UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Fahrenheit 451

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 Aug 2008

I recently attended the JISC’s Innovation Forum. One of the most interesting of the plenary talks was given by HEFCE’s John Selby. In his talk John praised the work of the JISC and the JISC Services, but went on to warn of troubled financial times ahead for the educational sector. The glory days of the past 10 years are over, he predicted.

This was probably not unexpected. What did surprise me, however, was the figures John quoted which put the carbon cost to the environment on par with the cost of flying – both at 2%.

This generated much debate at the forum, and, later on at the conference meal and in the bar. Although people questioned the accuracy of these figures, and wanted to know how these figures were obtained, there was an awareness that the carbon cost of IT is an issue which the IT secure needs to address. I should add that I subsequently came across details of a forthcoming Government Goes Green conference in which Malcolm Wicks, Energy Minister, BERR was quoted as saying that

ICT is now responsible for around 2% of global CO2 emissions. The public sector, with annual IT spending of £14bn, has an important role to play in reducing this two percent. An increased focus on sustainable procurement and efficient use of IT products are two key areas that it needs to work on and I am very pleased to see a conference dedicated on this.

At the JISC Innovation Forum dinner I found myself sitting next to colleagues from the Digital Curation Centre (DCC). I suggested, partly in jest, that although there was a clear need for continued development of networked services which are popular with the users, we had to ask ourselves where the costs of preserving digital resources could be justified. If, as we learnt from Alison Wildish’s recent presentation at the first JISC PoWR workshop, those involved in Web development activities tend to focus on the pressing needs of their user communities and find it difficult to justify diverting scarce resources to preserving resources which are no longer of significant interest to the institution, why don’t we stop pushing the notion of digital preservation. And not only will this allow the development community to focus their efforts on responding to pressing user needs – but removing archived files from hard disk drives could result in significant savings in energy.

This approach would then both help the users and help save the planet :-)

As I’ve said this was intended as a joke, over our conference meal. But we realised that their may be benefits for the digital preservation community in making such suggestions. After all, preservation is widely considered as worthy but dull. If digital preservation was regarded as something radical, might it have a greater appeal to developers? Could those involved in digital preservation work – harvesting old Web sites and even implementing OAIS models – find themselves repositioned as members of an underground radical movement, secretly preserving digital artefacts for a society which regards such activities as unacceptable. Fahrenheit 451 for the 21st century, perhaps.

Save a Polar Bear campaign posterThe following day when I suggested this, I was told that there have been discussions about strategies for digital preservation which acknowledge that there are environmental factors which need to be addressed. It seems that there have been proposals that such preservation activities should be based in places such as Greenland and Alaska where the low temperatures may reduce the need for consuming energy to keep the disk drives running at acceptable temperatures.

Now scientists may point out that running large scale server farms in locations near glaciers and the ice cap may increase the rate at which they melt. But the ideas which were bounced around at the event did make me wonder whether centralisation of networked services (e.g. running applications hosted by Google or Yahoo or running our applications on Amazon’s S3 and EC2 servers) would be more beneficial to the environment than all of our institutions running our own local servers.

And perhaps such discussion might be useful in a teaching context. Does data curation, for example, conflict with environmental protection? If so, should we forget it? Or could this approach result in deletion of the very data that could save the planet

What do you think?

And if you’d like to take part in a viral marketing campaign which seeks to make digital preservation interesting by suggesting that it might be responsible for global warming, feel free to make use of the post which has been produced. And note that a Creative Commons zero licence (currently in beta) has been assigned to this resource, so you don’t need to cite the original source. Let’s be part of an underground movement :-)


19 Responses to “Fahrenheit 451”

  1. Ruth said

    I’m sorting my office out before I leave for a new job. You’ve made me realise it’s about time I sorted out my work files sitting on the server – is there any reason I keep electronic copies of minutes of meetings when I’m not the minute taker and invariably they’re sent round before the next meeting? Every kb counts!

    Maybe publishers could think about this too. If they can’t get hold of the electronic copy of a book we need for a visually impaired student because it’s stuck somewhere in India/China/Taiwan we end up scanning it again, and keeping the files in case we need it for another student, and another transcription centre might do the same book, but there’s no repository, so we don’t know…. it all adds up!

