Records exists in isolation! That was a thought I had recently when I was given the task of organizing twenty years worth of office documents and digital files. Honestly, I had no clue where to start, how to start, or what the end result would be. So, I ended up salvaging what I could, or at least what I could understand, and either digitally backing up or discarding the rest.

The problem I’m describing here is twenty years worth of operational land and activity records that exist in many different file formats including physical copies (e.g.; paper documents, maps, and handwritten notes), and digital copies (e.g.; XLS, DOC, PDF, JPG, and SHP files).

In the spirit of being a good land steward, how can we preserve land records in a meaningful way, that we can easily access now and in the future? That is the question we will consider in this post.

Background:

Land and activity records are often created by, and relied on, to carry out the normal operations of a forest business. Some examples of land records might include:

  • Tax Records,
  • Deeds
  • Easements and Right-of-ways
  • Maps, and
  • Field notes

A few examples of activity records might include:

  • Activity maps (planting, spraying, harvesting, etc)
  • Invoices
  • Inspection reports
  • Inventory records, and
  • Environmental compliance records

These records are the backbone of a company. They are used for making informed decisions, for planning, for assessing work in-progress, for inspecting work completed, for legal reasons, for environmental reasons, for tax reasons, and for identifying problems within the business.

How are these records typically stored?

There are two storage formats for land and activity records. These are physical media and digital media.

Physical storage is the old tried-and-true approach which includes storage in file cabinets, drawers, and boxes. The problems with this approach include physical deterioration, high reproducibility cost (copies and backup), physical tampering, difficult to search, and physical space.

Digital storage includes any digital files such as documents stored on a computer, or records in GIS systems, databases, and back-office systems such as ERP software. These can be stored in physical “on-site” computers/servers or in cloud-based systems like Dropbox, Box or Google Drive. The problems with this approach include digital tampering, data corruption, inadvertent deletion, inaccessibility, file obsolescence, and depending on the types of storage media, these may also be difficult to search.

Can we do better?

This is a good question. I admit that I’m no expert on all the digital media available, what’s best, or what other companies are using. But, given my technical background, I’m leaning toward a hybrid digital system with a fail-safe approach built in.

By fail-safe, I mean digital storage of all files that can be digitized, and duplicate physical storage only for the records that need to be accessed frequently (daily basis), or of very high priority, such as records with legal or tax implications.

Anything that can be reproduced or searched easily should be in digital form, with a duplicate paper form as indicated given the priority above.

Digital “Off-site” or “On-site” Storage:

Here I will focus on server-based storage (i.e.; cloud-based). There are other valid methods for storing digital files on disks and drives, but personally, I prefer server storage for the reasons I explain below.

I prefer on-site storage (i.e.; local server) of records to off-site storage on a cloud-based server. But, I often use them both. If you don’t want the headache and hassle of administering and maintaining an on-site server, then obviously the best choice is cloud-based.

As the saying goes, “There is no Cloud, it’s just someone else’s computer.”

I like cloud based storage for one primary reason – 100% uptime (in reality 99.99% uptime). Most cloud-based providers have mechanisms in place to eliminate single points of failure. These are called redundant systems, and I will spare you the boring details of how they work.

GIS systems are also a popular method for storing land and activity records. These include desktop software ESRI ArcGIS Desktop or Q-GIS, cloud-based software such as ESRI ArcGIS Online, or server based such as ArcGIS Server.

Another solution that I’ve recently discovered is Orbis‘ cloud-based forestry platform found on their website.

Disclaimer: I’ve never actually used Orbis’ products nor have I contacted them about these products, so I’ll keep it general and consistent with the information they provide online.

The cloud-based solutions from Orbis include a Forest Information Portal, a Recreational License Management System, Atlas Land Records, and Property Tax Viewer.

This appears to be a comprehensive cloud-based platform of record-keeping software. Orbis identifies this platform as SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) which is a cloud-based delivery model that is common with today’s software providers. All one needs to access these resources, is a network connection and a Web browser. In my opinion, cloud-based software will continue to become more prevalent in our industry.

Summary:

In summary, land records and activity records are important to forest companies. It’s important that we maintain these records for legal, tax and environmental purposes, but also so we can learn more about our businesses and how they operate. I believe there are many good solutions out there that can help with storing digital files, but it appears that cloud-based solutions are becoming more common are are likely here to stay. The benefits of cloud-based record-keeping software are lower costs, less technical overhead, and wider accessibility.

I’d really like to know what other companies are using for record storage, so please feel free to leave a comment.