The ODU website has a detailed article about the award, and I’ve put excerpts here:
The grant of $541,000 to Nelson rewards his out-of-the-box thinking about tactics to preserve digital data. He says that the ever-more ingenious Internet strategies used to disseminate spam e-mails may someday be employed to preserve data. The title of his project is “Self-Preserving Digital Objects.”
“Can we create digital objects that preserve themselves?” Nelson asks. “I want to explore this.” He said that e-mail spam and viral videos are the best current examples of the approach he proposes.
Mischievous e-mail or a humorous video clip can “live in the Web infrastructure with minimal hierarchical control,” he said, and that is precisely how he plans to preserve digital objects containing data for technical papers, historical documents, Web pages and the like.
“I’m going to investigate if these properties can be applied to content other than pop culture ephemera,” he said.
Most approaches to preserving digital information involve putting “dumb” objects in “smart” repositories. But, Nelson noted, “This reveals an implicit assumption that the repository is going to be long-lived.” A repository—which he sometimes calls a “fortress”—could be a digital library maintained at a university or the host memory of Yahoo.
The “deadly embrace of repositories” is a phrase coined by computer scientist John Kunze at the University of California, and Nelson likes to repeat it. “Information goes in, but is often difficult to extract. I especially like that phrase as a succinct, vivid description of repositories,” he explained.
Nelson said he is not advocating abandonment of repositories or other conventional digital preservation techniques, but he believes an alternative is needed. “These repositories are expensive and they are complicated software systems that require preservation themselves. I’m interested in digital objects that can live longer than their repositories, in information that can live longer than the people or organizations charged with their preservation.”
In just a few years, Nelson has become an internationally recognized expert in the areas of digital libraries and digital preservation, said Maly. “We are extremely proud of Professor Nelson winning the prestigious NSF Career award and we look forward to integrating the results of his Career award into both our graduate and undergraduate curriculum.”
Nelson, a former NASA employee, earned master’s and doctoral degrees at ODU before joining the computer science faculty in 2002. In addition to this grant, Nelson has been principal investigator or co-principal investigator on eight grants totaling $1.8 million.
Maly and Nelson are members of the Digital Library Research Group @ ODU. The group has developed several Web services that are used internationally and was a founding member of the Open Archives Initiative (OAI). The new “mod_oai” module is housed at ODU under Nelson’s direction. Funding for the group comes from many government agencies involved in data preservation.
ODU is one of only a dozen universities in the United States that offer courses in digital libraries.