The search to make data sustainable
I was recently researching some stats on IT and data sustainability related to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While looking, a social post led me to a few sites that focus on SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing.
The sites included stories showing the results of operations that are commonplace in the first world but are sadly much less common in many poorer countries. They showed/recounted the moment when the bandages come off, and the person smiles. It’s a truly special smile that only comes when someone’s chronic pain is gone, or a core faculty such as sight or mobility returns.
Due to the fact I was searching for sustainability information on IT and data, it got me thinking: many businesses could have a ‘bandage removal moment’ of their own if they properly got to grips with their data.
Now, before I go any further, I want to stress that I’m not comparing an individual’s suffering to a business problem, I really am not. There is a correlation though, and an opportunity to reduce your carbon footprint, which matters to everyone.
Uncontrolled data growth: a sustainability blind spot
ICT and particularly data have a huge carbon footprint. If ICT was a country, calculations indicate1 it would fall somewhere between Germany and Japan2 in terms of CO2 output, with the highest estimates even eclipsing the output of Japan. This means your data has an impact on us all, but mostly on poorer nations, as highlighted by representations at COP26.
The data pain that I alluded to is uncontrolled growth – something most midsize to large organisations suffer from – which is a creeping condition that’s rarely dealt with until it becomes critical. Dealing with it early has many benefits, even if you do put your finances before saving the planet.
Why is data painful & what are the symptoms?
If you think about it, much of this is obvious, but it’s become normalised. There’s the high cost of enterprise arrays, and storage upgrades come around all too quickly. Cloud storage costs rise. There’s the increased burden of data governance and compliance. Security issues continue, with the associated risks of a data breach. Then there are the backup and replication costs, of which an increasing number are hidden due to them being a tick-box option lumped-in to the cost of cloud services (and often fail in terms of value and meeting retention/recovery needs). Nor can we forget disaster recovery (DR) where costs can be substantial.
Too much data also leads to a lack of visibility. Finding the right data can be hard. Finding quality data is harder still. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen companies put projects in place to collect and store data that they don’t realise they already have. Unsurprisingly, data availability and quality is #2 on the list of reasons analytics and AI projects fail in the finance industry3, and I’m confident you’ll find similar stats whatever sector you work in.
Why does it happen?
In most cases, data ownership is a root cause. It’s either no-one’s, someone else’s, everyone’s or ‘just mine’. Not having an organisational owner for all data means that no responsibility equals few real controls. Then there is a lack of training on data management, which allows regular human nature to flourish – hoarding being the worst of many ills. Always remember – data value peaks and troughs, but risk (mostly) remains constant – particularly in our increasingly regulated world.
Once a data growth problem is bedded in, it becomes too big to deal with and generally sits obstinately at the bottom of the ‘too hard’ pile. Until, that is, it becomes unsustainable from a business perspective, and action must be taken.
Business vision restored
Imagine for a moment that you get a grip on your data – what happens? Several good things:
- Reduced risk – a smaller attack surface, tighter security and less chance of compliance failures, fines, and brand damage
- Savings on all the storage challenges mentioned above, with big wins in storage costs/cloud billing, plus faster recovery times and lower DR costs
- Your carbon footprint will be lower
Perhaps the biggest business win though, is opportunity. With a handle on all your data, transformation plans can become a reality much faster, so you’ll be delighting customers and shareholders alike. Contrary to popular belief less data, not more, will make your business smarter and more agile. You’ll also get to smile (no bandage required) in the knowledge that you’re helping to save the planet.
What can you do?
Without a sound case or a compelling event, your data problems will stay firmly at the bottom of the pile, so you need to do several things:
- Look at the numbers – start with unstructured data as that is often where the problem lies – it could be up to 80% of your total. Be sure to poke around for hidden costs
- Include every aspect – data management costs, governance costs (inc. risk), other risk factors and importantly, the cost of missed opportunity
- Understand the opportunity of data – it’s transformational (AI/ML etc.) – but only if you can find the data of the right quality. Investigate data project delays/failures in this area
- If you’re talking to the board, reference bottom line savings, ransomware, compliance fines/data breaches, and subsequent reputational damage
If you’re growing, you can avoid a lot of the potential problems by acting early. There’s no magic bullet – it really is a people, process and technology issue. If you’re an enterprise, you must start with discovery. Profile your data to find out how much of a mess you’re in – after that, automation is your friend but be careful… there’s a lot of technology snake oil out there.
If you found this blog interesting or useful, then do like I did and wonder over to some causes that make a real difference to real lives. As I’ve talked about ‘that special smile’, the Smile Train does exactly that kind of work, and Cure Blindness brings smiles by returning people’s sight. With a focus on carbon emissions recently at COP26, hopefully this has served as a reminder that sustainability4 comes in many forms. Wouldn’t it be great if you reduced your emissions and helped these charities? After all, every positive action has an impact!
1: Emissions from computing and ICT could be worse than previously thought, Science Daily, Sept 2021 https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/09/210910121715.htm
2: Carbon Emissions by Country, Worldometer, 2019 https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-by-country/
3: 21 Top AI Adoption Challenges for the Finance Industry, Analytics Week https://analyticsweek.com/21-top-ai-adoption-challenges-for-the-finance-industry/
4: SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, United Nations, 2021 https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021/goal-03/