Calculating the pollution cost of website analytics (Part 3)

The most substantial pollution from Google Analytics comes from the processing and analysis of the data.

Let’s assume that the analytics data from each of the 50 million websites using Google Analytics requires 30 seconds per day of processing from Google servers. These servers tend to be very energy intensive, using from 500 to 1200 watts of power. Processing data for 50 million websites every day could thus cause 36,195,833 kg of annual pollution, requiring the planting of 3,619,583 trees.

Let’s assume website professionals spend an average of five minutes a day reviewing and analyzing the data produced by Google Analytics, and that they do that 250 days a year. Let’s assume they do this analysis on a mix of laptops and desktops. A desktop with monitor can have a wattage of 200, whereas modern laptops have a wattage of about 36. That causes 33,040,000 kg of CO2 pollution, requiring the planting of 3,304,000 trees.

So, we’re talking about millions of kilos of pollution being caused either directly or indirectly because of Google Analytics. Why? What is the benefit of Google Analytics or any other analytics software? In my experience, 80% of websites would be much better off without any analytics software.

Let me tell you a very typical story. An intranet manager I know goes through a ritual of presenting analytics once a week to an internal communications team. This team are forever chasing hits, traffic, volume, because that’s how they’re measured, that’s how they’re rewarded. They churn out “news” stories that practically nobody clicks on. They constantly talk about engagement and bounce rates.

The intranet manager knows that out in the actual world of the workplace nobody cares about the happy clappy “news” that is being pushed at them. They can’t find anything useful on the intranet and that’s why many of them have stopped using it. The analytics, instead of helping the team understand that the intranet needs to be useful, are perversely encouraging communicators to publish ever-more-useless content. This is not by any means an untypical scenario.

This is not the fault of the analytics, you might say, but the fault of poor interpretation of the data. But the Cult of Volume is strong in so many organizations. Analytics feeds the obsession with chasing big numbers, and often leads to a production-driven cult. Let me tell you, I’ve been part of this cult. I was an analytics addict for years, obsessing over how I could “grow the numbers”.

Then one day in yet one more analytics meeting, it struck me: This is a monumental waste of time. Nothing useful is coming out of all this poring over the data. And I thought of all the years I’d done this, how rare it was to get actionable, useful insights.

Digital encourages production, “creativity”, activity. Digital has produced more data in the last two years than in all of previous civilization. Like a virus, digital data is growing exponentially. So much of digital activity is useless, pointless. 90% of data is crap; never accessed three months after it’s created. Most analytics data is a poisonous drop in this ocean of crap that is smothering and polluting our planet.

It is time for a very serious review of our digital work activities. Is this really necessary? Do we really need to do this? Does it have any real, useful purpose?

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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