Protecting and recovering data after a natural disaster


The catastrophic effects of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have left trails of destruction, debilitating the lives and livelihoods of millions. Recovery efforts are ongoing, but the process will be long and arduous for everyone, including school officials. In circumstances like these, faculty and students face a number of immediate pressing concerns, beginning with basic human needs. But in the wake of such events, school districts have yet another problem to contend with: the loss of data.

Data loss as a result of a natural disaster can be devastating to a school district. Data is essential to measuring progress toward district goals, tracking student achievement and facilitating personalized instruction. Unless this information is quickly recovered, institutional and academic progress could come to halt. And, as any IT professional knows, data recovery can be a costly process.

What is the best approach to protecting your data in preparation for a natural disaster? How can you best explore your options after damage has already been done? And what can school and college officials — and their IT departments — do to ensure their faculty, staff and students aren’t sidelined when disasters do strike?

Protecting school data on the cloud

One option to ensuring that your data remains intact is to invest in secure cloud-based storage solutions. Many IT professionals are understandably reluctant to explore this avenue; data breaches, concerns about meeting FERPA requirements and reliance on cloud applications can pose a considerable risk to sensitive administrative and student information.

However, these concerns can be addressed through rigorous due diligence when selecting a provider and educating faculty members about best practices when engaging with cloud-based services. As Marie Bjerede of the Consortium for School Networking noted in an interview with EdScoop earlier this month, “Shifting to the cloud makes it so you don’t need to put together a water damaged data center and refurbish that … Your resources, your servers, are virtualized in the cloud.”

Before working through any other concerns, your top priority when selecting a provider is security. Trustworthy cloud-based storage providers have effective access control so that only authorized individuals will be able to retrieve data, and they should monitor access patterns to detect irregularities. They should also use adequate cloud storage encryption and maintain data backups to ensure safe and reliable access. Seek a reliable and transparent provider that meets these qualifications, in addition to abiding regulations intended to protect students’ personally identifiable information (PII).

Additionally, implement strict policies on who can access sensitive information; that staff can only access information pertinent to their position; and how this data should be handled. Privacy compliance is a must in the modern age. Furthermore, keep abreast of current cyber threats and investigate security resources. Response policies must be established to prepare faculty members to respond to a security breach, and these should be reinforced through regular tests and drills. Through these safeguards, the prospect of securing data online becomes much more viable.

The basics of data recovery

If you do not have the district’s data stored securely online, and a natural disaster has already impacted your ability to retrieve it, it’s time to explore data recovery options. This is not an enviable position to be in, but with an analytical approach, it can be managed.

There are a few precautions you should take when assessing your damaged equipment. First, don’t assume that your water-damaged media is beyond repair. Refrain from disassembling or cleaning any components, as this can exacerbate the damage. Finally, don’t try to operate any equipment that has been affected by flood damage. Unless your district employs certified data recovery professionals (an unlikely scenario), you will have to contract experts to assist you with these efforts.

Your budget is obviously a major concern. The cost of data recovery is dependent on both hard drive size and the difficulty of the process; the extent of damage to your servers and devices will largely dictate your total bill. Because server rooms are often kept on the first floor (for temperature and security reasons), flood damage can be extensive. For this reason, your budget may force you to be selective about what data you prioritize first. The sooner you can narrow down “essential” data and begin data recovery, the sooner your district can resume working toward its goals.

A key to success throughout this process is communication. Keep in touch with administrators regarding your objectives and solicit feedback; this will help you keep a pulse on the data needs of the organization and guide your priorities.

Once a data recovery option has been selected, it is essential that district leadership communicates the details of the plan to every faculty member. When a timeline for recovery efforts is established, the organization will find renewed structure and stability.

Here are several other considerations to keep in mind when working with third parties to recover your district’s data:

  • Is the business FERPA-compliant?: The nature of data recovery places school districts in an awkward position, since they can’t allow unauthorized access to PII. Seek out a service that follows strict confidentiality guidelines; if they are FERPA-compliant, they will typically advertise it.
  • What is the business’s success rate?: Budget may be a top concern, but it pales in comparison to the need of actually retrieving your necessary data. There is no guarantee that a recovery service will be able to retrieve all of your needed information. Successful data recovery services have strict security protocols and work in sterile environments. Seek out a service that is renowned for a high success rate.
  • Is there adequate support?: You need an open line of communication with your chosen data recovery service. Look into reviews of the business and make note of their responsiveness. If you are unable to retrieve necessary data in a timely manner, and customer support remains unresponsive, you will effectively be stranded.

These are the essentials of data protection and recovery in the event of a natural disaster. Because physical damage can make data inaccessible, cloud-based storage solutions are recommended — as long as you choose the right provider and take necessary precautions. If you need to look into data recovery, keep your budget, schedule and data priorities in mind.

Rebuilding a district’s infrastructure can be a daunting task in the digital age, but if taken as a collaborative effort, your organization’s objectives will not be hampered by the whims of nature.

Bob Hand writes regularly from Boise, Idaho, on the way that teachers use technology in the classroom.