Dec 072016
Big Data present an opportunity to businesses prepared to dig

The industrial revolution’s most important energy resource was coal, even today it generates most of the world’s electric power.

However, the last half century hasn’t been good for those communities and workers whose incomes are dependent upon coal as the industry has moved away from labour intensive ways of digging the stuff up, alternative sources of energy have developed and the consequences of dumping billions of tons of carbon into the planet’s atmosphere come to be understood.

The US Energy Information Administration’s annual report on the nation’s coal industry makes grim reading, with both production and employment levels falling.

Coal industry jobs were one of the touchstone issues in the recent US Presidential elections. As The Guardian reported, former staunch Democrats in the mining regions – some of America’s poorest counties – supported Donald Trump on the strength of the promise to reinvigorate the sector.

Sadly, as the EAI reports, those coal jobs are never coming back even if the world starts using more. Since World War II, the productivity of US coal mines has increased from .72 tons per worker to 5.22 in 2011.

Despite a recent slight drop in US productivity at the end of last decade – apparently due to spoil recovery during a period of booming prices – the trend is not good. As Australian academics warn, increased mine automation means jobs in that industry are going to become increasingly scarce.

Like Donald Trump and the distressed US mining regions, Australian politicians believe that coal mining will provide the jobs of the future. They are wrong.

Those communities and politicians hoping for jobs in the 21st Century may well be better off looking to the future rather than the past. Nineteenth Century thinking is not going to provide answers.

Apr 252015

can Wellington become a global tech hub? raised an interesting question, how big does a city need to be in order to be successful in the new economy?

Does a compact city with a few hundred thousand people have an advantage over several million inhabitants sprawling across a huge metropolis?

The romantic view is the smaller cities should prevail but history, particularly given the wide sprawl of Silicon Valley, indicates the opposite.

While Silicon Valley, and most of the other Twentieth Century industrial hubs like Detroit, were sprawling conurbations it may be this era’s centres are more compact with towns being walkable.

Certainly this is what we’re seeing with the tech industry’s shift into San Francisco as workers find they’d rather walk or cycle to work than spend hours on freeways each day.

So it may be the newer breed of businesses and industries that don’t need massive infrastructure also don’t need to sprawl.

If that turns out to be true then cities like Wellington could do well.

Jun 122013

Earlier this month Google hosted “How Green is the Internet?“, a summit which looked at the environmental costs of the connected society and technologies like cloud computing and Big Data.

The environmental impact of the internet and related technologies is a subject worth exploring, like all industries there are real costs to the planet which usually aren’t bourne by those who make the profits or reap the benefits.

In complex modern supply chains which often span the globe, the costs are not often apparent either. What appears to be a relatively clean, innocuous product to city consumers could have terrible environmental consequences for others.

Google’s summit is a good example of overlooking many external costs in that most of the conversations looked at reducing energy usage, understandable given the company’s dependence on power hungry data centres which drive their cloud computing services.


Energy usage is important in the discussion about digital technologies – the businesses of bits and bytes almost wholly relies upon having constant and reliable electricity supplies and power generation is one of the most environmentally damaging activities we engage in.

Focusing on energy consumption though is not the only aspect we need to look at when examining how green the internet is, there’s many other costs in building the supply chain that enables us to watch funny cat videos in our homes or offices.

The entire supply chain is complex and the session on infrastructure costs by Jon Koomey of Stanford University touched on this; there’s the environmental costs of building data centres, of manufacturing routers, of laying cables and – probably the most difficult question of all – what do we do with the e-waste generated by obsolete equipment.

Little of this was touched on in the Google conference and it’s interesting that the tech industry is focusing on the energy costs while overlooking other effects of a global, complex industry.

That isn’t to say the energy story isn’t valid. A number of the Google speakers emphasized the indirect energy saving costs as cloud computing and Big Data allows more intelligent business decisions that make industries and daily life more efficient.

A favourite example is the use of car parking apps where drivers save energy and reduce pollution because they aren’t driving around looking for the parking spaces. This puts Google’s acquisition of traffic app Waze into perspective.

Reducing driving times is just one area of where the internet is improving energy efficiency and these are important factors when considering the ‘greenness’ of the web.

However without considering the full impact of building, maintaining and disposing the equipment that we need to operate the internet, we aren’t really looking at the entire impact the internet is having on the planet.

Google’s conference though is a good starting point for that discussion which is one that every industry should be having.

Jan 112009

power-station-1The London Times reports Harvard University researchers have found two Google searches have the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle.

This should be no surprise as it’s easy to forget the energy consumed by every computing task we do. It’s not Google’s computers that are energy hungry, those sitting on our desks or laps are almost as greedy.

There is a redeeming feature to this. One of the experts quoted later in the article points out that if the computer use is saving you jumping in your car or carrying out some other carbon intensive activity then the computer use is better for the environment.

The article points to a useful websites for calculating your carbon emissions at Carbon Footprint. This is handy not just for reducing your effects on the environmental but also for identifying where you can reduce your energy costs.