A digital dumping ground lies inside most computers, a wasteland where old, rarely used and unneeded files pile up. Such data can deplete precious storage space, bog down the system's efficiency and sap its energy. Conventional rubbish trucks can't clear this invisible byte blight. But two researchers say real-world trash management tactics point the way to a new era of computer cleansing. In a recent paper published on the scholarly website arXiv, Johns Hopkins University computer scientists Ragib Hasan and Randal Burns have suggested familiar “green” solutions to the digital waste data problems: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and dispose. “In everyday life, 'waste' is something we don't need or don't want or can't use anymore, so we look for ways to re-use it, recycle it or get rid of it,” said Hasan, an adjunct assistant professor of computer science. “We decided to apply the same concepts to the waste data that builds up inside of our computers and storage devices.” With this goal in mind, Hasan and Burns, an associate professor of computer science, first needed to figure out what kind of computer data might qualify as “waste.” They settled on theses four categories:
- Unintentional waste data, created as a side effect or by-product of a process, with no purpose.
- Used data, which has served its purposes and is no longer useful to the owner.
- Degraded data, which has deteriorated to a point where it is no longer useful.
- Unwanted data, which was never useful to the computer user in the first place.
The researchers found no shortage of files and computer code that fit into these categories. “Our everyday data processing activities create massive amounts of data,” their paper states. “Like physical waste and trash, unwanted and unused data also pollutes the digital environment. … We propose using the lessons from real life waste management in handling waste data.” The researchers say a user may not even be aware that much of this waste is piling up and impairing the computer's efficiency. “If you have a lot of debris in the street, traffic slows down,” said Hasan. “And if you have too much waste data in your computer, your applications may slow down because they don't have the space they require.”