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What is “dark data”?

  • The so-called “dark data” refers to one-time use data. We store this data in the cloud, but never access it again;
  • The storage of these data takes up space on the server and increases power consumption;
  • Many consider digital data to be carbon neutral, but digitizing 2020 GHG emissions accounts for 4% of all;
  • Organizations need to consider how to manage data to minimize their digital carbon footprint.

More than half of the data a company generates is collected, processed and stored for single use. Often, this data is never reused—it could be multiple near-identical images you keep on Google Cloud or Apple iCloud, an outdated business form that will no longer be used, or Useless data from IoT sensors.


This “dark data” can be fixed in the real world through energy. Even data that is stored but never used again takes up space on servers (usually huge computer rooms in warehouses)—both computers and warehouses that consume a lot of power.


This is a huge energy cost, but a hidden sunk cost in most organizations. Maintaining an effective memory of the organization is certainly a challenge, but what is the environmental cost of this data?


In the process of achieving net zero emissions, many organizations are working to reduce their carbon footprint. Guidance generally focuses on reducing traditional carbon production – such as through third-party carbon offsetting mechanisms (for example, by planting trees to compensate for emissions from gasoline use).

Digital Carbon Footprint

While most climate change activists are focused on limiting emissions from the auto, aviation and energy industries, the carbon emissions from digitized data processing already match those industries and are still growing. In 2020, digitalization generates 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Digital data production is growing rapidly – this year the world is expected to generate 97 zettabytes (or 97 trillion gigabytes) of data. By 2025, that number could nearly double to 181 zettabytes. Based on these facts, we are very surprised by the current situation, as there are few policies dedicated to reducing the digital carbon footprint of individual organizations.


When we talk to others about our work, we often find that people tend to think that both digitized data and digitization processes are carbon-neutral—but that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, humans can control the digital carbon footprint. To help reduce our carbon footprint, we have come up with the concept of “Digital Decarbonization”. Here, we are not referring to the use of cell phones, computers, sensors and other digital technologies to reduce an organization’s carbon footprint. Instead, we’re referring to reducing the carbon footprint of digitized data itself. The key is to recognise that digitisation itself is not an environmental issue, but it can also have a huge environmental impact – depending on how we approach digital processes in our day-to-day work.


To illustrate the gravity of the “dark data” situation, we provide the following example – in fact, data centers (2.5% of human-generated CO2) have a larger carbon footprint than the aviation industry (2.1%). To illustrate this, we created a tool that can help calculate an organization’s data carbon cost.


By our calculations, a typical data-driven business such as insurance, retail or banking with 100 employees may generate 2983GB of dark data per day. If they kept the data for a year, the carbon footprint of the data would be similar to flying from London to New York six times. Currently, companies generate 1,300,000,000 gigabytes of dark data every day — the equivalent of 3,023,255 flights from London to New York in carbon emissions.

The rapid growth of dark data has revealed significant problems with the efficiency of current digital practices. Our recent study, published in the Journal of Business Strategy, identifies ways to help organizations re-use digital data and highlights what organizations should follow when collecting, processing, and storing new digital data. in principle. We hope that these initiatives will reduce the generation of dark data and contribute to the digital decarbonization movement. To achieve net zero emissions, each of us needs to be involved.


Individuals can even start their own digital decarbonization campaign by deleting photos and videos you no longer need – every file stored on Apple iCloud or Google Cloud adds to your digital carbon footprint.

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