BBC documentary: Wales - Digital Powerhouse

Emma Fryer shares the questions posed by the programme makers and the answers she gave during a preparatory conversation.

A recent BBC Radio Wales documentary:  Wales: Digital Powerhouse featured one of our members, NGD at Newport who provide state of the art digital infrastructure at the gateway to Wales.  Emma Fryer spoke to the programme makers beforehand to explain why this is a good thing, how data centres work and how the ongoing explosion in digital data use is being managed.


Usually questions are targeted at the growing energy demand of data centres as they expand to meet the requirements of our digital policy agendas and support the increasing digitisation of our daily lives.  However, this conversation was about data we no longer use, our “waste” data.  They wanted to know where all the data we are generating ends up when we’ve finished with it: whether it is piling up in vast mountains like the mining spoil heaps of yesteryear. 


The interview started with a discussion about how much our reliance on digital data has grown in recent years, and we talked about Zettabytes and Yottabytes, the fact that we now create as much data every two days as we did between prehistory and 2002, and how processing capacities have grown: a smartphone has a million times more computing power than that used for the first moon landing.  However, we didn’t manage to provide a figure for data stored in the UK: that’s elusive because data is everywhere, and if we want even the vaguest estimate we’d need to use a lot of proxies and models.


Looking at the reasons behind this explosive growth, we talked about Moore’s Law and other efficiency gains and why that makes such a difference for price elastic activities like communications. In simple terms, as we get more efficient services get cheaper and as they get cheaper we use more of them.  We then discussed cloud computing and why it is a positive step in terms of energy efficiency before we got to the nub of the dialogue: data waste.


Old unused data doesn’t sit around in piles like tyres or old socks: data is just electrons so in physical terms even the largest dataset doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.  However, hoarding data unnecessarily does have an energy impact through the devices it is stored on and the supporting infrastructure. 


In principle we should deal with redundant data as we deal with old socks, but in practice that is tricky because our socks aren’t duplicated elsewhere. Even data that we store ourselves and control directly, like photographs, may be backed up in multiple locations, and then there is the data that other organisations hold about us, plus all that data we generate through work.


We talked about our tendency to be profligate with our data storage.  In the physical world we run out of space, but more and more data can be stored on smaller and smaller devices, and in the commercial world, cloud service provide far more capacity for the same energy footprint as traditional in-house data storage – so it’s often easier to store stuff we don’t need than to sort it out. 


Large cloud providers also have systems for gradually off-lining data that is never accessed, but that’s a mechanical function and it’s outside the remit of operators to make value judgements about data.  Our job as a sector is to ensure that we process, store, manage, transmit and receive data efficiently and securely: our digital economy depends on this.


We finished by musing on responsibilities and decided that they are shared between operator and customer, but that the sector could do more to communicate to consumers the energy impacts of their digital activity so they can make informed choices and become responsible digital citizens. 


The programme is available on BBC iPlayer for the next few weeks: