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Are We Creating a Digital Landfill?

Innovation Times

Posted by JR Reagan on June 13, 2013

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The amount of data we generate has reached staggering levels, and it’s not expected to slow down.

At home, when the trash can is full, we take out the garbage.

When it comes to data, though, storage is cheap and seemingly limitless. And it doesn’t rot or get smelly. There’s nothing stopping us — and the companies collecting information about us — from become hoarders, conspicuous consumers of all things digital.

But how much of the data that we generate is actually useful?

A day in the life of data

This infographic illustrates exactly how much digital information we created in a single day – way back in June 2012:

Even when we’re not actively contributing to this vast library of data, our devices do it for us, spewing a permanent trail of digital flotsam and jetsam. Adding to this is machine-generated data gathered by surveillance cameras, satellites, sensors, and the like. Such data is expected to grow from current levels by a factor of 15 by the year 2020 (IDC/EMC).

The year in review

Like a high-interest loan, data compounds quickly. Since 2005, IDC has published an annual overview of the digital universe, or the amount of digital information created or copied in a year. Sponsored by EMC, the 2012 report “Big Data, Bigger Digital Shadows, and Biggest Growth in the Far East” shows just how quickly our digital world is expanding – and that we don’t quite know what to do with all that information yet.

A Deloitte Review article, Gold Rush: The scramble to claim and protect value in the digital world reported “Your bits and bytes—along with uncountable others—are contributing to the explosion of information that is sometimes called “big data.” In 2010, the digital universe of data reached 1.2 million petabytes; it’s predicted to balloon to 35 zettabytes by 2020.”

Now that’s what I call Big Data. But is it really all that big if it isn’t being used, or is it simply a big pile of unstructured garbage?

Analyze this

The findings from IDC/EMC regarding data analysis of our digital universe are equally awesome (in the truest sense of that word). Just one-half of 1% of the data generated each day by the world’s people and machines is being analyzed.

In that, the report finds opportunity as vast as the un-mined data.

“This year’s study underscores the massive opportunity that exists for businesses that not only identify the potential benefits of the digital universe, but recognize the importance of navigating that universe,” said Jeremy Burton, EVP, Product Operations and Marketing of EMC.

Two computer scientists from Johns Hopkins have proposed a novel approach to navigating the digital universe as described by IDC/EMC: To prevent data from accumulating into a virtual landfill, treat it like you would a physical resource.

Said Professors Ragib Hasan and Randal Burns, in an article by, “We propose using the lessons from real life waste management in handling waste data.”

Remember the 4 Rs made famous by green initiatives: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover? The Hopkins’ pair suggests we manage the explosion of Big Data in the same way to prevent the build-up of unmanageable amounts of digital detritus.

The road to zero landfill in the physical world seemed like an impossibility a decade ago. For US auto manufacturers, though, it became a challenge. One company achieved its first zero-landfill manufacturing site in 2005, and in the seven years that followed, added another 80 plants to that number.

If auto manufacturers can use the 4 Rs to eliminate 90 percent of the physical waste it generates worldwide, then the challenge of keeping Big Data out of a Big Landfill doesn’t seem like such an implausible outcome. We just need some pioneers to jump in the digital dumpsters.


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