picture of a leaf lying on a circuit-board, a metaphor for the ecological damage of data storage and processing

Illustration by Dhanwant Kumar

Five worthy reads is a regular column on five noteworthy items we’ve discovered while researching trending and timeless topics. This week we’re exploring the ‘hidden’ environmental impact of our data-driven world.

Long ago—way back in the early 1910s, as a quick search result informs me—people began to refer to petroleum, or oil, as “black gold.” This was a reference to how valuable a commodity it had become with the invention of the internal combustion engine.

Today, there’s another item that people now liken to gold (or even oil): data.

As far back as 2018, we were producing 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. That’s a lot of data. And with the rise of smart watches, smart sensors, and other IoT devices, this amount is only set to grow.

If you’re working in products, marketing, or any department at any level, really, you must be well aware of the value of this data. If analyzed correctly, it can give you insights into your users’ needs and wants, helping you serve them better.

The flip side is that bad data can skew this process for you. As the saying goes, garbage in equals garbage out. Then there is the filtering out and correcting for bad data, which can lead to significant costs. How significant? Well, in 2016, IBM estimated that poor quality data was costing the US economy $3.1 trillion a year.

Besides this, there are other things that you need to take care of when dealing with this new gold. You need to ensure compliance with data privacy mandates if you’re collecting personal information of any kind. Then there’s the risk and cost of data breaches if your security is not up to the mark.

As you can see, storing and using this new gold comes with its fair share of responsibilities and risks. But that’s not all.

Apart from these obvious requirements and concerns, storing and processing data also has an environmental—and operational—cost. As per one Gartner report published in December 2014, the average cost of storing 1TB of data was $3,351 per year.

While storage costs per TB have come down drastically, the overall amount of data being stored, especially by large enterprises, has been growing exponentially.

Moreover—paraphrasing a bit from the first article below—moving to the cloud doesn’t change data into an amorphous, lighter state. In the end, it still resides on hardware. And that hardware needs money and electricity to stay up and running.

How does this affect the environment and the company bottom-line? Here are five articles that go into the details: 

1. The staggering ecological impacts of computation and the cloud
The cloud, as the article puts it, is a “carbonivore” consuming the electricity equivalent of 50,000 homes. Besides this, data centers often need a lot of water to run, causing water shortages in communities near them. Even as companies like Google promise to “replenish” water and go “carbon neutral,” are these promises feasible in light of the expected explosion in storage requirements? 

2. The environmental, social & governance of data storage
While tech giants are promising to take steps to reduce or offset the environmental impact of their data centers, they’re not the only ones who can help. Organizations can contribute to these efforts. From deduplication to compression, there are several ways of reducing your data carbon footprint. 

3. Reducing the environmental impact of data storage
As long as the digital world exists, so will data. Since we can’t get rid of it, the next best thing we can do is reduce the impact of the data we’re storing. This article lists out steps that your organization can consider, apart from reducing the data stored, to further reduce its carbon footprint. 

4. Renewable Energy Alone Can’t Address Data Centers’ Adverse Environmental Impact
Creating clean sources of energy to power our data centers is important. However, this alone is not enough to curb their impact on our environment. Improved cooling systems that don’t use freshwater and better processors could play a role here, as could AI. AI-powered software could improve the efficiency of CPUs, allowing organizations to do more with less equipment.

5. World needs to rethink internet use post COVID-19
Over the past two years, if there was one silver lining, it was this: less commuting due to working from home meant fewer emissions. However, it turns out our increased use of the internet could offset these “gains.” From virtual meetings to video streaming, every online activity adds to the environmental impact of the internet. The solution? Small sacrifices, like turning off your webcam or watching something in *gasp* standard definition instead of ultra HD.

Barring an end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it scenario, data isn’t going away anytime soon. The amount of data we create, use, and share is only going to grow. The only “solution” is to find a way to reduce the impact of using this data.

While major technological changes will be needed to make a significant change, small steps taken today can add up and make a dent in the looming ecological costs of our digital world. This could give us a little more time before we have to choose between cooling the data centers hosting our streaming platforms and getting water to drink. 

P.S. You could count this as another reason why the Metaverse is probably a bad idea—at least for now.