Monday, December 29, 2008

BBC resurrects Serbia and Montenegro

For a country that lasted only existed for a few years, Serbia & Montenegro has real staying power! In an online news report on the BBC News website from 26th December 2008, the BBC used a map of Serbia & Montenegro in a report instead of just Serbia.

To be fair, the image was corrected a few hours later:

but it does leave me wondering how long it will be before these errors are no longer being made. Perhaps a bloody war is required to force change into people's consciousness?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The world according to Barclaycard

A letter in the Guardian pointed me to a competition being run by Barclaycard (a UK credit card company) to win an Aston Martin car, coinciding with the release of the newest James Bond film.

The terms and conditions take the term "geographically challenged" to new heights.

The United Kingdom, for the record, is the island of Great Britain with its islands, and Northern Ireland. If Barclaycard had wished to exclude Northern Ireland they could have used the term "Great Britain". "ROI" (Republic of Ireland) has been an independent nation for getting on for a century, and The Channel Islands are not now, and never have been, part of the United Kingdom.

One wonders, though, what the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight have done to upset Barclaycard!

GRC Database Information, welcome to the club!

Yes, inevitably.

After creating these posts about companies taking years to realize that, for example,the country Serbia and Montenegro no longer exists, I thought it was perhaps best that I checked my online shop to be sure that there were no surprises there.

What did I find? Yep, Serbia & Montenegro, nestling in the countries list.

I hasten to add that this list is built in to the e-commerce software and can't be changed by the user, and the developers have since apologised and promised to correct it. But this does show how hard it can be to keep up with all real world changes in all parts of a company.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

DHL, welcome to the club

It didn't take long after writing the entry below about Barnes & Noble to find a further example of a company failing to effectively make its data quality initiative(s) continuous.

DHL has a list of country codes and postal code formats here.

Apart from missing a number of countries which have recently (and not so recently) created postal code systems, the list still contains Serbia and Montenegro, a country that hasn't existed since 2006;
it has the pre-1999 postal code format for Argentina, and the pre 2006/2007 formats for Armenia and Malta.

Postal code and addressing systems change at a surprisingly speedy rate, and information resources such as this one from DHL decay over time if they are not maintained. I don't know whether DHL's systems expect the same formats as are listed in this document (which I acknowledge has been posted on the Singaporean DHL site and may simply have been overlooked), but it would be, to say the least, commercially damaging if they did.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Barnes, Noble and hoops ...

I recently came across this page on the Barnes & Noble online shop:

Entering international postal codes

explaining how they expected their customers to enter international postal codes so that their systems can validate the order.

One of the most obvious, but most overlooked, aspects of data quality is that it is a process and, importantly, that it is a continuous process. I'm all in favour of providing information, and lots of it, so that customers know what you expect, but posting a list like this and then forgetting about it demonstrates that the continuous aspect of data quality is being forgotten. The world has moved on, Barnes & Noble have not.

Like this, for example:

Yes, Argentina had a numeric, 4-digit postal code ... until 1999. Now their alphanumeric 7-digit code apparently is disallowed by Barnes & Noble. Or this:

Australia has never has a 7-digit postal code. I would give Barnes & Noble the benefit of the doubt an presume that they had mixed up the entries for Argentina and Australia, were it not for the insistence on a numerical code, whereas Argentinian codes contain 4 letters.

The other aspect of this page is the expectation that customers must jump through hoops to keep Barnes & Noble happy, to fit to B & N's technical requirements rather than B & N ensuring that their systems are correct. Take this example:

Grecian postal codes contain a space between the third and fouth digit. How long would a customer from Greece have to struggle to make their order? How much effort are they being put to to alter their (correct!) data to fit somebody else's system? Is this quality? Is this customer service.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Personal names at Beijing: two steps forward, one step backwards

Holding the Olympics Games in East Asia has had one small effect on spreading an understanding of global differences in personal name patterns. As East Asians write their name in a different order to us Anglo-Saxons, participant names are being written, for some countries, in the correct order, and with the family name shown in upper case:

WU Minxia
Stephanie RICE

It seems however, that this recognition is fairly limited: not all countries have had their personal name patterns recognised. And, with all that money spent, not a sign of a diacritical mark anywhere. A wasted opportunity to be truly global.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Does your airline know where it's going?

I reckon that airlines have a very limited geographical understanding, limited to airports and without any understanding of the geographical context in which they are situated. I first began to suspect this when a data cleansing company (fortunately no longer extant) claimed American Airlines amongst its customers, and also claimed to be able to cleanse addresses for "more than 300 countries".

To save you having to run to an atlas to start counting, you'd be hard pressed, regardless of your definition of a country, to find many more than 240 on this planet.

My suspicions grew when I saw this SWISS map on the incomparable Strangemaps blog:

Now, the errors may not seem immediately obvious, but a great many cities have migrated significant distances away from their real locations. Pittsburgh is looking particularly moist, slap bang in the middle of Lake Eric, and Santiago in Chile has lost its name.

