Lessons About Data
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” observed Jane Austen in her book, “Pride and Prejudice.” Two centuries later, bad data continues to bear out Miss Austen’s statement.
A donation I made at a recent fundraising event for the Forest Preserve Foundation generated a heartfelt thank you letter for me and my wife … wait a minute, I don’t have a wife! The letter names the woman to whom I once was married, a long time ago.
I attended the event alone, but somehow, somewhere, in some ancient record the name of my children’s mother persisted. The empty spouse data field from this year’s event cried out to be populated, and an embarrassing error was born.
Lesson: accuracy is protean but raw data doesn’t know that. Be careful before embellishing data with legacy information from alternate sources, which are likely to be outdated.
On the same note (pun intended) our Symphony Orchestra has tried to keep me married despite my taking pains to correct them every time I interact with their ticket office.
Lesson: data is persistent, especially in digital form. Data that has been cleansed may become re-contaminated by outdated info residing in backups or rogue databases.
Our Special Recreation Foundation also wants me to marry. Although I attended this year’s fundraiser alone, it acknowledged my contribution as that of Mr. & Mrs., this time using a lady who was my date for the event five years ago as being the Mrs.
Lesson: times have changed. Filling in empty spouse fields by presuming any couple to be man and wife won’t work in the 21st century.
My church is printing a new membership directory. The directory lists the name of the husband and wife, with their address and phone. Listed below are the names of their children with each child’s cell number. That’s how life is today folks — every kid has a phone … but not every man has a wife.
The print vendor’s software couldn’t seem to handle a single man attending church with kids. Consequently, it moved the name of my son up to “wife” position. This might have been a problem, but proofs were distributed prior to printing and I caught the error.
Lesson: accurate data can easily be misused. Proofing is still an important step in the process.
Fort Wayne Beckons Me
Want to know what’s happening this weekend in Fort Wayne, Indiana? I can tell you, because Facebook tells me, and has been doing so for years.
Facebook is an intensely privacy-invasive organization and, as such, is incredibly data-rich. Even though Facebook knows my hometown, my work address and my place of birth, it insists on alerting me of all the exciting events happening in Fort Wayne.
Indiana is a wonderful state. I enjoy visiting, but I’ve never lived or worked there. I have been to Fort Wayne, with a smartphone in my pocket that undoubtedly made note of my visit. Somehow that little bit of data, accurate in itself, acquired far more importance than it deserved.
Lesson: too much data is as bad as not enough, especially if you don’t use it properly.
I just received a letter urging me to sell my business due to “the devastation the last recession had in Wisconsin.” The sender says he is “the Number One business brokerage firm in Wisconsin.”
I enjoy visiting Wisconsin, but I don’t reside there and neither does my business. The sender knows that, because the letter is personalized with my correct address, city and state.
Lesson: data is useless if you don’t use it, or don’t reconcile conflicts between individual bits of information.
Lastly, I present a letter from a local quick printing franchise describing itself as a “digital print, marketing & design business.” The letter was static and targeted at realtors. The envelope was addressed to my aforementioned wife, who has not lived at my address for a long time and hasn’t been a licensed realtor for even longer.
Yes folks, a marketing piece advertising a self-styled marketing firm used a purchased database that must be at least 15 years out of date.
Lesson: as Kenny Rogers sang in the song The Gambler, “if you’re gonna play the game, boy, you got to learn to play it right.”
Steve Johnson, president and CEO of Copresco in Carol Stream, Ill., is an executive with 40 years of experience in the graphic arts. He founded Copresco, a pioneer in digital printing technology and on-demand printing, in 1987. Email email@example.com or visit www.copresco.com