going. When I’ve worked in institutional or corporate settings, servers were backing up data each night.
The failure of the researchers to do either personal backups or to have housed the data on a university network where it would be subject to backup is a stunning piece of bad judgement. It was also, for what it’s worth and according to my reading of university policy, a contravention of the IT policy in place at OU. Given that the university’s IP policy states that all discoveries are property of the university, they’ve also acted rather cavalierly with university property.
Here’s my Friday marching orders to all you communicators out there:
- Take this unfortunate incident as an opportunity to open up a discussion with your IT department and research office.
- Develop a plan to promote the responsible use of backups.
- Educate your researchers as to why this is important.
- Work with your IT department to make it easy and fast.
Even if there’s a 1 in 10,000 chance that the data lost contained a cure for prostate cancer — if it’s never recovered there’s a 0 in 1 chance that it will do us any good.
UPDATE, January 18: Somebody pointed me to another similar case in Louisiana. In this one, a Tulane University employee took a laptop home to work on tax forms over the Christmas break. The laptop was left in a locked car while the employee was out of town. The car was broken into and the laptop — with “W-2 information, names, Social Security numbers, address and salary for every employee, including student and part-time employees and anyone who will receive a 2010 W-2″ for 10,000+ people on it in unencrypted form — is now in the wind. Access to the laptop is password protected, apparently, and the university is offering a year of credit monitoring to all those affected . Still, another example of how data security is crucial.