Dark data is an invisible carbon footprint

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This general view of Bangkok's skyline shows the haze over the city on September 30, 2019. - Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-C-Cha has ordered authorities immediately to activate prepared measures to mitigate the haze and pleaded with construction site operators and industries in Bangkok and neighbouring provinces to reduce their dust emissions. With economies now at a virtual standstill, carbon output could fall by more than 5 percent year-on-year – something not seen since the end of World War II. Closer to home, pollution levels have dropped by over 20 percent in Bangkok after the enforcement of strict social isolation measures.
MAY 27, 2020 - 11:26 AM

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some unexpected positive environmental consequences. With economies now at a virtual standstill, carbon output could fall by more than 5 percent year-on-year – something not seen since the end of World War II. 

Closer to home, pollution levels have dropped by over 20 percent in Bangkok after the enforcement of strict social isolation measures. The ominous smog synonymous with Jakarta traffic is also a thing of the past – for now – with the stay-at-home policy in place. It is a pleasant surprise to residents when Mount Gede Pangrango in Bogor and Mount Salak in Sukabumi, both West Java, are now visible from the city. 

A few months of clear skies offer only some respite against the backdrop of COVID-19’s grip on livelihoods. Big data can be part of the solution to climate change by locating harmful emissions or identifying pressure points along the supply chain; but storing ‘passive’ digital data brings carbon dioxide levels to record highs and puts a tremendous strain on the planet. 

Good data hygiene is poised to transform how the world measures and tracks climate change, and much could be done by both individuals and organisations to avoid an irreversible tipping point. 

Stemming the tide against climate change – with data 

ASEAN, one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, can play a huge role in building a more sustainable, post-pandemic world. The region has an insatiable appetite for coal, and fossil fuels account for more than three-quarters of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Furthermore, energy demand in the region will continue to grow as much as 60 percent by 2040 according to Southeast Asia Energy Outlook 2019. 

While ASEAN member states are making strides to reduce their carbon footprint, progress is slow and some say, inadequate. Much has been said about creating alternative sources of energy and making energy-guzzling data centers more efficient, however, the burgeoning environmental cost of dark data has so far, been overlooked.

Unclassified or untagged data – otherwise known as dark data – is producing more carbon dioxide than 80 different countries do individually. Veritas estimates that 5.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be unnecessarily pumped into the atmosphere, simply by passively storing dark data.

IDC predicts that the collective sum of the world’s data will grow from 33 zettabytes this year to a staggering 175 zettabytes by 2025. This implies that unless people change their habits, there will be 91 zettabytes of dark data in five years’ time – over four times the volume we have today – with a vast amount of energy required to power the infrastructure that dark data resides.

Digitalisation and new technologies have a dirty secret 

In a short span of few months, remote working is suddenly an overnight requirement for many organisations globally. This has inevitably led to a surge in online user activity. Every search, click, or streamed video stored across several servers and systems are consuming very real energy resources. 

As remote working transitions from a luxury for some to a necessity for all, it is conceivable that a post-pandemic remote working could very well become a norm rather than an exception.

Veritas’ Value of Data study found over half of all data within Singaporean organisations (53 percent) remains unclassified or untagged, indicating that these businesses have limited or no visibility over vast volumes of potentially business-critical or business-trivial data.

Organisations do not have enough understanding of the type of data they hold, and the storage policies around it. Dark data can be a variety of things, spanning from cat videos, to old company files or orphaned information from former employees. It can often be data that organisations are keeping due to poor deletion policies where data that is no longer useful is kept either by default, ‘in case’ it is of value in the future; or because they falsely think that they might need it for compliance purposes. 

Illuminate and eliminate

Filtering dark data and deleting the information that is not needed should become a moral imperative for everyone. Organisations should not have to accept dark data as a logical consequence of their digital journeys. In fact, they should proactively look to reduce the load on energy-consuming IT infrastructures by illuminating the massive piles of unknown dark data. 

A critical first step for organisations in the pursuit of dark data is to identify and gain visibility into all data stored within an organisation. With the insights gained from analytics, understanding how information flows, where sensitive data resides, who has access to it and how long it is being retained builds a strong foundation for sustainable success.

Key to long term environmental health

This pandemic has given us the rare opportunity to hit reset with Mother Nature. The responsibility of fighting climate change should not fall squarely on the shoulders of governments or businesses. Although businesses with IoT data are driving the lion’s share of dark data, most of us have videos that we’re never going to watch or emails that we’re never going to read – all of which we are often guilty of when we conveniently sync our devices to the cloud.

There is a carbon footprint to every bit stored. As we find our footing in a post-pandemic world, organisations need to start using a green lens to assess data hygiene practices to ensure climate change will not get sidelined, again.

 

The writer is vice president and managing director for Asia South Region, Veritas Technologies LLC