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How much data do we make?

Data: What Is It, How Much Do We Make and What Happens to It?

ATurton / 4 April, 2019

Humanity constantly generates data.

And now, thanks to the internet and digital technology, not only are we able to generate more data than ever before, we are also able to store it far more efficiently. This has led to the staggering fact that, in 2017 alone, more data was created than in the previous 5,000 years of human existence!

So, what exactly is data?


What Is Data?

A common definition is that data is information that needs to be organised. If we take this definition, we then need to understand what information is – which is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, there is an ongoing and active academic debate around the precise definition of “information”.

So, to avoid getting into a philosophical tangle before we’ve even got going, we’re  defining data as a collection of facts, such as numbers, words, images, measurements, observations or even just descriptions of things.

In this sense, the hieroglyphs on an ancient Egyptian pot and the pre-historic paintings on the wall of the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave are data in exactly the same way as a tweet or photograph.


How Much Data Do We Make?

Humanity has always generated data. Sometimes without even knowing it. For example, to archaeologists, ancient footprints – such as the ones found at Acahualinca – provide important data for understanding the past.

But, with the invention of illustration and writing (around 10,000 BC and 3,200 BC respectively), we started generating data intentionally. Inventions such as the printing press, radio and television dramatically increased the amount of data humanity created.

Sadly, much of this data has been lost,  either by rotting away (as in the case of old books and newspapers) or by simply never being recorded (as in the case of many radio and television broadcasts – which, by the way, still exist but are totally inaccessible due to the fact they are radiating from Earth at the speed of light).

With the digital revolution, the amount of data humanity could create and store went into overdrive. Binary computer coding made it possible to translate near enough any piece of data into a series of ones and zeros. The internet made sending data to one another easier than ever before.

At our current pace, we create an incredible 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day! To put that into perspective, a byte is a group of eight binary digits or bits. And a quintillion is a one with thirty zeros after it. In other words, we create an utterly unfathomable amount of data.

And you contribute to this figure every time you search the internet, update a social media profile, upload a picture or watch a YouTube video.

In fact, every minute:

  • 148,513 emails are sent
  • 3 million Facebook posts are created
  • 8 million Google searches are performed
  • 65,972 photos are uploaded to Instagram
  • 448,800 tweets are sent
  • And 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube


What Happens to Our Data?

The most important data we generate (about one percent of the total) is stored and added to our growing digital universe. The other 99 percent is forgotten, largely because storing it all would be almost impossible.

Back in 2011, we had enough stored data to fill a stack of DVDs stretching to the moon and back. With so much more data created since then, it’s almost impossible to calculate – let alone comprehend – how much data is currently stored in the world.

What’s more, the research group IDC predicts that by 2025 we will be creating 163 zettabytes (or one trillion gigabytes) of data per year. That’s about 10 times as much as our current rate!

As the amount of data we generate increases, the amount of it we keep will decrease. Even so, storing, analysing and using this data is going to be very difficult. It’s estimated that 19 zettabytes of data will be stored between now and 2025. And, while that’s only a tiny fraction of the amount that will be created, it will require a huge number of servers to store it.

This role will largely be taken over by private companies. By 2025, 60 percent of the world’s data will be created and managed by businesses. The majority of this will be stored in private servers using cloud computing. Of course, this can’t continue forever. So long as humanity keeps making more data, the problem of storage will become ever more prescient.


The Future of Data: DNA Data Storage

The problem of how to store these huge amounts of data is the focus of many scientists and researchers. Luckily, scientists are looking at new ways to store data. One of the most interesting and promising is DNA digital data storage.

DNA is a natural miracle. In some ways, DNA represents nature’s own way of solving the problem of storing huge amounts of data. Now scientists are looking to utilise DNA for our own data storage needs.

The amount of data required to make a complete human being is a lot – and DNA manages to store all this information in a single cell. This opens up a tantalising question: could we use DNA to store the data we create? If we can, how much data would, say, one human being hold? carried out this calculation, and the conclusion they reached is shocking.

Here’s their result (given that the average human cell can store 1.5 gigabytes and the average human contains 100 trillion cells).


1.5 gigabytes x 100 trillion cells = 150 trillion gigabytes or 150×10^12 x 10^9 bytes = 150 zettabytes (10^21)


Yes, you read that correctly: the average human body can store 150 zettabytes of data! So, with just one human body, we could store all the data IDC predicts we will collect between now and 2025 and still have 138 zettabytes to spare.

What’s even more surprising is that scientists have already made DNA data storage work. In 2012, the journal Science published research from George Church and colleagues at Harvard University, in which DNA was encoded with digital information that included an HTML draft of a 53,400 word book, 11 JPEG images and one JavaScript programme. The research proved that DNA can be used to store data, which paved the way for scientists today to work on making the process more cost-effective, less error-prone and more efficient.

In the world of data, there are certainly exciting times ahead.

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