Do a Digital Spring Cleaning | Information Technology | University of Pittsburgh

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Do a Digital Spring Cleaning

Digitization has transformed the modern world, and the amount of data generated each year is expanding exponentially. About 99% of all existing data was created in just the last decade. Taking control of your data, devices, and online presence has far-ranging implications for you, the University, and the environment. It helps to reduce pollution, mitigates security risks, reduces storage costs, prolongs device lifespan, and simplifies finding and sharing information.

Environmental Impacts of Digitization

Digitization was initially anticipated to benefit the environment by reducing paper consumption, print toner and cartridge waste, and mailing/transportation-related pollution. While all of that is true, many people fail to consider the carbon footprint of the digital industry.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), one zettabyte of data was created worldwide in 2007; by 2010 this had doubled and by 2035, we will create more than 2,000 zettabytes. How does that impact the environment? Data is stored on physical servers that require a lot of electricity to power and cool. In 2022, the IEA estimates that about 70 million servers were in use, each of which results in 1 – 2 tons of CO2 per year.

In addition, servers, computers, phones, and other digital devices eventually become physical waste. About 20 million servers were decommissioned in 2022 alone. Electronics and their batteries contain plastic, glass, lead, and mercury, which can lead to ground, water, and air pollution.

Security and Liability Risks of Digital Creep

Ignored data, apps, and services aren’t harmless. People add more apps than they delete, resulting in an ever-growing list of software, plug-ins, browser extensions, and other programs. These apps can run in the background without you actively launching them This can be a problem because many apps have access to sensitive user data (accounts, contacts, messages, calls, files stored, etc.). In addition, users rarely update apps they aren’t actively using, resulting in security vulnerabilities.

In addition, digital clutter can lead to careless behavior. It’s hard to keep track of what and where you’ve saved thousands of files and who has access to it. A Kaspersky Lab study found that over half of users have lost data on their smartphone (56%) and computers (51%). But just because you’ve lost a file doesn’t mean that others don’t find it. That same study showed that more than a third (37%) of people have accidentally found confidential information about their colleagues on a work system. A third of people also claimed to still have access to files from a previous workplace.

Beyond the obvious security risks, leaving old files on servers also increases the risk that people will accidentally access and rely upon inaccurate information. People don’t have to use navigational links to get to a webpage. A Google or file search may pull up inactive or outdated pages or documents. The University may be liable for the actions people take based on the information they access on your site.

Storage Isn’t Free

Most people don’t really think of electronic data as something that takes up physical space. But it does. Devices have limited storage capacity. Once it’s full, many people will purchase a new device with more storage. Others will buy external storage drives or transfer data to the cloud. None of that is free! According to Statista, global revenue for the storage market was about $42 billion in 2023 alone, with $8 billion being spent on information archiving. By getting rid of outdated files, uninstalling unused software, or moving archived data to long-term storage options, you can significantly reduce your and the University’s storage spend.

Pitt IT’s Microsoft 365 enterprise license includes OneDrive storage for every student, faculty, and staff member. In addition, many departments purchase departmental servers hosted on site or in the Network Operations Center, an Enterprise Data Storage option, or the Archive Storage service. Slowing the data creep for your department is an important way to keep Pitt’s storage costs under control.

Clutter Slows Everything Down

Your phone, laptop, and even departmental file and web servers all need to perform functions constantly. Files are moved, updated, processed, and shared. Temporary files are created by system processes. Old files are replaced with updated ones and are never deleted. Unused apps may be running in the background, using system resources. Before you know it, a device approaches full capacity, and performance becomes sluggish. Eliminating junk, outdated, or duplicative files and software frees up system resources for faster, more efficient performance.

Finding Files in a Sea of Files

Have you ever tried to find a specific piece of clothing in an overstuffed drawer? Now imagine that drawer had thousands of items in it. That’s what it’s like to find, organize, and share data on your OneDrive account when you have never purged old files. There may be many versions of the same file with slight name changes that hopefully help you figure out which is the most current. Purging draft files, archiving old data, and removing pages/files from webservers that are no longer active all help to keep you organized so you can find the right file quickly and efficiently.

Perform a Digital Cleanup Today

Knowing what to keep and what to eliminate or transfer isn’t always easy.

  • Start with your personal devices. Eliminate apps and plug-ins that you installed but don’t use. (If you aren’t sure what an app does, ask your IT admin.) Then, look at the files on your device or in your OneDrive account. Do you need to keep drafts of files that have been finalized?
  • Work with co-workers to go through files on web or departmental servers. Unpublish and delete inactive files or webpages. While it can be helpful to keep previous versions of some documents for historical record-keeping, it’s rarely necessary to keep drafts of older versions. Consider whether some data is so infrequently accessed that low-cost archive storage is appropriate.
  • Pitt IT Security can conduct a security consultation/risk assessment to help your team understand the risks of processing, storing, and transmitting University data. This assessment can identify the security controls needed to adequately protect your data.

Take concrete action by cleaning up your digital data and giving a second life to your computer equipment. Your devices, wallet, work life, and the planet will appreciate it!

-- By Karen Beaudway, Pitt IT Blogger