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Save the world: throw away information in time

Organisations and consumers process enormous amounts of digital information on a daily basis. Most of that information is for one-time use. Often, that information is stored indefinitely. That is a problem.

All the digital information that is stored forever - and often already forgotten - is a huge problem for the efficiency of an organisation. But also for the environment.

Digital information is an environmental problem.

Let me begin with the first issue. Digital data consumes as much energy - and therefore pollution - as the aviation, transportation, and energy sectors.

In 2020, digitalisation accounted for 4 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The production of digital information is growing rapidly: In 2022, the world is expected to produce 97 zettabytes (that's 97 billion gigabytes) of digital information. By 2025, this is expected to double to 181 zettabytes. Surprisingly, little attention is paid to reducing the digital footprint of organisations.

Read more about it in 'What is dark data and how is it adding to all of our carbon footprints' from the World Economy Forum.

Digital is not necessarily less polluting than physical

The benefits of digital information over paper information are numerous. Digital information is very easy to produce and at least as easy to distribute. And with the 'cloud', we no longer even think about where our digital product is stored.

But this advantage has a huge downside: information is often and for too long stored. Even leaving aside the fact that much digital information is endlessly copied and stored. Throwing it away is not necessary, many people think.

Global Waste

In his book 'World Wide Waste', Gerry McGovern speaks of an 'energy consumption crisis'. That overconsumption is a huge burden for our planet. To compensate for that burden, we would have to plant billions of trees every year.

I am passing on to you some figures that Gerry collected.

  • According to Tech Target, about 90% of data is never accessed again three months after it was first stored.

  • According to a 2018 report from Active Archive Alliance, 80% of all digital data is never opened or used after it is stored.

  • According to search technology specialist Lucidworks, companies typically analyse only about 10% of the data they collect.

  • According to IDC, 90% of unstructured data is never analysed.

  • According to IBM, 90% of sensor data collected from Internet of Things devices is never used.

Digital storage may seem inexpensive, but it is not. Not for the environment and certainly not for organisations.

Why don't we throw anything away?

In organisations, the problem of too much digital storage is enormous. Gerry McGovern quotes Wolfgang Goebl, founder of the Architectural Thinking Association. "My experience is that IT landscapes are 90% waste. What I've seen in many companies is that they could run the same business with 10% of IT applications and servers."

This is an experience that I certainly share. I regularly have discussions about throwing away information. My urgent advice is always to throw away information in a timely manner and to approach it in a structured way. Then I get responses like:

"That's not allowed!"

- Well, that's actually required by laws and regulations such as privacy protection. So, according to you, who is it not allowed for?

"That's not necessary because we have backups"

- Well, that is the problem. Those backups are consuming energy forever and much of the information on that backup is no longer useful and must even be deleted in accordance with laws and regulations. But you can't just delete it from the backups.

"We have an archive!"

- Well, do you mean those backups? Because that's not an archive.

- Is that archive set up for all your information processes? Does it contain both your structured (data) information and your unstructured (content) information? Is there an active policy to proactively throw away information? Is there a retention policy that has been actually implemented in all your information management systems?

The problem of keeping everything

That organisations keep too much information "forever" hinders efficient business operations. You sometimes read a news story about a strange person who has passed away and is found months later in his house. A house that is packed with garbage bags and all sorts of trash. It takes a cleanup crew days to clean up and destroy it.

That image also applies to the average organisation. Everywhere trash cans full of information waste that is never thrown away. And we produce and copy a lot of information, so those piles of trash cans grow and grow. Only, you don't see them.

But the problem of those trash cans with worthless information does come back to haunt organisations when:

  • Employees waste a significant amount of their time searching for information fruitlessly.

  • An authority demands that information be timely and properly removed, but that does not happen.

  • The immense energy bill arrives for all the servers on which the useless information is stored.

  • The cloud provider comes with a significantly higher bill due to more data storage.

  • Customers complain that they do not receive the right information on time.

  • Employees create their own collections of information to at least find their 'own' information - and in doing so, they make the problem even bigger.

  • They yearn for a new information management system so that they can finally get rid of the 'information clutter' in that system and start over again.

Think about the lifecycle of information

Information management is a discipline, with a lifecycle that pays a lot of attention to the controlled removal of information. The better that process goes, the better it is for the organization, society, and the environment.

The lifecycle consists of 6 phases: planning, development, management, distribution, evaluation, and preservation of information. In phase 6, the preservation phase, valuable information is reused and preserved or destroyed if the information is no longer useful or must be destroyed in accordance with laws and regulations.

As I previously stated, information management is a discipline

The better the information management is set up, the higher the information scores on digital maturity.

An example of optimal information management is a European financial institution where 500,000 information items are proactively removed each year. This results in half a million fewer items to clutter search engine results and pollute the planet.

You may also want to read the article "Keeping a lower profile: how firms can reduce their digital carbon footprints" for more information on this topic.

Poster Lifecycle of Information Management.

"TIMAF developed the poster 'More control over the information life cycle' which includes the entire life cycle of information.

Use this poster to analyse and improve the process of information management and therefore improve the world...

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