  2. I was at a library systems conference a few years ago, where a company was outlining its strategic direction for system/service development etc.. At the end of the presentation, someone in the audience asked a question along the lines of ‘this alls sounds fine, but what about the really important stuff’, and when asked for an example said ‘well, what about global warming’.

    I have to admit that at the time I was faintly embarrassed for the questionner – the issues of global warming seemed well outside the remit of a library systems company. 2 or 3 years later, it seems much more pertinent – something we should perhaps be asking of all our systems suppliers (hardware and software).

    I would point out that in another session at the JISC Innovation Forum ( the figures quoted from a study at the University of Sheffield showed that in terms of electricity usage 48% of the overall usage was PCs – not servers. This definitely suggests that centralising services to servers would be a good move environmentally (although probably not as good as getting rid of data we don’t need – also a key part of any digital preservation strategy)

    The question of where to host large server farms is not just about heat output – I’ve also heard it said that when they looked at building server farms in very cold climates to offset the cost of cooling, they found that they had to spend an equal amount of energy on heating (no idea if this is true though). Perhaps more to the point is the availability of eco-friendly renewable energey sources – this is why Iceland has been touted as an ideal venue – it is about the geothermal energy available, not about the climate I guess this also suggests that hosting server farms where there is a ready supply of solar energy might also be eco-friendly (if you could generate enough power from solar), even though plenty of solar energy suggests a warmer climate.

    Finally, a message from the Green Computing Forum was linking electricity usage to cost was key in terms of getting the organisation to react to the issue of energy efficiency. Re-charging electricity costs to the people using the power currently seems a better way than simply arguing that ‘for the common good’ we should be ‘greener’. So what we need is not to link digital preservation to radicalism, but commercialism – digital preservation will save you money.

  3. I wonder if you’re in danger of sending a mixed message, Brian – perhaps unintentionally – one that could have those who can’t be bothered taking the trouble to select and manage their digital assets properly rubbing their hands with self-satisfied glee!

    The message to convey, IMO, is that “preservation = selection” – it’s most definitely not about keeping everything willy-nilly. Valuable things need preserving, end of story: the goal of JISC PoWR, DCC, DPC, TNA, etc etc is to help us “do preservation right”. Digital preservation /done wrong/ – whether by keeping everything or nothing – is the real cause for concern, both environmentally and culturally.

  4. Hi Richard
    I would agree that “preservation = selection”, but that’s only a part of the picture – there are also the questions of how one goes about implementing one’s policy. And I think there is a danger in saying “Valuable things need preserving, end of story“. It’s a bit like saying “Resources must be universally accessible, end of story.” Rather it’s the start of the story, and we need to explore not only the costs and resource implications, but also potential downsides to whatever work it is we are seeking to promote, which in this case is digital preservation.
    The purpose of my post is to suggest that there may be additional hidden costs in the implementation of digital preservation which we have not previously considered – as Owen says “the issues of global warming seemed well outside the remit of a library systems company“. I suspect this may also be true of the digital preservation community today, but this may change over time.
    I also disagree with the view that we shouldn’t be raising issues of the complexities as this will provide those with an opportunity not to engage in preservation issues with a reason for their inactivity. This mistake has been made within the Web accessibility community, with the result that the simple message (“everything must comply with WCAG 1.0”) is now acting as a barrier to enhancing accessibility in a much more complex environment.

  5. I agree with Richard.

    Preservation is very much about appraisal and selection. Steve Bailey discusses this in his book on Rethinking Records managment for the web 2.0 world. He asks himself the question ‘Why don’t we save everything seeing as we potentially have the storage capacity to do so’ and concludes that this is a very bad idea, firstly for environemental reasons and secondly because the “accumulation of ephemera all acts as ‘noise’, drowning out the clarity with which we can identify and locate the information we actually need”.

    We need to preserve important stuff because we don’t want to be sat here in 5 years time shaking our heads and trying to recreate the resources we’ve lost. ‘Good’ digital presevation will be cost effective in both an environmental and real money way. As Owen says we need to link digital preservation to commercialism.

  6. Ian Edelman said

    I was reminded of the 2007 report “Second Life Avatar’s have the carbon footprint of a typical Brazilian”

  7. Hi Brian, I’m not sure if I agree that saying one thing is even a bit like saying something completely different! :) A propos the environment, the biggest downside is clearly in indiscriminate storage. I appreciate devil’s advocacy is a valuable MO, but (with PoWR in mind particularly) I’d still rather see foregrounded the (hidden) benefits of well-managed, selective preservation.

