How might digital waste help in the fight against climate change?

The way our society and economy is evolving means that we’re now living in a truly globalised and digital world, adding to the vast mountains of data, specifically unstructured data. Globally, it’s estimated we create around 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day.

Most of the data we create is classed as ‘alternative data’ or ‘alt-data’ as it differs from the traditional types of data that businesses have used to gain insights into markets and clients.

Some of this data is made by connected tech like remote weather stations and satellites. However there has been a rise in web data by humans, like product reviews and social media posts. The rise of digitisation means we’re creating our own unstructured data footprint.

This type of public web data is referred to as the ‘data exhaust’ – the data generated because of people’s online activity. This phrase is misleading. Rather than contributing to polluting activity that’s indicative of a throwaway society, ‘data exhaust’ does the opposite.

We have an opportunity to use alt-data to accelerate our response to the climate crisis. The Aussie government understands the role future techs and innovations will play in meeting net zero 2050 targets, focusing on Low Emissions Technologies (LET) to drive the initiative.

However, applying better use of web data has the potential to solve wider climate change problems while supporting this technology focused plan. But how can this be achieved?

Strengthening solutions to the climate crisis with data

Subak, a new climate change ‘accelerator’ is a good example. Its main aim is to use data to ‘supercharge’ attempts to lessen the impact of global warming and climate change.

Subak’s experts have already helped turn satellite data into cloud cover forecasts, to forecast solar power output and reduce emissions from other power sources.

Another example is the Carbon Intensity API, a public data feed, developed by a coalition of industry, academia and third sector, led by National Grid ESO, that uses machine learning to predict the carbon-impact of electricity to people’s homes, four days ahead of time.

This enables consumers to make decisions on their electricity consumption, based on the predicted energy mix and associated carbon footprint. This is a good example of how available data can be used to tackle the climate crisis, and one that could be enhanced by using it in combination with large amounts of relevant alt-data to improve forecasts.

There is the possibility, to use external data on meat prices from disparate sources to provide more accurate insights into consumer habits in order to reduce waste and over-production.

Effective use of alt-data

Effective use of alt-data from public social media and Web posts could also give the electric car industry and public authorities a clearer picture on take-up rates for new green vehicles – and the greater barriers to adoption, supporting the governments LET focus.

Open Data Institute survey shows that while people may be happy with their data being used to benefit society, they may not want it used to influence the investments by hedge funds.

Developing a level of public understanding and trust around the use of alternative data is essential to transforming what would be digital waste into exciting and innovative solutions.

The amount of valuable web data coming out of the global data exhaust will continue to rise. We must use this ‘waste’ to our advantage to tackle climate change and meet key targets while respecting compliance requirements and acting responsibly.


Tamir Roter is the Vice President EMEA & APAC at Bright Data