When Poor Data Quality Kills

In my previous post, I made the argument that many times it’s okay to call data quality as good as it needs to get, as opposed to demanding data perfection.  However, a balanced perspective demands acknowledging there are times when nothing less than perfect data quality is necessary.  In fact, there are times when poor data quality can have deadly consequences.

In his book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick explained “pharmaceutical names are a special case: a subindustry has emerged to coin them, research them, and vet them.  In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration reviews proposed drug names for possible collisions, and this process is complex and uncertain.  Mistakes cause death.”

“Methadone, for opiate dependence, has been administrated in place of Metadate, for attention-deficit disorder, and Taxcol, a cancer drug, for Taxotere, a different cancer drug, with fatal results.  Doctors fear both look-alike errors and sound-alike errors: Zantac/Xanax; Verelan/Virilon.  Linguists devise scientific measures of the distance between names.  But Lamictal and Lamisil and Ludiomil and Lomotil are all approved drug names.”

All data matching techniques, such as edit distance functions, phonetic comparisons, and more complex algorithms, provide a way to represent (e.g., numeric probabilities, weighted percentages, odds ratios, etc.) the likelihood that two non-exact matching data items are the same.  No matter what data quality software vendors tell you, all data matching techniques are susceptible to false negatives (data that did not match, but should have) and false positives (data that matched, but should not have).

This pharmaceutical example is one case where a false positive could be deadly, a time when poor data quality kills.  Admittedly, this is an extreme example.  What other examples can you offer where perfect data quality is actually a necessity?

 

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The Art of Data Matching

OCDQ Radio is a vendor-neutral podcast about data quality and its related disciplines, produced and hosted by Jim Harris.

On this episode of OCDQ Radio, I am joined by Henrik Liliendahl Sørensen for a discussion about the Art of Data Matching.

Henrik is a data quality and master data management (MDM) professional also doing data architecture.  Henrik has worked 30 years in the IT business within a large range of business areas, such as government, insurance, manufacturing, membership, healthcare, public transportation, and more.

Henrik’s current engagements include working as practice manager at Omikron Data Quality, a data quality tool maker with headquarters in Germany, and as data quality specialist at Stibo Systems, a master data management vendor with headquarters in Denmark.  Henrik is also a charter member of the IAIDQ, and the creator of the LinkedIn Group for Data Matching for people interested in data quality and thrilled by automated data matching, deduplication, and identity resolution.

Henrik is one of the most prolific and popular data quality bloggers, regularly sharing his excellent insights about data quality, data matching, MDM, data architecture, data governance, diversity in data quality, and many other data management topics.

 

The Art of Data Matching

Additional listening options:

 

Related Posts

Identifying Duplicate Customers

Customer Incognita

The Very True Fear of False Positives

The Two Headed Monster of Data Matching

To Parse or Not To Parse

Worthy Data Quality Whitepapers (Part 3)

Data Quality Pro

A Brave New Data World

Delivering Data Happiness

#FollowFriday Spotlight: @hlsdk

#FollowFriday Spotlight: @hlsdk

FollowFriday Spotlight is an OCDQ regular segment highlighting someone you should follow—and not just Fridays on Twitter.

Henrik Liliendahl Sørensen is a data quality and master data management (MDM) professional with over 30 years of experience in the information technology (IT) business working within a large range of business areas, such as government, insurance, manufacturing, membership, healthcare, and public transportation.

For more details about what Henrik has been, and is, working on, check out his My Been Done List and 2011 To Do List.

Henrik is also a charter member of the IAIDQ, and the creator of the LinkedIn Group for Data Matching for people interested in data quality and thrilled by automated data matching, deduplication, and identity resolution.

Henrik is one of the most prolific and popular data quality bloggers, regularly sharing his excellent insights about data quality, data matching, MDM, data architecture, data governance, diversity in data quality, and many other data management topics.

So check out Liliendahl on Data Quality for great blog posts written by Henrik Liliendahl Sørensen, such as these popular posts:

 

Related Posts

Delivering Data Happiness

#FollowFriday Spotlight: @DataQualityPro

#FollowFriday and Re-Tweet-Worthiness

#FollowFriday and The Three Tweets

Dilbert, Data Quality, Rabbits, and #FollowFriday

Twitter, Meaningful Conversations, and #FollowFriday

The Fellowship of #FollowFriday

Social Karma (Part 7) – Twitter

Worthy Data Quality Whitepapers (Part 3)

In my April 2009 blog post Data Quality Whitepapers are Worthless, I called for data quality whitepapers worth reading.

