The Geography of the Digital Universe

Although the bits of the digital universe may travel at Internet speeds around the globe, it is possible to assign a place of origin to them and chart the map of the digital universe.

In this year’s study, for the first time, we have managed to determine where the information in the digital universe was either generated, first captured, or consumed. This geography of the digital universe maps to the users of the devices or applications that pump bits into the digital universe or pull bits into one’s own personal digital solar system for the purpose of consuming information — Internet users, digital TV watchers, structures hosting surveillance cameras, sensors on plant floors, and so on.

The Geography of the Digital Universe (2012)

In the early days, the digital universe was a developed world phenomenon, with 48% of the digital universe in 2005 springing forth from just the United States and Western Europe. Emerging markets accounted for less than 20%. However, the share of the digital universe attributable to emerging markets is up to 36% in 2012 and will be 62% by 2020. By then, China alone will generate 21% of the bit stream entering the digital universe.

The Rise of Emerging Markets

It stands to reason. Even though China accounts for only 11% of global GDP today, by 2020 it will account for 40% of the PCs, nearly 30% of smartphones, and nearly 30% of Internet users on the planet — not to mention 20% of the world population.

At the same time, the money invested by the regions in creating, managing, and storing their portions of the digital universe will vary wildly — in real dollar terms and as a cost per gigabyte.

This disparity in investment per gigabyte represents to some extent differing economic conditions — such as the cost of labor — and to some extent a difference in the types of information created, replicated, or consumed. The cost per gigabyte from bits generated by surveillance cameras will be different from the cost per gigabyte from bits generated by camera phones.

However, to another extent, this disparity also represents differences in the sophistication of the underlying IT, content, and information industries — and may represent a challenge for emerging markets when it comes to managing, securing, and analyzing their respective portions of the digital universe.

Investment in Managing the Digital Universe by Region (2012)

This might not be a major issue if the geography of the digital universe were as stable and fixed as, say, the geography of countries. However, bits created in one part of the physical world can easily find themselves elsewhere, and if they come with malware attached or leaky privacy protections, it’s a problem. The digital universe is like a digital commons, with all countries sharing some responsibility for it.

The installed base of unused storage bits introduces an interesting geographic twist that establishes a new dynamic by which to understand our digital universe. While emerging markets may indeed grow as a percentage of the digital universe, remember that much of the digital universe is a result of massive consumption on mobile and personal devices, digital televisions, and cloud-connected applications on PCs. As ownership of smartphones and tablets (that have relatively low internal storage and rely heavily on consuming information from “the cloud") increases exponentially within emerging markets, information consumption grows at an even faster pace. Given the connected infrastructure of our digital universe, information does not need to (and in fact will not) reside within the region where the information is consumed. Hence, today’s well-running datacenters will continue to expand and to fulfill an increasing number of requests — both local and from halfway across the globe — for information.