What Exactly Is ‘Dark Data’ That Each and Every One of Us Creates Every Day

Cloud data is starting to have a substantial environmental impact.
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Many of us are now conditioned to use different types of bins for different types of waste. You also may be one of those people who makes a conscious effort to use green technologies or take the bus rather than take the car to work. The chances are, though, if you work at a computer or use your phone to create files, you aren’t doing enough to minimize your carbon footprint. Not just you, but millions of companies behaving just like you, acting as if saving files has no environmental impact. This is because it has gotten easier and easier to store large amounts of data.

Next time you’re at your computer and about to hit the “save” button, ask yourself if you really need to keep that file forever – chances are, you don’t. What if you hit save and forgot about it? If you are only likely to need the file for a short time, what are the chances you would delete it at some point? What if billions of people and companies worldwide did the same thing and saved files they didn’t need, forgetting to delete them? Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson writing for the Conversation, describe this as ‘Dark Data.’

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Jackson and Hodgkinson say that most people concerned about climate change are concentrating on reducing emissions from the transportation, aviation, and energy sectors; however, digital data processing is already on par with these industries and is continuing to expand.

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Why should we care what Tom and Ian think about ‘Dark Data’?

Would it make a difference to your opinion that Tom Jackson is a Professor of Information and Knowledge Management at Loughborough University or that Ian Hodgkinson is a Professor of Strategy at Loughborough University? They are best positioned to offer some expertise on where the future of data management may lead to in the future.

In their article, they share some concerning statistics. It was estimated that digitization in the year 2020 would account for 4% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Although their article doesn’t provide other statistics on where precisely the percentage of greenhouse emissions attributable to digitization is at now, they do say that the creation of digital data is increasing at a rapid rate.

It is anticipated that the world will produce 97 zettabytes (that is, 97 trillion gigabytes) of data in this current year alone. It is possible that by the year 2025, it will have almost doubled to 181 zettabytes. Based on this, it would be fair to speculate that over 8% of the world’s greenhouse gases in 2025 will be attributable to digitization; we could be looking at an even higher number.

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As a result, the fact that policymakers have paid very little attention to the reduction of organizations’ digital carbon footprints is surprising.

Their article in Conversation sounds a bit alarmist when they state at the moment, businesses generate 1,300,000,000 gigabytes of dark data every single day, which is equivalent to 3,023,255 flights between London and New York.

If data is never erased, it will eventually take up too much space, and energy supplies will be strained

The environmental impact of saving files that are not needed can be significant when analyzed in global proportions. When files are saved, they take up space on servers and hard drives. If these files are never deleted, they will continue to take up space, which uses energy and resources. In addition, if these files are never deleted, they can become outdated and no longer useful, leading to waste.

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Jackson and Hodgkinson state that more than fifty percent of the digital data companies produce is collected, processed, and stored for a single purpose only. This may include multiple nearly identical images stored on iCloud or Google Photos, obsolete spreadsheets that a company will never use again, or data from internet of things sensors that serve no purpose. In most cases, it is never put to use again.

It appears, according to Jackson’s and Hodgkinson’s claims, that not enough companies or individuals are following the practice of only keeping data for as long as they need it and then erasing it. The status quo is that companies and individuals may keep data forever just in case they might need it again. This can include images, spreadsheets, and data from sensors. There would be a good reason for this. The law often requires companies to hold data for a certain amount of years for legal and taxation reasons. 

As Jackson and Hodgkinson explain, it requires a certain amount of energy to save this “dark data,” which is rooted in the physical world. Even data that is saved but is never retrieved takes up space on servers, which are typically enormous banks of computers located in warehouses. These computer systems and storage facilities each use a significant amount of electricity.

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Is it selfish to create data?

There is a certain amount of corporate guilt in wasteful data practices. Companies encourage us to upgrade our phones, store photos in the cloud, use email and file backup services, duplicate and triplicate our files across several server locations, and download apps and software that we may forget about. We create small amounts of data by liking, sharing, and commenting on social media posts about articles like this. 

Society as a whole doesn’t perceive that the creation or storage of data should be rationed in any way. It seems like everyone thinks it is their inalienable right to have free speech, share their opinion, and type stuff which then becomes digitized and stored on servers that use energy. If Jackson and Hodgkinson are correct, and trends and attitudes toward data continue, it could destroy our planet. 

Aiming for net zero

Net zero refers to a situation where atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are maintained without additional emissions or removals. When the amount of carbon added to the atmosphere is equal to the amount removed, we will have achieved net zero.

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In the effort to reach net zero, many organizations are working to lessen the impact of their operations on the environment by reducing their carbon footprints.

Data storage is a big issue for companies and individuals alike. Companies have to decide how long to keep data and how to store it so it doesn’t take up too much space. If data is never erased, it will eventually take up too much space, and energy supplies will be strained. The same is true for individuals – if we never delete old photos, emails, or files, our computers will eventually become overloaded and difficult to use.

In the majority of companies, this is a significant energy cost that is not taken into account. It can be challenging to keep an adequate organizational memory, but one must ask: at what expense is the environment being put?

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In general, the focus of the guidance has been on reducing traditional sources of carbon production through the use of mechanisms such as carbon offsetting through third parties (planting trees to make up for emissions from using petrol, for instance).

What do Jackson and Hodgkinson hope to happen?

They say that they have come up with the concept of “digital decarbonization” in the hopes that it will assist in reducing this footprint. They say when we talk about lowering an organization’s carbon footprint, we are not referring to using digital technologies such as smartphones, computers, sensors, and the like. Perhaps the elephant in the room on this issue is that people will not give up their smartphone and computer use and their right to vent opinions on social media. You’d have to be an extremely clever professor to devise a solution for that. 

Instead, Jackson and Hodgkinson say they are referring to the process of minimizing the impact of digital data’s own carbon footprint.

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They think the real danger is the exponential growth of unstructured data, which makes them worry about how well modern digital practices work.

Their study was recently published in the Journal of Business Strategy. They say that they have uncovered methods to assist organizations in reusing digital data and highlighted pathways organizations can follow when collecting, processing, and storing new digital data.

They hope that this will be able to cut down on the production of dark data and make a contribution to the movement toward digital decarbonization. This is something that each of us will have to get involved in if we want to see net zero become a reality.

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They encourage you to get started today by selecting and deleting the photos and videos that you no longer require from your collection. Your digital carbon footprint will increase proportionately with each additional file you store in iCloud or Google Photos.

Perhaps rather than Jackson and Hodgkinson publishing their views in the Journal of Business Strategy and Conversation, they should have a serious conversation with Zuckerberg about his plans for the Metaverse and his plans to build a supercomputer that will hold 36,000 years of high-quality video. It kind of makes our efforts to delete our photos of friends and family, and that spreadsheet we may never use again feel inadequate. Please tell us what you think, but don’t type too much! Maybe you could do the planet a favor and return and delete your comments later.