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Sustagram | Thinking Toolbox 

Critical design focused on the environmental impact of data generated on social media.

CONTEXT

This project was the result of the course “Thinking Toolbox”, one of the subjects of the third year of my bachelor’s studies in User Experience Design at THUAS. 

CHALLENGE

Choose a controversial technological topic and use it as inspiration to write an essay, design either an app or website and create a zine.

ROLE

This was an individual project. I am the writer of the essay and the designer of both Sustagram and the double-page spread zine. 

Out of sight, out of mind: 

the unnoticed environmental impact of data centres.

While environmentalists are focused on reducing the environmental footprint of sectors such as the automotive, aviation and energy, there is another industry going more unnoticed: ICT (Information and Communications Technology), responsible for high levels of energy wastage and environmental pollution [1,2].

 

At the core of the ICT industry are the data centres. Data centres are buildings used to house computer systems and associated components such as connectivity and storage systems [3]. For instance, the emails you keep on your Gmail inbox and your list of favourite videos on YouTube are different types of data being stored at data centres.

The same way the Internet has a physical side -a series of tubes located in many places around the world- [4] that many people ignores, there are people unaware of the existence of data centres in a world where huge amounts of data are being generated each second.

 

Data centres consume huge quantities of electricity —in 2019 they used about the 2% of the global electricity— [5,6] and water resources to generate electricity that powers data centres and to cool them —in the USA data centres consumed 626 billion litres in 2014—[7]. However, its environmental footprint goes far beyond electricity or water.

To remain functional, data centres need to be located either in a country with a cold climate or in a temperature-controlled environment. Coolants are often made of hazardous chemicals, often halocarbon or chlorofluorocarbons, which are toxic and can cause ozone depletion. Besides that, data centres require battery backups, so in case of power shortages these can keep the systems alive. These batteries have an environmental impact, due to its manufacture —which in most cases involves mining and its disposal at the end of their life—. Another example of their environmental impact is its huge usage of diesel fuel. The amount of energy used by data centres doubles every four years, meaning they have the fastest-growing carbon footprint within the IT sector [1,8].

 

Keeping in mind that the planet is currently facing an environmental crisis due mainly to climate change, companies recently started taking the sustainability of data centres into account. Besides locating data centers in cold countries such as Finland [9], companies have lately commenced utilising renewable energy (such as wind, hydro or solar) to power data centres. 

Artificial intelligence is also being used to improve efficiency, drive down costs, and reduce the total power consumption by analysing data output, humidity, temperature and other important statistics [1]. While these measures are helping reducing the environmental impact of data centres, there’s still a long way to go.

 

Given the fact that ordinary people don’t always see the material side of data and often ignore the environmental impact of data centres, would spreading awareness  help reduce the massive amounts of data generated on social media?

 

Inspired by Critical Design [9,10] and Critical Reflection [11], I decided to come up with a solution that would educate users to see the physical side of data and the environmental footprint of data centres. 

I created Sustagram, the sustainable version of Instagram. I took Instagram app as a reference since it is a widely used social media platform and also because its users post constantly photos and videos, continuously generating data. The majority of Instagram users share and keep posts in their feed without knowing its environmental cost. 

 

The goal of my design is to avoid people from oversharing on Instagram —and social media in general— by making them think on the environmental consequences that storing their data in data centres has. 

I want the audience to think well on the impact their publications have on our planet before they post something new. This way only the essential and meaningful images will be shared. I aim to make users who overshare feel guilty and eventually change their behaviour.

 

 

Sources:

1. https://www.computerworld.com/article/3431148/why-data-centres-are-the-new-frontier-in-the-fight-against-climate-change.html

2. https://greenhost.net/sustainable/

3. https://www.dutchdatacenters.nl/en/datacenters/what-is-a-data-center/

4. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/20/books/tubes-by-andrew-blum-explores-physical-reality-of-the-web.html

5. https://fortune.com/2019/09/18/internet-cloud-server-data-center-energy-consumption-renewable-coal/

6. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/11/tsunami-of-data-could-consume-fifth-global-electricity-by-2025

7. https://lifelinedatacenters.com/data-center/data-centers-water-consumption/

8. https://www.greenhousedata.com/blog/data-center-environmental-impact-goes-beyond-emissions

9. https://www.motiva.fi/files/5321/Energy-efficient_Data_Centre.pdf

10. Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, J. (2013). What is "critical" about critical design?

11. Malpass, M. (2013) Between Wit and Reason: Defining Associative, Speculative, and Critical Design

12. Sengers, P. et al. (2005). Reflective design. In Proceedings of the 4th decennial conference on Critical computing: between sense and sensibility (pp. 49-58)

Sustagram

Before sharing a new post, users are asked “Do you really need to post this?” and have the possibility to go back. This button is written in bold black, to be more noticeable. The “share” button is red, a color which normally is associated to danger. In the bottom of the page there is also a small text with more information for users. If the user continues wanting to share the content, s/he can click on “share” and the publication will be uploaded.

Once the new publication has been shared, a receipt will be printed. With this token, it will be easier for users to notice the physical side of their shared publications, as the receipt contains information of the data center where it is going to be stored. At the same time, users will be aware of the number of pictures they have shared because they will get the same amount of receipts. Obtaining a receipt as a token of each uploaded photo can be considered a provocation: I am raising awareness on the environmental footprint of data centers through a printed piece of paper and therefore contributing to paper and ink waste.

Finally, whenever in doubt about deleting a picture, they will be encouraged to do so. 

The “delete” button is bold black and the “cancel” button is red, showing that there is something dangerous about keeping too many posts. The fact that users can see an image of where their data is stored, is intended to impact them.

©2021 by Mercedes Mendaza.