Professors present at Archives and Records Association's digital sustainability event

Someone scrolling on a smartphone with a laptop keyboard to the side.

On Thursday 5 October 2023, the Archives and Records Association (ARA) Section on Technology and Environmental Sustainability Groups hosted a joint event on digital sustainability and decarbonisation.

The speakers, Professors Tom Jackson and Ian Hodgkinson, discussed the environmental impact of digital data on our carbon footprint. They highlighted the hidden contribution of invisible ‘dark’ data - information that is used and stored once, but never used again. This type of redundant, obsolete or trivial (ROT) data could account for as much as 80% of the data stored by organisations, resulting in unnecessary expense, as well as having a huge climate impact.

There are currently few mechanisms to measure the CO2 generated by digital data and it does not yet feature in the World Resources Institute standard GHG scopes, although Tom and Ian suggested that the requirement to report on data CO2 will not be far off. Some of the key data problem areas are the result of the default human response, ‘store it all’, coupled with the consequences of unstructured and duplicated data, information overload and the exponential rise in email traffic. This is compounded by poor information governance.

Tom and Ian specialise in helping organisations and policymakers to understand the data they are creating and storing, and start to measure the digital data CO2 footprint. They have developed a suite of tools to help forecast digital carbon emissions resulting from data as it travels through an organisation. The Data Carbon Scorecard estimates the CO2 potential of data projects from inception. It tracks the CO2 footprint that different data decisions can generate at different stages of the data journey.

The event was attended by over 90 participants, some joining from as far afield as the archives at the University of Illinois. The topic of digital sustainability generated a lot of discussion. The attendees had several suggestions of their own on how to reduce CO2. These included using lossless compression for preservation data (eg FFV1 for audiovisual data); using LTO7 (Linear Tape Open) for time-based media; and adding a ‘do not send/forward this email’ to the signature, in the way we used to include ‘do not print this email’.

One of the challenges faced in the recordkeeping profession results from an increasingly digital society; users expect immediate access to data from any location, and sometimes funding is linked directly to the global reach of collections. This means that many collections need to be digitised and managing the expectations of users around digital access in this context is a challenge.

The event sparked a flurry of interest from participants and other special interest groups wishing to understand more about how we can manage digital information more sustainably. ARA wished to thank Tom and Ian for sharing their expertise and for their kind offer of assistance with measuring the impact of data in their own organisations.