Monday, October 18, 2010

Robert the Carrot

A friend told me an anecdote from the time he was working in a Chinese restaurant. A customer, called Robert, wanted to get a tattoo of his name in Chinese and so asked one of the Chinese staff to write down his nick name - Robbo - as a pictogram.

There's no Western "r" sound in Chinese, and the staff member subtly altered the pronunciation of Robbo to something closer to Lobbo - which means "carrot" in Chinese. The pictogram was duly drawn, and Robbo happily went off to get himself tattooed large as being "Carrot".

This resonated with my data quality genes in two ways. The first is what I call the Chinese Whisper effect. You know that game - one person whispers a word or phrase into the next's ear, and so on down the line, and what comes out at the end is often completely at odds with how it started. Data quality is like that - at every interface between information and data and between data systems, the quality of data goes a little more awry.

The second has to do with ignorance. Most organisations think their data is great simply because they don't understand it, and that's especially the case with names and addresses. If you can't see the problem, or, indeed, see that there is a problem, you can't correct it.

Robbo lives in ignorance about his tattoo and is probably still mighty proud about it. He may get a few sniggers if he ever goes to China, but that's about it. Unfortunately, data quality issues arising from processes which work like this can be much more dangerous.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Today we welcome ....

.... five new countries and territories, and we say goodbye to one. The net number of countries and territories in the world without a postal code system increases by four.

Did you know? Had you noticed? When I asked two days ago at a speech at Post*Expo in Copenhagen, none of the 50 or so participants admitted to having any clue about it.

Today we're waving goodbye to The Netherlands Antilles. We're welcoming Curaçao and Sint Maarten as largely independent territories within the Kingdom of The Netherlands (as Aruba now is); and Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba as special municipalities within The Netherlands.

How many weeks, months, years or decades will it take before organisations reflect these changes within their databases, processes and customer-facing systems? After all, Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy (2007) are still largely unknown and unused; Serbia and Montenegro are still far too often lumped together, though they split in 2006; and some organisations still have Yugoslavia as a country, though that died a death in 2003.

Manage your own country list

Twice in the past couple of weeks, when pointing at errors in country lists, organisations have let me know that they will be "looking for a new source" for that list. Far too many organisations use incomplete and unsuitable lists provided by organisations such as the World Bank, United Nations or the ISO. These organisations have their own reasons and imperatives for creating and maintaining lists, which will not be the same as yours, and they must adjust lists to political pressures which rarely reflect reality on the ground.

If you need to keep your country list up to date, and you do, then manage your own. Any country or territory which has a de facto existence needs to be on your list. Though Guadeloupe is part of France, it's geographical location means that it needs to be listed separately to ensure correct address management. Saba may become part of The Netherlands but it won't use the same postal code system or, indeed the same currency. Kosovo must be on your lists because of the linguistic, cultural and addressing differences, regardless of how you stand on its relationship to Serbia.

If you can't rely on the list you're using now, use your own. I'm looking forward to Sint Eustatius and its new neighbours appearing on your website form dropdown very soon.