Is Your Analytics Data Single Use or Multipurpose?

I just finished reading an article on data pipelines and how this approach to accessing and sharing data will improve and simplify data access for analytics developers and users.  The key tenets of the data pipeline approach include simplifying data access by ensuring that pipelines are visible and reusable, and delivering data that is discoverable, shareable, and usable. The article covered the details of placing the data on a central platform to make it available, using open source utilities to simplify construction, transforming the data to make the data usable, and cataloging the data to make it discoverable. The idea is that data should be multipurpose, not single use. Building reusable code that delivers source data sets that are easily identified and used has been around since the 1960’s. It’s a great idea and even simpler now with today’s technologies and methods than it was 50+ years ago.

The idea of reusable components is a concept that has been in place in the automobile industry for many years.  Why create custom nuts, bolts, radios, engines, and transmissions if the function they provide isn’t unique and doesn’t differentiate the overall product?  That’s why GM, Ford and others have standard parts that are used across their numerous products.  The parts, their capabilities, and specifications are documented and easily referenceable to ensure they are used as much as possible.  They have lots of custom parts too; those are the ones that differentiate the individual products (exterior body panels, bumpers, windshields, seats, etc.)  Designing products that maximize the use of standard parts dramatically reduces the cost and expedites delivery.  Knowing which parts to standardize is based on identifying common functions (and needs) across products.  

It’s fairly common for an analytics team to be self-contained and focused on an individual set of business needs.  The team builds software to ingest, process, and load data into a database to suit their specific requirements.  While there might be hundreds of data elements that are processed, only those elements specific to the business purpose will be checked for accuracy and fixed.  There’s no attention to delivering data that can be used by other project teams, because the team isn’t measured or rewarded on sharing data; they’re measured against a specific set of business value criteria (functionality, delivery time, cost, etc.)

This creates the situation where multiple development teams ingest, process, and load data from the same sources for their individual projects.  They all function independently and aren’t aware of the other teams’ activities.  I worked with a client that had 14 different development teams each loading data from the same source system.   They didn’t know what each other was doing nor were they aware that there was any overlap.  While data pipelining technology may have helped this client, the real challenge wasn’t tooling, it was the lack of a methodology focused on sharing and reuse. Every data development effort was a custom endeavor; there was no economies-of-scale or reuse.  Each project team built single use data, not multipurpose data that could be shared and reused.

The approach to using standard and reusable parts requires a long-term view of product development costs.  The initial cost for building standard components is expensive, but it’s justified in reduced delivery costs through reuse in future projects.  The key is understanding which components should be built for reuse and which parts are unique and are necessary for differentiation.  Any organization that takes this approach invests in staff resources that focus on identifying standard components and reviewing designs to ensure the maximum use of standard parts.  Success is also dependent on communicating across the numerous teams to ensure they are aware of the latest standard parts, methods, and practices.

The building of reusable code and reusable data requires a long-term view and an understanding of the processing functions and data that can be shared across projects.  This approach isn’t dependent on specific tooling; it’s about having the development methods and staff focused on ensuring that reuse is a mandatory requirement.   Data Pipelining is indeed a powerful approach; however, without the necessary development methods and practices, the creation of reusable code and data won’t occur. 

There’s nearly universal agreement within most companies that all development efforts should generate reusable artifacts.  Unfortunately, the reality is that this concept gets more lip service than attention.  While most companies have lots of tools available to support the sharing of code and data, few companies invest in their staff members to support such techniques.  It’s rare that I’ve seen any organization identify staff members that are tasked with establishing data standards and require the review of development artifacts to ensure the sharing and reuse of code and data.     Even fewer organizations have the data development methods that ensure collaboration and sharing occurs across teams.  Everyone has collaboration tools, but the methods and practices to utilize them to support reuse isn’t promoted (and often doesn’t even exist).

The automobile industry learned that building cars in a custom manner wasn’t cost effective; using standard parts became a necessity.  While most business and technology executives agree that reusable code and shared data is a necessity, few realize that their analytics teams address each data project in a custom, build-from-scratch manner.   I wonder if the executives responsible for data and analytics have ever considered measuring (or analyzing) how much data reuse actually occurs?

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About Evan Levy

Evan Levy is management consultant and partner at IntegralData. In addition to his day-to-day job responsibilities, Evan speaks, writes, and blogs about the challenges of managing and using data to support business decision making.

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