Edinburgh fire ruins valuable AI archive

December 13, 2002

Edinburgh University's School of Informatics is appealing to the world to help it recreate its artificial intelligence archive, lost in the fire that devastated the city's Old Town last weekend.

The destruction suffered by the seven-storey school building accounted for almost half the total damage caused by the blaze, which destroyed 18 properties. Its artificial intelligence library, accumulated over 40 years, has been destroyed.

By Monday, it plans to put a catalogue of what has been lost on its website and will appeal to a worldwide audience to send copies of material they may have.

The building was the base for some 200 staff and students, and provided tutorial and laboratory space for a further 220 undergraduates. The school's head, Mike Fourman, said everyone had been safely evacuated after the fire alarms went off at 8.15pm on Saturday night.

"Half the building has been destroyed completely and there is major fire, smoke and water damage in the other half. People are devastated, but recovering well," he said.

About 100 students were evacuated from nearby university flats but were able to return on Monday. The full extent of the damage has not yet been assessed, but 150 workstations and a cluster of powerful servers have been destroyed. Many researchers have lost their personal archives.

The informatics building, the equivalent of an entire computing department in many universities, formed only a quarter of the Edinburgh school, and staff and students are now sharing informatics premises elsewhere on the campus.

Professor Fourman said key research data were stored electronically within the university, and the daily back-up of records in the building itself had survived in a fire-proof safe near to the front door.

Professor Fourman, who was at the site of the blaze on Saturday night, said emergency planning began at 8.30am on Sunday. By Monday morning, students were alerted through the website on arrangements to rehouse them. Teaching and research continued as normal. The main casualty on Monday was an intensive three-day course, the start of which was delayed by six hours.

The university was accelerating existing plans to house the whole informatics school in purpose-built premises, which would take several years to complete, Professor Fourman said. "But in terms of day-to-day operation, on January 6, we open for business as usual."

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