This post is now the third entry in an ongoing series about data quality whitepapers that I have read and can endorse as worthy.

 

Matching Technology Improves Data Quality

Steve Sarsfield recently published Matching Technology Improves Data Quality, a worthy data quality whitepaper, which is a primer on the elementary principles, basic theories, and strategies of record matching.

This free whitepaper is available for download from Talend (requires registration by providing your full contact information).

The whitepaper describes the nuances of deterministic and probabilistic matching and the algorithms used to identify the relationships among records.  It covers the processes to employ in conjunction with matching technology to transform raw data into powerful information that drives success in enterprise applications, including customer relationship management (CRM), data warehousing, and master data management (MDM).

Steve Sarsfield is the Talend Data Quality Product Marketing Manager, and author of the book The Data Governance Imperative and the popular blog Data Governance and Data Quality Insider.

 

Whitepaper Excerpts

Excerpts from Matching Technology Improves Data Quality:

  • “Matching plays an important role in achieving a single view of customers, parts, transactions and almost any type of data.”
  • “Since data doesn’t always tell us the relationship between two data elements, matching technology lets us define rules for items that might be related.”
  • “Nearly all experts agree that standardization is absolutely necessary before matching.  The standardization process improves matching results, even when implemented along with very simple matching algorithms.  However, in combination with advanced matching techniques, standardization can improve information quality even more.”
  • “There are two common types of matching technology on the market today, deterministic and probabilistic.”
  • “Deterministic or rules-based matching is where records are compared using fuzzy algorithms.”
  • “Probabilistic matching is where records are compared using statistical analysis and advanced algorithms.”
  • “Data quality solutions often offer both types of matching, since one is not necessarily superior to the other.”
  • “Organizations often evoke a multi-match strategy, where matching is analyzed from various angles.”
  • “Matching is vital to providing data that is fit-for-use in enterprise applications.”
 

Related Posts

Identifying Duplicate Customers

Customer Incognita

To Parse or Not To Parse

The Very True Fear of False Positives

Data Governance and Data Quality

Worthy Data Quality Whitepapers (Part 2)

Worthy Data Quality Whitepapers (Part 1)

Data Quality Whitepapers are Worthless

Customer Incognita

Many enterprise information initiatives are launched in order to unravel that riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, that great unknown, also known as...Customer.

Centuries ago, cartographers used the Latin phrase terra incognita (meaning “unknown land”) to mark regions on a map not yet fully explored.  In this century, companies simply can not afford to use the phrase customer incognita to indicate what information about their existing (and prospective) customers they don't currently have or don't properly understand.

 

What is a Customer?

First things first, what exactly is a customer?  Those happy people who give you money?  Those angry people who yell at you on the phone or say really mean things about your company on Twitter and Facebook?  Why do they have to be so mean? 

Mean people suck.  However, companies who don't understand their customers also suck.  And surely you don't want to be one of those companies, do you?  I didn't think so.

Getting back to the question, here are some insights from the Data Quality Pro discussion forum topic What is a customer?:

  • Someone who purchases products or services from you.  The word “someone” is key because it’s not the role of a “customer” that forms the real problem, but the precision of the term “someone” that causes challenges when we try to link other and more specific roles to that “someone.”  These other roles could be contract partner, payer, receiver, user, owner, etc.
  • Customer is a role assigned to a legal entity in a complete and precise picture of the real world.  The role is established when the first purchase is accepted from this real-world entity.  Of course, the main challenge is whether or not the company can establish and maintain a complete and precise picture of the real world.

These working definitions were provided by fellow blogger and data quality expert Henrik Liliendahl Sørensen, who recently posted 360° Business Partner View, which further examines the many different ways a real-world entity can be represented, including when, instead of a customer, the real-world entity represents a citizen, patient, member, etc.

A critical first step for your company is to develop your definition of a customer.  Don't underestimate either the importance or the difficulty of this process.  And don't assume it is simply a matter of semantics.

Some of my consulting clients have indignantly told me: “We don't need to define it, everyone in our company knows exactly what a customer is.”  I usually respond: “I have no doubt that everyone in your company uses the word customer, however I will work for free if everyone defines the word customer in exactly the same way.”  So far, I haven't had to work for free.  

 

How Many Customers Do You Have?