  8. > which put the carbon cost to the environment on par with the cost of flying – both at 2%.

    For balance, it would be interesting to see a rigorous independent study on the carbon cost to the environment of *not* using IT. This would include an icecap-melting combination of:

    – No more telecommuting: an extra x million cars on the road into work each day.
    – No more video conferencing: you’ll have to fly away to meet your project or work partners; better get those third and fourth runways built at Heathrow.
    – No more distance learning: scrap VWs, VLEs et al, and everyone travels to, and congregates in, real buildings for every lesson.
    – No more emails: hurrah, Post Office is saved! Oh; no it’s not; they make a loss on each letter (so the increase in volume will doom it), and that’s a few extra forests chopped down for the paper.
    – No more online shopping: oops, parcels are the profitable bit of the Post Office. Ah well, all good things come to an end.
    – No more e-books, repositories, online databases: hurrah, libraries are saved! Except they’ll be expected to do a lot more with the same funding. And more millions of car journeys. And having to get in the queue and wait for a reservation. Oh, and those last few pesky carbon-capturing trees will have to go to provide the extra paper.
    – No more medical uses of IT: forget scans, microsurgery, telemedicine, early disease prevention. Who wants to live past middle age anyway; and that’s the pension crisis solved!
    – No more rescue: on a boat in rough weather, up a mountain with a broken leg? Better wave a handkerchief. Someone will spot it.

    Take away IT and you’ll save the 2 percent in current emissions. But it’s likely to be dwarfed by the resultant increase in traffic emissions.

    As a side-political point, the elephant in the corner is population growth. Seven billion people on one rock (but it’s political suicide to start suggesting population reductions). Perhaps the biggest help to carbon reduction will be the (overdue) global flu pandemic in the end – which will, by default, reduce the number of IT users.

  9. […] where appropriate) will save both money and energy in the long run. Brian Kelly’s recent UK Web Focus Blog post on the environmental issues involved in digital preservation touches on this. As Owen Steven […]

  10. […] through use of Web 2.0 services. Digital preservation can be cool – even though, arguably, it may kill the odd polar bear […]

  11. Anyway, what have the polar bears ever done for us? :-)

  12. eddie young said

    “centralisation of networked services (e.g. running applications hosted by Google or Yahoo or running our applications on Amazon’s S3 and EC2 servers) would be more beneficial to the environment than all of our institutions running our own local servers.”

    I think this is almost certainly the way it will go, assuming that hardware and maintenance costs increase, as a result
    of the environmental impact. I think maintaining your own machines will probably become an expensive novelty. It can already be cheaper to farm out your network service to a third party than host them yourself.

    The use of virtual office services (email document sharing etc) are on the increase, and just need to take off.
    (On a ‘good’ network no-one knows or much cares where the main server is anyway – except the Sys Admin.)

    As for preservation, I beleive Linus Torvalds (the creator of Linux) once said ‘Backups are for wimps…’ – meaning that if a document/file is important someone else somewhere will have a copy of it. – Not completely reliable.

    Just because you have a virtually infinitely sized warehouse, doesnt mean you should keep every knick knack you own in it.

  13. […] used to support digital activities in the educational and cultural heritage sectors? After all as I described back in August in a post on the JISC Innovation Forum John Selby of HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council of […]

  14. […] costs (staff time spent in sifting old emails vs. storage capacity…but then we are asked to reduce the size of our server farms for the sake of polar bears) are […]

  15. […] from others? Are any institutions making any strategic decisions in this area? After all, we were warned about the implications  for higher education last August by HEFCE’s John […]

  16. […] “Delete a petabyte; save a polar bear” poster was intended as tongue-in-cheek. But as I suggested that there’s a need for […]

  17. […] by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 22 June 2010 It was in a post entitled Fahrenheit 451 published back in August 2008 when I first made reference to the impending economic crisis, […]

  18. […] engagement between digital preservation and the green agenda, which included a quick show of the “delete a petabyte save a polar bear” poster, each speaker was given the opportunity to say where their organisation stood. Panel […]

  19. […] where appropriate) will save both money and energy in the long run. Brian Kelly’s recent UK Web Focus Blog post on the environmental issues involved in digital preservation touches on this. As Owen Steven […]

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