“Dark data” leaves a huge carbon footprint and we need to do something about it: ScienceAlert

More than half of the digital data that companies generate is collected, processed and stored for single-use purposes. Often, it is never reused. This could be your multiple nearly identical images in Google Photos or iCloud, old business spreadsheets that will never be used again, or data from Internet of Things sensors that serve no purpose.

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

This is a significant energy cost hidden in most organizations. Maintaining an effective organizational memory is a challenge, but at what cost to the environment?

On the way to 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 third-party carbon offsets (planting trees to offset emissions from gasoline use, for example).

A digital carbon footprint

While most climate change activists focus on curbing emissions from the automotive, aviation and energy industries, digital data processing is already comparable to these sectors and still growing.

In 2020, digitization is expected to generate 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Digital data production is growing rapidly – ​​this year the world is expected to generate 97 zettabytes (ie: 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 organizations.

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 have control over our carbon footprint for better or for worse.

To help reduce this footprint, we have introduced the concept of ‘digital decarbonisation’. By this, we don’t mean using 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 important to recognize that digitization is not itself an environmental issue, but there are huge environmental impacts that depend on how we use digital processes in everyday workplace activities.

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

To put this into context, we’ve 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 2,983 gigabytes of dark data per day. If they kept that data for a year, that data would have a similar carbon footprint to flying six times from London to New York.

Currently, companies generate 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 dark data raises important questions about the effectiveness of current digital practices. In a study recently published in Journal of Business Strategy we identified ways to help organizations reuse digital data and highlighted the paths organizations should take when collecting, processing and storing new digital data.

We hope this can reduce the generation of dark data and contribute to the digital decarbonisation movement that we all need to get involved with if net zero is to be realized.

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

Tom Jackson, Professor of Information and Knowledge Management, Loughborough University and Ian R. Hodgkinson, Professor of Strategy, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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