You have done the due diligence and developed your definition of a customer.  Excellent!  Nice work.  Your next challenge is determining how many customers you have.  Hopefully, you are not going to try using any of these techniques:

  • SELECT COUNT(*) AS "We have this many customers" FROM Customers
  • SELECT COUNT(DISTINCT Name) AS "No wait, we really have this many customers" FROM Customers
  • Middle-Square or Blum Blum Shub methods (i.e. random number generation)
  • Magic 8-Ball says: “Ask again later”

One of the most common and challenging data quality problems is the identification of duplicate records, especially redundant representations of the same customer information within and across systems throughout the enterprise.  The need for a solution to this specific problem is one of the primary reasons that companies invest in data quality software and services.

Earlier this year on Data Quality Pro, I published a five part series of articles on identifying duplicate customers, which focused on the methodology for defining your business rules and illustrated some of the common data matching challenges.

Topics covered in the series:

  • Why a symbiosis of technology and methodology is necessary when approaching this challenge
  • How performing a preliminary analysis on a representative sample of real data prepares effective examples for discussion
  • Why using a detailed, interrogative analysis of those examples is imperative for defining your business rules
  • How both false negatives and false positives illustrate the highly subjective nature of this problem
  • How to document your business rules for identifying duplicate customers
  • How to set realistic expectations about application development
  • How to foster a collaboration of the business and technical teams throughout the entire project
  • How to consolidate identified duplicates by creating a “best of breed” representative record

To read the series, please follow these links:

To download the associated presentation (no registration required), please follow this link: OCDQ Downloads

 

Conclusion

“Knowing the characteristics of your customers,” stated Jill Dyché and Evan Levy in the opening chapter of their excellent book, Customer Data Integration: Reaching a Single Version of the Truth, “who they are, where they are, how they interact with your company, and how to support them, can shape every aspect of your company's strategy and operations.  In the information age, there are fewer excuses for ignorance.”

For companies of every size and within every industry, customer incognita is a crippling condition that must be replaced with customer cognizance in order for the company to continue to remain competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Do you know your customers?  If not, then they likely aren't your customers anymore.

To Parse or Not To Parse

“To Parse, or Not To Parse,—that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the data to suffer
The slings and arrows of free-form fields,
Or to take arms against a sea of information,
And by parsing, understand them?”

Little known fact: before William Shakespeare made it big as a playwright, he was a successful data quality consultant. 

Alas, poor data quality!  The Bard of Avon knew it quite well.  And he was neither a fan of free verse nor free-form fields.

 

Free-Form Fields

A free-form field contains multiple (usually interrelated) sub-fields.  Perhaps the most common examples of free-form fields are customer name and postal address.

A Customer Name field with the value “Christopher Marlowe” is comprised of the following sub-fields and values:

  • Given Name = “Christopher”
  • Family Name = “Marlowe”

A Postal Address field with the value “1587 Tambur Lane” is comprised of the following sub-fields and values:

  • House Number = “1587”
  • Street Name = “Tambur”
  • Street Type = “Lane”

Obviously, both of these examples are simplistic.  Customer name and postal address are comprised of additional sub-fields, not all of which will be present on every record or represented consistently within and across data sources.

Returning to the bard's question, a few of the data quality reasons to consider parsing free-form fields include:

  • Data Profiling
  • Data Standardization
  • Data Matching

 

Much Ado About Analysis

Free-form fields are often easier to analyze as formats constructed by parsing and classifying the individual values within the field.  In Adventures in Data Profiling (Part 5), a data profiling tool was used to analyze the field Postal Address Line 1:

Field Formats for Postal Address Line 1

 

The Taming of the Variations

Free-form fields often contain numerous variations resulting from data entry errors, different conventions for representing the same value, and a general lack of data quality standards.  Additional variations are introduced by multiple data sources, each with its own unique data characteristics and quality challenges.

Data standardization parses free-form fields to break them down into their smaller individual sub-fields to gain improved visibility of the available input data.  Data standardization is the taming of the variations that creates a consistent representation, applies standard values where appropriate, and when possible, populates missing values.

The following example shows parsed and standardized postal addresses:

Parsed and Standardized Postal Address

In your data quality implementations, do you use this functionality for processing purposes only?  If you retain the standardized results, do you store the parsed and standardized sub-fields or just the standardized free-form value?

 

Shall I compare thee to other records?

Data matching often uses data standardization to prepare its input.  This allows for more direct and reliable comparisons of parsed sub-fields with standardized values, decreases the failure to match records because of data variations, and increases the probability of effective match results.

Imagine matching the following product description records with and without the parsed and standardized sub-fields:

Parsed and Standardized Product Description

 

Doth the bard protest too much? 

Please share your thoughts and experiences regarding free-form fields.

The Very True Fear of False Positives

Data matching is commonly defined as the comparison of two or more records in order to evaluate if they correspond to the same real world entity (i.e. are duplicates) or represent some other data relationship (e.g. a family household).

