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“With the advent of the internet of things, the amount of data being collected around the world is growing exponentially. We are collecting data with a current need in mind, we are collecting for future purposes and we are collecting it just to have it, in case we find a way to use it later,” we wrote in a 2017 article titled: Fishing for Actionable Intelligence in our Rapidly Growing Data Lakes. “Each new data stream feeds into a data lake and data used remains stored, so this lake will grow and grow forever, it seems,” the article continued.

Fast-forward to 2019 and we are quickly moving through gigabytes to terabytes, zettabytes, and yottabytes, to keep track of data flows and storage. However, every bit of data requires a bit of energy, and the rapidly increasing levels of data in this smart new era are having an increasingly negative impact on the environment. To make things worse, much of this data is considered unnecessary and even an infringement of privacy by many.

“Some data is a waste product in the same way that junk mail is a waste product. How many computational resources are dedicated to the zillions of spam emails sent every day? How much bandwidth is dedicated to ads sitting unclicked in your sidebar? Increasingly, records of nearly every digital transaction — no matter how trivial — are transmitted to a data center and stored. It may seem hyperbolic to harp on a few wasted bits, but this is a serious problem,” says Tyler Elliot Bettilyon writing for OneZero, the forward-looking, tech and science news portal by Medium.

Who the beneficiaries of data are, is also relevant to this debate. Online advertising (especially the vast majority of it that is a nuisance to the viewer and is rarely clicked on) accounts for terabytes of data, significant bandwidth, and is only serving the advertisers. It is not just a bit of graphics and a link either; locations, web history, even cursor movements are all tracked and harvested by apps, browsers and devices then sold on to third parties over and over. For many, the beneficiaries should be accountable for the environmental cost, and then there is the issue of privacy.

“To most people, this data is waste that should just be discarded. Most people will never perform a thorough audit of their internet history, but for advertisers and political strategists, it can be a goldmine,” suggests Bettilyon. “Worse, governments and corporations will continue to fall victim to hackers. These data sources will inevitably fall into the hands of malicious actors,” he added.

Data usage is getting out of control. We have been lulled into this culture of internet usage where more is better and little thought is given to waste. As if the virtual world has no impact on the physical one. While our physical world battles excessive use of disposable plastics and unnecessary packaging, our virtual world is clicking away and storing everything with no consideration of the environmental cost. While each click and stored-byte represents an unfathomably small amount of energy, a rapidly increasing clicking culture can have a significant impact on energy consumption, which is a serious concern for the environment in this burgeoning data age.

Junk mail, online advertising, and other traditional uses of the internet help us understand the data-energy landscape but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, the cyber-physical internet grows on a different scale through the internet of things in our smart buildings, cities, and grids. According to Cisco, 500 billion devices are expected to be connected to the Internet by 2030. Each smart, connected device generates a new data stream that IoT applications use to aggregate, analyze, and deliver insight. All that data helps drive the more informed decisions and actions that symbolize our technological evolution, but all that new data also has an environmental cost.

Machine learning is a perfect example, where huge amounts of energy are required to churn through the growing mass of data they are being fed. The amount of computational power used in the largest AI training runs has been increasing exponentially with a 3.5 month doubling time according to OpenAI. Compare that to Moore’s Law, the famous 18-month doubling period that has prophesized the evolution of processing power in the computer era, and you get a sense of the new scales we are working with. Big data is a big energy consumer but a small part of the environmental debate.

In contrast to the clicking culture and unnecessary data discussed above on the Internet, the masses of data flowing through the IoT in smart buildings and cities appear to be for the benefit of all stakeholders. Building owners go smart to attract progressive tenants, those tenants demand smart to increase productivity and attract talent, while building occupants benefit from health, wellbeing, and productivity gains. Smart cities aim to make urban life better for all. Furthermore, smart buildings, cities, and grids claim energy efficiency as a primary goal. This doesn’t mean, however, that all the data is necessary or that these sectors can’t find ways to reduce the environmental footprint of their data.

Do we need to keep every bit of HVAC or occupant tracking data just in case it finds a new use one day? Do we really explore all the options before selecting data-intensive video surveillance for every space? These are questions the tech industry should be asking itself within an environmental context – in the same way supermarkets are beginning to reduce the use of plastic bags or how municipal governments are fostering the use of bicycles.

Many see any limiting of the expansion of data as a threat to our technological evolution but few consider the incredible scales of energy that an unconstrained data age could demand. Data is being used to help us reduce energy consumption but is simultaneously becoming a growing threat to the environment. For those who maintain that data expansion must be unrestricted for the sake of our technological evolution, which ultimately benefits society, then there is a very simple solution – renewable energy.

By utilizing much greater renewable energy, in combination with efficiency methods and energy storage, we can bring about an era of energy abundance that can free the data age from the inevitable environmental shackles.”. While some efforts have been made to power data’s biggest energy users with renewable sources, it is not enough. Be it by limiting data hoarding or switching to renewable energy, climate change must find some traction in the smart tech discussions before data is out of control.