Future proofing your electronic audit files using plaintext

In short

Evolving software file types sometimes make it impossible to access files or workpapers which were created in file types that are currently no longer readily available. In order to ensure forward compatibility, I’m considering adopting the .txt plaintext format as the go-to format for both verbose file documentation and tabular data in our audit department. Markup languages such as Markdown provide adequate and easily adopted formatting codes to ensure adequate lay-out for reproduction on paper, pdf of html. Comma-separated values formats such as .csv function as tabular formats and are easily exportable to many applications while remaining readable.

Retrieving old files

In a recent conversation with a colleague I made reference to a report I wrote in the mid 1990’s. It contained an appendix, buried in the latter half of the report, which had contributed to the dismissal of two CFO’s of the organization audited. I wanted to show him the paragraph, not out of foolish pride, but to illustrate that my communication at that time was not really very good at all. The point which should have been point one of the management summary ended up in an appendix on page 56 of the report.

The problem was however not that specific point, but rather the fact that I still had the file, but no easy way of accessing it. It was written in a now redundant software format, with the file type no longer readable by any current software packages. For all intents and purposes, it was gone. No longer available. Okay, there are still likely to be paper copies, but both the organization (still in existence) and myself moved more than once. Additionally, this is a file past the legal 10 year period of document retention usually applicable in Belgium. So even if there had been a paper copy available, it likely would either have been misplaced or possibly even destroyed as there were no legal reasons to keep the document. Even with storage space being relatively cheap, there is no reason to keep all your stuff (as I keep telling my kids).

The bottom line for me here is that with significant effort I’m quite certain I can retrieve the information one way or another. However, it should not take me significant effort. Because significant effort may not be an investment worth making, rendering the files in effect unusable.

Are you sure your current electronic documents will be as available to you as they are now? What about in 5 years? In 10? 20?

.txt as a viable file type alternative

As a former frequent lifehacker reader (when Gina Trapani was still in charge at lifehacker) I remember reading an article she wrote on using .txt as a go-to format. She uses it as a todo system. The reason: long term viability of the format and access through multiple software venues.

As my short illustration above aims to show, audit reports and workpapers may fall victim to comparable issues with outdated file types no longer supported by current applications. Using basic file formats which have been around for a long time, are being used by different applications, can easily be accessed and read by humans we can ensure that the information captured during audits remains accessible for a long time to come without significant investment.

Apparent limitations of the solution

There may appear to be a couple of limitations to the solution. Let’s examine them:

  • What about tabular data? .txt does not necessarily work for everything. However, applying a comma-separated values (.csv) format to present tabular data in a plaintext format while remaining readable is a perfectly fine solution.
  • What about formatting? This is where Markdown which was written by Daring Fireball‘s author John Gruber comes in. Markdown is an easily to learn basic markup ‘language’ which allows for easy translation of the markdown codes into good html. In essence, what this means is that with an appropriate CSS (cascading style sheets) file you can translate your simple .txt formatting in the most wonderful lay-out you have ever seen. Compliance with company visual standards can become very easy indeed.

Our next steps

For workpapers, I asked ACL in a previous blog post to allow markdown formatting in their application. We’ll be actively testing uploading .txt files (which of course will be formatted in markdown) in the workpapers.com application which we’re currently using.

I’ll keep you informed.