Dark data leaves a huge carbon footprint, and we need to do something about it

(ORDO NEWS) — More than half of the digital data that companies generate is collected, processed and stored for one-time purposes.

Often it is never reused. It could be your many near-identical images stored in Google Photos or iCloud, outdated company spreadsheets that will never be used again, or IoT sensor data that doesn’t make sense.

This “dark data”. “attached to the real world by the energy it requires. Even data that is stored and never used again takes up space on servers – usually huge groups of computers in warehouses. These computers and these warehouses consume a lot of electricity.

These significant energy costs are hidden in most organizations. Maintaining effective organizational memory is challenging, but at what cost to the environment?

In the pursuit of zero emissions, many organizations are trying to reduce their carbon footprint.

The guidance is generally focused on reducing traditional sources of carbon production through mechanisms such as third party carbon offsets (eg planting trees to offset emissions from gasoline).

Digital carbon footprint

While most climate change activists are focused on limiting emissions in the automotive, aviation and energy industries, digital data processing is already comparable to these sectors and continues to grow.

In 2020, digitization was expected to generate 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Digital data production is growing rapidly – the world is expected to generate 97 zettabytes (i.e.: 97 trillion gigabytes) of data this year. By 2025, it could nearly double to 181 zettabytes.

It is therefore surprising that little attention has been paid to reducing the digital carbon footprint of organizations.

When we talk to people about our work, we find that they often assume that digital data and of course the digitization process is carbon neutral. But that doesn’t have to be the case – we control its carbon footprint, for better or worse.

To reduce this footprint, we introduced the idea of ​​”digital decarbonization”. By this we do not mean using phones, computers, sensors and other digital technologies to reduce an organization’s carbon footprint. Rather, we are talking about reducing the carbon footprint of digital data itself.

The key is to recognize that digitization in itself is not an environmental issue, but there are huge environmental impacts that depend on how we use digital processes. in daily activities in the workplace.

To illustrate the magnitude of the dark data situation, data centers (responsible for 2.5 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide) have a larger carbon footprint than the aviation industry (2.1 percent).

To understand this, we have created a tool that can help calculate the carbon cost of data for an organization.

Using our calculations, a typical data-driven business such as insurance, retail or banking with 100 employees can generate 2983 gigabytes of dark data per day. If they kept this data for a year, this data would have the same carbon footprint as six flights from London to New York.

Companies currently produce 1,300,000,000 gigabytes of dark data per day – that’s 3,023,255 flights from London to New York.

The rapid growth of hidden data raises serious questions about the effectiveness of modern digital practices.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Business Strategy , we identified how to help organizations reuse digital data and the paths organizations should take when collecting, processing, and storing new digital data.

We hope this will help reduce the production of shadow data and contribute to the digital decarbonization movement that we all need to be part of if we are to reach net zero.


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