Catching the Cloud and Pinning It Down: The Social and Environmental Impacts of Data Centers

Authors: Heather Ipsen*, Syracuse University
Topics: Cyberinfrastructure, Environment
Keywords: data center; environment; community; technology; sustainability
Session Type: Poster
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Napoleon Foyer/Common St. Corridor, Sheraton, 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As our reliance on social media, mobile devices, and computers has grown, data centers have become an important, but poorly understood, part of this digital age. These massive structures, which are often built in rural areas, store digital files and images. Despite the clear importance of cloud computing, geographers have not studied this infrastructure or its effect on nearby communities and the physical environment. This project examines the social and environmental impacts of the development and operation of data centers, using a Facebook data center in Prineville, Oregon as a case study. Through interviews with Facebook managers, town officials, and local citizens, I came to several conclusions about such data centers. First, big data companies have tried to accommodate local concerns about the facilities and integrate them within the social fabric of the communities where they are built and operated. Consequently, in the short-term, they appear to have little or no impact on the social life of local citizens. Second, the environmental impacts of data centers are difficult to determine at a global scale. While big data companies invest in ‘green’ energy, they share little information about their waste disposal and recycling, and the amount of space these buildings require is growing. Finally, by following the tenets of sustainable enterprise, these companies have sought to minimize potential negative social and environmental impacts of data center operation, resulting in greater profits and sustainability as well as a more positive public image.

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