Understanding the causes and risks of data waste


In recent years, there has been a significant focus on individuals and organisations to reduce waste in support of global climate change and environmentally conscious efforts. In my blog post this month, I turn the spotlight on a different sort of waste. This is something which every business around the world struggles with – data waste.

On CIO.com, an article by Ellen Friedman describes data waste as ‘missing an opportunity to get value from data or paying too much to acquire, store, and use data.’ Even though Friedman focusses on the value of data here – and rightly so, a more common sense description would be to refer to the massive amount of data being collected, transferred, and stored that is never optimised nor consumed again.

TechTarget’s Robert Sheldon takes it a step further by focusing on redundant, obsolete, or trivial (ROT) data, which is described as ‘digital documentation that an organisation continues to retain even though the information that is documented has no business or legal value’. I like the ROT acronym as it makes me think of a box of clothes that lies rotting away in the attic, unused.

Of course, there is also the environmental aspect of data waste. In a scholarly article in Harvard Review, Elettra Bietti and Roxana Vatanparast define data waste as ‘the carbon emissions, natural resource extraction, production of waste, and other harmful environmental impacts directly or indirectly attributable to data-driven infrastructures’. The Harvard Review article provides an interesting read and is a good starting point if you are looking to delve deeper into the legal and sociotechnical aspects of data waste, especially related to environmental harms.

What causes data waste?

Organisations must keep in mind that the massive amounts of data causing wastage can significantly tax storage and network systems. Sheldon writes ‘data waste comes in a variety of forms, such as duplicate emails, outdated documents, bloated web content, unnecessary communications, and poor data management. All this data requires more storage capacity, adds data management complexity, and translates to higher costs’.

However, I believe that one of the biggest sources of ROT data can be found in companies saving multiple copies of the same information. This is often stored in siloed data systems that hardly communicate with each other. To this we can add outdated information and extraneous information that fulfils no strategic purpose.

Kazuki Ohta states in his Forbes Tech Council column that organisations should not only focus on the collection of unnecessary data and avoiding unnecessary data duplication, but they also fail to share actual relevant data with the right teams or business units.

Navigating the risks of wastage

According to recent research from Gartner, data inefficiencies like data wastage end up costing companies globally an average of $12.9 million per year.

Data waste and unnecessary data duplication makes it difficult for knowledge workers to comply with regulatory reporting requirements, or even to respond to organisational strategic and operational information requests timely and adaptively enough. As Ohta states: ‘If managers and other team members are putting in 10-plus hours each per week into customer data maintenance, then there is likely a costly inefficiency hidden within the data’. We can extend that comment into the reporting realm too – if knowledge workers spend hours to identify and resolve data duplication issues to provide accurate information to decision-makers, it often points to data wastage issues.

There are also more critical issues like security and privacy to consider. ROT data is often like our box of clothes in the attic – it lies there unmanaged, and half forgotten, easy for spiders, rats, and mice to discover and nest in. Similarly, ROT data is often vulnerable to data breaches. As threats and invasive technologies increase, the protection and management of ROT data are typically not increased in line with the dangers of the potential threats. Additionally, data that is retained beyond its legal retention period poses a liability risk because it can be used against the organisation in legal actions or financial audits.

Do keep an eye out for my follow-on blog, as I will discuss how to identify data waste and what organisations can do to manage, reduce, and eliminate it.

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