‘Dark data’ is killing the planet – we need digital decarbonization

More than half of the digital data generated by companies is collected, processed and stored for one-time use. Often it is never reused. It could be your multiple, almost identical images kept in Google Photos or iCloud, outdated spreadsheets from a company that will never be used again, or data from sensors in the Internet of Things that have no aim.

These “dark data” are anchored to the real world by the energy they require. Even data that is stored and never used again takes up space on servers – usually huge banks of computers in warehouses. These computers and warehouses consume a lot of electricity.

This is a significant energy cost that is hidden in most organizations. Maintaining an effective organizational memory is a challenge, but at what cost for the environment? In the movement towards net zero, many organizations are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. Guidance has generally focused on reducing traditional sources of carbon production, through mechanisms such as carbon offsetting via third parties (planting trees to offset emissions from gasoline use, for example).

A digital carbon footprint While most climate change activists focus on limiting emissions from the automotive, aerospace and energy industries, digital data processing is already comparable to these sectors and continues to grow. In 2020, digitization was expected to generate 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The production of digital data is growing rapidly – ​​this year the world is expected to generate 97 zettabytes (i.e. 97 trillion gigabytes) of data. By 2025, it could nearly double to 181 zettabytes. It is therefore surprising that little political attention has been paid to reducing the digital carbon footprint of organisations.

When we talk to people about our work, we find that they often assume that digital data, and indeed the digitization process, is carbon neutral. But that’s not necessarily the case – we control its carbon footprint for better or for worse. To help reduce this footprint, we have introduced the notion of “digital decarbonization”.

By this we do not mean the use of phones, computers, sensors and other digital technologies to reduce an organization’s carbon footprint. Rather, we are referring to reducing the carbon footprint of the digital data itself. It is essential to recognize that digitalization is not in itself an environmental problem, but that there are huge environmental impacts that depend on how we use digital processes in daily work activities.

To illustrate the magnitude of the dark data situation, data centers (responsible for 2.5% of all human-made carbon dioxide) have a larger carbon footprint than the aviation industry (2.1 %). To put this into context, we’ve created a tool that can help calculate the carbon cost of data to an organization.

Using our calculations, a typical data-driven business, such as insurance, retail, or banking, with 100 employees, could generate 2,983 gigabytes of dark data per day. If they were to keep that data for a year, that data would have a carbon footprint similar to flying six times from London to New York.

Currently, companies produce 1,300,000,000 gigabytes of dark data per day, or 3,023,255 flights from London to New York.

The rapid growth of dark data raises important questions about the effectiveness of current digital practices. In research recently published in the Journal of Business Strategy, we identified ways to help organizations reuse digital data and highlighted pathways for organizations to take when collecting, processing and storing new digital data. We hope this can reduce the production of dark data and contribute to the digital decarbonization movement, which we will all need to commit to if we are to achieve net zero.

You can even start yourself by deciding which photos and videos you no longer need. Every file stored on Apple iCloud or Google Photos adds to your digital carbon footprint.

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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