The need for data matching solutions is one of the primary reasons that companies invest in data quality software and services.

The great news is that there are many data quality vendors to choose from and all of them offer viable data matching solutions driven by impressive technologies and proven methodologies.

The not so great news is that the wonderful world of data matching has a very weird way with words.  Discussions about data matching techniques often include advanced mathematical terms like deterministic record linkage, probabilistic record linkage, Fellegi-Sunter algorithm, Bayesian statistics, conditional independence, bipartite graphs, or my personal favorite:

The redundant data capacitor, which makes accurate data matching possible using only 1.21 gigawatts of electricity and a customized DeLorean DMC-12 accelerated to 88 miles per hour.

All data matching techniques provide some way to rank their match results (e.g. numeric probabilities, weighted percentages, odds ratios, confidence levels).  Ranking is often used as a primary method in differentiating the three possible result categories:

  1. Automatic Matches
  2. Automatic Non-Matches
  3. Potential Matches requiring manual review

All data matching techniques must also face the daunting challenge of what I refer to as The Two Headed Monster:

  • False Negatives - records that did not match, but should have been matched
  • False Positives - records that matched, but should not have been matched

For data examples that illustrate the challenge of false negatives and false positives, please refer to my Data Quality Pro articles:

 

Data Matching Techniques

Industry analysts, experts, vendors and consultants often engage in heated debates about the different approaches to data matching.  I have personally participated in many of these debates and I certainly have my own strong opinions based on over 15 years of professional services, application development and software engineering experience with data matching. 

However, I am not going to try to convince you which data matching technique provides the superior solution at least not until Doc Brown and I get our patent pending prototype of the redundant data capacitor working because I firmly believe in the following two things:

  1. Any opinion is biased by the practical limits of personal experience and motivated by the kind folks paying your salary
  2. There is no such thing as the best data matching technique every data matching technique has its pros and cons

But in the interests of full disclosure, the voices in my head have advised me to inform you that I have spent most of my career in the Fellegi-Sunter fan club.  Therefore, I will freely admit to having a strong bias for data matching software that uses probabilistic record linkage techniques. 

However, I have used software from most of the Gartner Data Quality Magic Quadrant and many of the so-called niche vendors.  Without exception, I have always been able to obtain the desired results regardless of the data matching techniques provided by the software.

For more detailed information about data matching techniques, please refer to the Additional Resources listed below.

 

The Very True Fear of False Positives

Fundamentally, the primary business problem being solved by data matching is the reduction of false negatives the identification of records within and across existing systems not currently linked that are preventing the enterprise from understanding the true data relationships that exist in their information assets.

However, the pursuit to reduce false negatives carries with it the risk of creating false positives. 

In my experience, I have found that clients are far more concerned about the potential negative impact on business decisions caused by false positives in the records automatically linked by data matching software, than they are about the false negatives not linked after all, those records were not linked before investing in the data matching software.  Not solving an existing problem is commonly perceived to be not as bad as creating a new problem.

The very true fear of false positives often motivates the implementation of an overly cautious approach to data matching that results in the perpetuation of false negatives.  Furthermore, this often restricts the implementation to exact (or near-exact) matching techniques and ignores the more robust capabilities of the data matching software to find potential matches.

When this happens, many points in the heated debate about the different approaches to data matching are rendered moot.  In fact, one of the industry's dirty little secrets is that many data matching applications could have been successfully implemented without the investment in data matching software because of the overly cautious configuration of the matching criteria.

My point is neither to discourage the purchase of data matching software, nor to suggest that the very true fear of false positives should simply be accepted. 

My point is that data matching debates often ignore this pragmatic concern.  It is these human and business factors and not just the technology itself that need to be taken into consideration when planning a data matching implementation. 

While acknowledging the very true fear of false positives, I try to help my clients believe that this fear can and should be overcome.  The harsh reality is that there is no perfect data matching solution.  The risk of false positives can be mitigated but never eliminated.  However, the risks inherent in data matching are worth the rewards.

Data matching must be understood to be just as much about art and philosophy as it is about science and technology.

 

Additional Resources

Data Quality and Record Linkage Techniques

The Art of Data Matching

Identifying Duplicate Customer Records - Case Study

Narrative Fallacy and Data Matching

Speaking of Narrative Fallacy

The Myth of Matching: Why We Need Entity Resolution

The Human Element in Identity Resolution

Probabilistic Matching: Sounds like a good idea, but...

