Earth Day reminds me of grabbing a coffee before a client meeting in San Francisco a couple years ago. As I walked into a local Blue Bottle Coffee, I entered an environmental tableau. The diverse crowd of customers was uniform in its vibe (young professional/Tech), clothing (black or grey organic fiber), and appetite for a curated/organic/Fair Trade coffee experience – and happy to pay a premium for it. A phalanx of recycling containers awaited every conceivable waste stream. Nary a plastic straw was in sight. It felt as if I was in a temple of sustainable sensibilities, with a business model and patronage profoundly committed to Green principles.
But what struck me instead were the billowing clouds of data exhaust streaming from laptops, tablets, and phones, themselves toxic waste sites for massive amounts of uncontrolled data.
The contrast between our environmental practices and how we treat our data is gobsmacking. Though we never uniformly agree on anything, it’s indisputable that Green principles are now squarely in the mainstream. We believe in reducing/reusing/recycling; we expect clean air and water; we care about the healthfulness of the food we ingest; and we worry about climate change. We talk about these values; we support varying degrees of government regulation for these aims; and, most importantly, we tend to align our money with our motivations, causing an increasing number of companies to adopt environmentally sustainable practices.
But what about our data? We freely generate massive amounts of data, in rapidly increasing volumes. We allow our data to accumulate in vast troves, locally and in the cloud, without a thought to the repercussions. We fail to take the often simple steps to secure the data we possess, or to be aware of the security practices of those with whom we entrust our data. How we actually treat our data belies any professed interest in the privacy of our information. We happily ingest information from virtually any source, without regard for its toxicity. We do not demand effective government regulation of the powerful companies that handle our data. And, most importantly, we do not use our market behavior to compel companies to treat our data responsibly.
Why is this so? How is it that our 21st Century data practices mirror the environmental-obliviousness of the 1960’s? How did Green environmental sensibilities successfully take root and flourish, and what does that tell us about how we now could make better data practices a reality? And what would it look like to be Data Green?