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Big Data – Where Security and Sustainability should meet

Category : General

– 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.


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’.


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.

About the author

Esther van Bergen
Esther van Bergen
As IT Sustainability Strategy consultant Esther is currently a coordinator for Capgemini’s Green IT services and a core member of Capgemini’s Global Sustainability Network. She actively pursues cross-expertise collaboration and coordinates the Green IT Community of Practice (a variety of activities). In her roles Esther always considers the detail vs. the bigger picture and enjoys playing ‘devils advocate’ where needed. She believes communication is the make or break factor for success in IT, business and life in general. Her background and experience in Communications, Process Improvement, (IT) Governance and her broad and holistic understanding of sustainability is of added value to anything she undertakes. Esther has a clear vision about the role of sustainability, both now and in the future (such as use of technology in transformation to a Circular Economy and closed-loop processes, conservation efforts, Smart City concepts etc.). She is particularly enjoys working on strategic and innovative ideas that bring together people, process and technology to help realize tangible results for the both the organization, community and the environment (Triple Bottom Line).
3 Comments Leave a comment
Great post, Esther! It's refreshing to hear someone else (besides myself) posing an alternative viewpoint to the promise of sustainability. Like you, I agree that Sustainability measures hold great promise - and great potential for exploitation. Aside from the risk of formal security measures established to protect consumers from predatory business practices or information theft, I'd also like to add that "legitimate" business could use this wealth of consumer data for rampant growth without consideration for the harm they cause. For example, Big Data for genomics can be used to grow crops to feed the world's hungry - or to create pesticide dependent seeds. Will Big Business use Big Data for good or evil?
Hi Alek, Thank you for your compliment! It does hold great promise, the tricky thing seems to be how to determine which kinds of data and technologies can be used and combined to create the added value for businesses. To be truly innovative and contributing to sustainability IT also needs to have a real good understanding of a specific sector or a particular company. And yes, I agree with you that the risk in security does not only come from 'predatory business practices', i.e theft / hacking. Businesses will likely walk a fine line (or cross it) while using Big Data solutions 'for good or for evil', not just regarding privacy sensitive information but any form of data. Saying you use Big Data solutions to address world hunger does not mean you're developing a truly sustainable solution, because it may be counterproductive (or even adding to the problem) in other areas. We as citizens, employees and consumers will have to keep them sharp and on their toes and steer them towards what we deem acceptable or not. That is why transparency is also crucial. To add to the mix, recent weeks have proven that it's not only 'business' that can use it in a positive or a negative way... ;-) I hope to do a follow-up on this blog at some point.
If one of those things gets stolen your datas is going to get lost forever, so it's not really a inexpensive idea to keep backup of your datas on your laptop or i - Phone. In deed, countless numerous investigations, reviews along with statistics, analyzed by the scientists, instantly show, empirically, that there's a very high degree of effectiveness for the use of a monitored electronic security systems nyc as a deterrent to home break-in and prevention tool to combat burglaries. Many families leave the door between the garage and the house unlocked at night, viewing it as more of an 'inside door' and less of a security door.

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