Probabilistic Matching: Part Two

The Two Headed Monster of Data Matching

Data matching is commonly defined as the comparison of two or more records in order to evaluate if they correspond to the same real world entity (i.e. are duplicates) or represent some other data relationship (e.g. a family household).

Data matching is commonly plagued by what I refer to as The Two Headed Monster:

  • False Negatives - records that did not match, but should have been matched
  • False Positives - records that matched, but should not have been matched

 

I Fought The Two Headed Monster...

On a recent (mostly) business trip to Las Vegas, I scheduled a face-to-face meeting with a potential business partner that I had previously communicated with via phone and email only.  We agreed to a dinner meeting at a restaurant in the hotel/casino where I was staying. 

I would be meeting with the President/CEO and the Vice President of Business Development, a man and a woman respectively.

I was facing a real world data matching problem.

I knew their names, but I had no idea what they looked like.  Checking their company website and LinkedIn profiles didn't help - no photos.  I neglected to get their mobile phone numbers, however they had mine.

The restaurant was inside the casino and the only entrance was adjacent to a Starbucks that had tables and chairs facing the casino floor.  I decided to arrive at the restaurant 15 minutes early and camp out at Starbucks since anyone going near the restaurant would have to walk right past me.

I was more concerned about avoiding false positives.  I didn't want to walk up to every potential match and introduce myself since casino security would soon intervene (and I have seen enough movies to know that scene always ends badly). 

I decided to apply some probabilistic data matching principles to evaluate the mass of humanity flowing past me. 

If some of my matching criteria seems odd, please remember I was in a Las Vegas casino. 

I excluded from consideration all:

  • Individuals wearing a uniform or a costume
  • Groups consisting of more than two people
  • Groups consisting of two men or two women
  • Couples carrying shopping bags or souvenirs
  • Couples demonstrating a public display of affection
  • Couples where one or both were noticeably intoxicated
  • Couples where one or both were scantily clad
  • Couples where one or both seemed too young or too old

I carefully considered any:

  • Couples dressed in business attire or business casual attire
  • Couples pausing to wait at the restaurant entrance
  • Couples arriving close to the scheduled meeting time

I was quite pleased with myself for applying probabilistic data matching principles to a real world situation.

However, the scheduled meeting time passed.  At first, I simply assumed they might be running a little late or were delayed by traffic.  As the minutes continued to pass, I started questioning my matching criteria.

 

...And The Two Headed Monster Won

When the clock reached 30 minutes past the scheduled meeting time, my mobile phone rang.  My dinner companions were calling to ask if I was running late.  They had arrived on time, were inside the restaurant, and had already ordered.

Confused, I entered the restaurant.  Sure enough, there sat a man and a woman that had walked right past me.  I excluded them from consideration because of how they were dressed.  The Vice President of Business Development was dressed in jeans, sneakers and a casual shirt.  The President/CEO was wearing shorts, sneakers and a casual shirt.

I had dismissed them as a vacationing couple.

I had been defeated by a false negative.

 

The Harsh Reality is that Monsters are Real

My data quality expertise could not guarantee victory in this particular battle with The Two Headed Monster. 

Monsters are real and the hero of the story doesn't always win.

And it doesn’t matter if the match algorithms I use are deterministic, probabilistic, or even supercalifragilistic. 

The harsh reality is that false negatives and false positives can be reduced, but never eliminated.

 

Are You Fighting The Two Headed Monster?

Are you more concerned about false negatives or false positives?  Please share your battles with The Two Headed Monster.

 

Related Articles

Back in February and March, I published a five part series of articles on data matching methodology on Data Quality Pro

Parts 2 and 3 of the series provided data examples to illustrate the challenge of false negatives and false positives within the context of identifying duplicate customers:

Identifying Duplicate Customers

I just finished publishing a five part series of articles on data matching methodology for dealing with the common data quality problem of identifying duplicate customers. 

The article series was published on Data Quality Pro, which is the leading data quality online magazine and free independent community resource dedicated to helping data quality professionals take their career or business to the next level.

Topics covered in the series:

  • Why a symbiosis of technology and methodology is necessary when approaching the common data quality problem of identifying duplicate customers
  • How performing a preliminary analysis on a representative sample of real project data prepares effective examples for discussion
  • Why using a detailed, interrogative analysis of those examples is imperative for defining your business rules
  • How both false negatives and false positives illustrate the highly subjective nature of this problem
  • How to document your business rules for identifying duplicate customers
  • How to set realistic expectations about application development
  • How to foster a collaboration of the business and technical teams throughout the entire project
  • How to consolidate identified duplicates by creating a “best of breed” representative record

To read the series, please follow these links: