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What Does Big Data Mean For Sustainability?

Image Credit: Northwestern University

Everything around us is impacted by big data today. The phenomenon took shape earlier in this decade and there are now a growing number of compelling ways in which big data analytics is being applied to solve real-world problems.

Data gathering is becoming advanced and so is our ability to analyze and understand copious amounts of it. Better computational strength and enhanced connectivity are driving the information revolution. According to an estimate by IBM, by 2020 there will be 300 times more information than we had in 2005. Understandably, there are immense possibilities which arise from proper utilization of this data and environment sustainability is one of them. Out of the many promises of big data, environment sustainability is one of the most important ones to implement and maintain. Why so?

Climate change has moved to the top of the list of global risks, affecting every country and disrupting economies. While a major part of this damage is irreversible, it is still possible with use of a wide range of technological measures to control the global increase in temperature. Big data can generate useful insights that can be as relevant towards fostering environment sustainability as they have been to other sectors such as healthcare.

Understanding operations

Big data’s usefulness is in its ability to help businesses understand and act on the environmental impacts of their operations. Some of these are within their boundaries while others are outside their direct control. Previously, this information was dispersed across different formats, locations and sites. However, now businesses are trying to make out the end-to-end impact of their operations throughout the value chain. This includes things that are outside of their direct control, including raw material sourcing, employee travels, product disposal, and the like.

Assessing environmental risks

Big data is also useful in assessing environmental risks. For example, Aqueduct is an interactive water-risk mapping tool from the World Resources Institute that monitors and calculates water risk anywhere in the world based on various parameters related to the water’s quantity, quality and other changing regulatory issue in that area. With this free online, users can choose the factors on which they want to focus and also zoom in at a particular location.

Big data is also enabling environmental sustainability by helping us to understand the demand for energy and food as the world population increases and climate change reduces these resources by every passing year.

Optimizing resource usage

Another big contribution of big data to the corporate world is its ability to help them optimize usage of resources. At the Initiative for Global Environment Leadership (IGEL) conference in 2014, David Parker, VP of Big Data for SAP, discussed how Italian tire company Pirelli uses SAP’s big data management system, HANA, to optimize its inventory. The company uses data generated by sensors in its tires globally to reduce waste, increase profits and reduce the number of defective tires going to landfills, thus doing its bit for environment. Similarly, Dutch energy company Alliander uses HANA to maintain the grid’s peak efficiency, which in turn increases profits and reduces environmental impact. While at one time it used to take 10 weeks for the company to optimize the grid, now it takes only three days to accomplish the same; a task which Alliander used to do once in a year now can be accomplished once every month.

Small improvements in efficiency due to resource optimization can result in big savings. Paul Rogers, GE’s chief development officer, expressed his thoughts at the IGEL conference about the potential of big data to optimize performance in the business world. According to the facts presented by him, a “meager 1 percent improvement in efficiency in five major industrial sectors including healthcare, aviation, rail, power, and oil and gas can save $276 billion in the next 15 years.” This amount is a reflection of the kind of profit that companies involved can earn while lessening their impact on the environment.

Big data helps better regulation

Big data can also be integrated into government policies to ensure better environmental regulation. Governments can now implement the latest sensor technology and adopt real-time reporting of environmental quality data. This data can be used monitor the emissions of large utility facilities and if required put some regulatory framework in place to regularize the emissions. The firms are given complete freedom to experiment and chose the best possible mean of achieving the required result.

Keeping a complete track of how various business operations have an impact on the natural world gives way to new and innovative ways for bringing sustainability in an organization’s structure also. In the business world, big data is actively helping create a change, cut costs and boost long-term profitability in a resource-constrained world. That’s the real objective that every corporate should be aiming towards.


Saurabh Tyagi is an avid follower of the latest technology trends and their effects on human life. He is currently doing a research on the various aspects of big data, and this post is a result of the same. Here… [Read more about Saurabh Tyagi]