Then I was sure, after the same blog published a map from Aer Lingus:

I'm not sure how pleased the Americans would be to find so many of their cities placed in the north of Canada, but I'm pretty sure I know how Canadians would react.

I get the feeling that these errors have more to do with trying to get the maps looking nice and uncrowded than not knowing where places are; but this shows quite a lot of disrespect for the intelligence of their passengers. I'm looking forward to the next example, possibly showing London somewhere in the vicinity of Rome? I'm taking bets as to which airline it shall be!


One of the rules of an effective data collection web form is that drop downs should only be used when the number of possible answers is limited, and that all of those answers are given in the drop down.

The Guardian reported on 7th July that Facebook has blundered in this respect as their marital status question gives plenty of options - even including "it's complicated", but not including (same sex) civil partnerships (as available in the UK) or registered partnerships (as they are known in some other countries, such as The Netherlands).

It may not be possible for Facebook to research and know all the possible civil status possibilities around the world, but at least they have now provided an option to clarify the answer given.

Not that this may be much of a salve for those involved.

Monday, June 16, 2008

How is your data?

Is everything working at the moment?

No weak links? No danger areas?

What happens when something causes a wave?

Will everything still be working? And how will your company's health be?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Credit card fraud

Processing addresses is a challenge for all of us, credit card companies included. It was, therefore, no surprise to me to learn how cursory the address check on credit cards for online purchases actually is.

For many countries there is no address check.

For the UK the check is only on building number and the numbers of a postal code, so the check for 10 Downing Street, SW1A 2AA would be 1012. As a very large number of addresses in the UK will share this same code, it's a check that is very easy to get around.

Considering the amount credit card companies lose to fraudsters, and the stress involved for the legitimate credit card holder, isn't it time that these companies put some time and resources into learning about addresses?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Swiss Post

Along with my order for the International AddressGuide (2007/2008 edition) from Swiss Post (more about that later) I received a "glow in the dark" postal code map of Europe.

Almost every inch of my walls is covered by postal code maps, and it looks very much like they take their data from the same source, as they share many idiosyncratic errors. Postal code area 59 in Italy, for example, is always missing; Leicester is shown as LG instead of LE on some of them, and so on.

I am, though, rather more concerned about this particular map being used as a marketing tool by Swiss Post to intimate their extensive coverage and knowledge. For the map shows Serbia & Montenegro as a single country (dissolved in 2006) and has Lithuania's pre-2004 postal code system.

Perhaps nobody will notice - after all, it glows in the dark! - and we all make mistakes - but I think somebody in Swiss Post's marketing department should have looked a bit harder before sending it out. It reflects badly on them when their international knowledge should be better than that.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Considering context

One of my golden rules for improving data quality is to consider context. Any piece of data which is not considered in relation to other relevant data is highly likely to be misinterpreted. This is especially true of postal addresses.

This awareness of context may be the reason why I have a distinctive dislike of satellite navigation systems. They provide drivers with route information without providing any information about the context of that route, as would be available using a map. It gives the impression that drivers can switch off their brains and that their satellite navigation systems (inevitably using imperfect data) will lead them to precisely where they need to be. Road signs and other clues that they are going wrong can be ignored - the robotic voice can be followed without question.

Reports of satellite navigation disasters abound, and a new one has been reported this week. The village of Holdenhurst, near Bournemouth, UK, are having to change the name of their main street from Holdenhurst Road to Holdenhurst Village Road to try to reduce the number of lorry drivers being sent their by their satellite navigation systems instead of to Holdenhurst Road in nearby Bournemouth.

I, for one, will not be forsaking my paper maps.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy birthday ...

... to all those born on 29th February. May I wish you much strength and patience when you're using those internet sites which won't accept that you were born on this date.

They still exist?


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Well meant, but ...

Those of us who work with international data (and that's most companies on the planet these days) have to be very sensitive to the cultural norms and requirements of each country, nation, ethnic group, religion, language-speaker and so on. It is all too easy to make a mistake or a choice which will cause offence somewhere.

This was illustrated recently by a local hotel's attempt to foster better relations and understanding amongst their very varied workforce. A competition was held whereby members of staff who identified, and filled-in on a form, the nationalities of the greatest number of their colleagues, won a small prize. A very worthy cause which, however, caused great offence to my Croatian friend who works there as the list contained not "Croatia" but the defunct "Yugoslavia", and it used not the Yugoslavian flag, or even the Serbian national flag, but the Serbian state flag.

We all make mistakes, and they can be rectified. They can also be compounded, as this one was, as the hotel decided that it was unimportant and made no alteration to the paper concerned.

Hardly the way to demonstrate cultural understanding.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A country is not a nationality is not a language is not a flag ...

It should be self-evident that a country name is not the same as a nationality, does not equate to a language and so on. That said, a surprising number of websites confuse particularly countries and nationalities. Often, a question asking for nationality is accompanied by a listing of countries.

On packaging, country names and flags are often used to indicate language, and this can backfire. On a package of candyfloss (British name) the information and ingredients listed under the heading UK: referred to the product as Cotton Candy (US and Canadian name) and used American spellings such as coloring instead of the British colouring.