– By Esther van Bergen, Capgemini Netherlands –

–Capgemini Sustainability Blog: Home –

I find myself in a love-hate relationship with Big Data, both enthusiastic and reluctant. For me Big Data means gathering large amounts of (small) bits of information through whatever technology possible, so just about anything really. Whether it’s your social networks data, health-care records, GHG’s emissions, amount of rainfall, materials in a product, energy used and so on.

The real value of Big Data comes when someone decides to analyze the (combination of) information. This is usually done for a purpose… and that’s what really matters. The tricky thing is, when the information is made available it is not always clear what (potential) purpose it can be used (or abused) for. This is the conundrum we find ourselves in.

Pro’s

As IT professional with sustainability as my main focus, I get excited about the potential that Big Data solutions can bring. It’s is mind-blowing. Just a few examples:

  • Power for people / consumers: Using social networks to connect and stand stronger. It has helped  in peaceful popular uprisings and has been successfully used by consumers who increasingly want to know what they’re buying, how it was produced and what happens at the end of its life-cycle.
  • Smart Energy / Grid solutions: Analyzing (real-time) data makes it much more flexible and resilient and allows for centralized and decentralized infrastructure (and allows for a 2-way street to be both consumer and producer).
  • An organization like TEEB, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, is using it to make the value of nature’s services and the costs of losing them (Natural Capital) tangible, which is  crucial in business and political decisions. However, some argue it has a dark side as well (see ‘Cons’).
  • In line with what TEEB is doing, the World Resource Institute released the new Aquaduct Water Risk Atlas map just over a month ago. It was created for the express purpose of “see[ing] how water stress will affect operations locally and globally, and help prioritize investments that will increase water security”.
  • Although early stages, Big Data is also taking root in supply chains, such as tracking the entire lifecycle of a product (and its parts). This makes it very beneficial for businesses as well. It helps to reduce waste, makes them less vulnerable to conflicts driving up the price, reduces risk of consumer backlash (as with the current horsemeat and eggs scandals in Europe), it can show how to shorten the supply chain etc.

Big Data will help us achieve the circular economy, strengthen our power through social networks, realize Smart(er) Cities etc. but it’s not all ‘sunshine and strawberry cheesecake’.

Cons

All this data has to be stored somewhere and, in general,  this makes us all more vulnerable. There have been multiple examples of information that was ‘hacked’, often because of security leaks. Recently I read about software that uses information from social networks and mobile phones to track us. Granted, this software was developed for use of national security, but the technology seems to be available for purchase by anyone. Now, I am all for catching ‘the bad guys’, but this feels too much like someone rummaging through my drawers whenever they feel like it. It just doesn’t sit right with me. And who decides, now or in the future, what can be perceived as ‘national security risk’ anyway?

I would like nothing more than for business and politics to be transparent (partially for the benefits mentioned earlier), but some information should not be available to just anybody. I saw a webcast a few months ago on the potential of The Internet of Things. In it someone mentioned a possible future application where my health conditions could be monitored as an early warning system. Wow, sounds great, but I would certainly not like my insurance company to access that information. All this poses many security risks.

Putting a price on nature (Natural Capital) raises a few questions too. First, how do we know that we’re truly calculating the real value? And second, if you put a price on it is there any one person or organization who owns it? Does that mean someone can decide to sell?

Meeting in the middle

So, this is where (IT) security and sustainability should meet. Unfortunately, short-term focus on ‘costs’ often result in insufficient levels of security. Technology developments are fast outpacing the needed countermeasures. Overall there is way too little expertise in government and business, an underestimation of the impact of unwanted consequences. In an ever globalizing world the attention to security should be a much higher priority. Should we perhaps seek a (compulsory) international institute to address this? One that sets mandatory standards (in line with techn. developments) and can set clear and hard boundaries for rights and responsibilities of using data (a ‘Purpose Data Use protocol’ or something). If so, this institute should have bark as well as bite, however, otherwise it won’t have any impact. But if the level of improvements after the transgressions in the financial sector, the food scandals etc. are anything to go by, this will be a difficult thing to achieve.

We should not ‘throw out the baby with bathwater’, but the world we are developing into requires a high maturity holistic approach of various aspects involved, even (or perhaps especially) from a sustainability POV.

———————————————

Esther van Bergen is an IT Strategy consultant at Capgemini Netherlands. As a coordinator for Capgemini’s Green IT services and a member of the Capgemini’s Sustainability Network she specializes in Sustainability of and with IT.