Articles C2 Summer 2022

Digital Data Hoarding

I have recently had the misfortune to spend a lot of time watching daytime TV due to catching Covid, despite being fully vaccinated and boosted it put me out of action. Luckily as I write this, I seem to be through the worst of it.

This allowed me to indulge a guilty pleasure best described as trash reality television programs, and one genre that really caught my attention was about people who hoard possessions.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I am making light of the people who suffer from these types of afflictions, I recognise it as a significant mental problem, often linked to something traumatic from their past. Some of these programs stray too much into the freak show narrative and not enough on the helping. I hope these people can get the help they need.

I probably also suffer from this to a small extent in my own life, I have many, many, many unneeded PC kettle power leads and other computer junk, but find that voice in my head saying they are perfectly good it would be wasteful to throw them out, and I have even been known to say things like “this is a good box we should keep it!.” But I have a wife who very skilfully (using all her sales and school teacher skills) persuades me to stop being quite so daft.

From the outside it’s easy to see the futility of the ‘hoard’ but to the person on who has amassed the ‘collection’ the view is very different. To these people it is not junk, it’s memories or the item represents comfort or has a value or future potential. It’s not an old newspaper, it’s a copy of the paper from when their child went to big school, it’s not a rusted-out car it’s a project or valuable spare parts. They are convinced that they may need the item someday, that their life would somehow be less without it or if they buy this thing (or rescue it from a skip) it will make them happier.

The long and the short is hoarders very often do not see the negatives of the accumulated stuff.

I found a very pertinent quote on the website of Mind a UK-based mental health charity, “you might struggle to sort or group your things into types, or to decide what to keep or throw away. The idea of this might seem so difficult or upsetting that it feels easier not to try.”

This quote combined with the many hours of TV I had watched instantly drew an analogy in my mind to conversations my colleagues and I have with our customers about their data. One of the areas we talk about in CyberRes Voltage is our data discovery, classification, and remediation solution. We find ourselves in meetings with organisations that have petabytes of files from decades of operation and old applications and associated databases such as CRMs and ERP, that are no longer in use but still running. The common view is nearly always “we need to keep it”, “it has value”, “it is too difficult to get rid of” and “it’s not my job to make that decision”.

This way of thinking is similar to that of a hoarder, but I think we need to challenge some of these preconceptions and start to think about this a different way. If one accepts the premise that data is the new oil then organisations can’t just think of all data as having the same value. Does a company need to keep every CV of every applicant for a job in the HR SharePoint? Do they need to keep that old ERP system running (and pay maintenance to the software vendor) just so you can run a report once a year? Do they need to keep log data for click stream analysis that is 5 years old?

At some point the data loses the value it once had and can even become a liability.

Whooaa! Slow Down, you are thinking. I have been told data is important and I need to keep it and back it up, that we can use it to make better products and services and now you are telling me that it could be a liability.

Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying. All information is not equally valuable but every one and zero cost the same amount to keep on a disk, to keep backed up, to store in air-conditioned data centres and has an implication on an organisation’s desire to pursue greener policies and become carbon neutral. Going further, data can have legal implications, and global privacy regulations are making it clear that storage of this data needs to be attached to both consent and also a business justification. If data is kept then a regulator or lawyer can ask to see it, the same goes for data subject access requests (DSARs). This has costs and the more data the higher the cost could be.

In some circumstances the quantity of data can also create inertia for an organisation making it slow and less agile. An example of this could be a move to the cloud and Office 365, would the task be easier with a slimmed down and manageable SharePoint of 1 petabyte or the original 5 petabytes?

This is where the solution from CyberRes Voltage comes in. It helps organisations discover and classify this data and then do something with it. That remediation is not just throwing it away but can be putting it in an appropriate document management system such as Content Manager, it could be moving the data to lower cost storage such as S3 Glacier and in the case of the legacy ERP system maybe it is moving the data to a low cost open source database and building a reporting engine in front of it.

CyberRes tools can help with the discovery, grouping, and automating and logging the action allowing the organisation to focus on the action of deciding to keep it, move it, delete it or some other action in the same way as the team on the television shows help move all the piles of stuff while the psychologist helps the person with the exercise of deciding which of their possessions have real value (keep, throw, donate, sell).

As Tyler Durden from the movie Fight Club says “The things you own end up owning you” or was he paraphrasing Henry Thoreau? Maybe the world isn’t ready for digital minimalism yet! But at least spend a few minutes considering this.

Just because you collected, stored and cared for the data and once upon a time it was important and valuable doesn’t mean it still is. If it’s not needed and it can no longer be of value then don’t keep it.