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Who Has My Personal Data?

20131129WhoHasMyData

In order to prepare for the cooking gauntlet that often occurs with the end of year holiday season, I decided to purchase a new rotisserie oven.  The folks at Acme Rotisserie include a large amount of documentation with their rotisserie. I reviewed the entire pile and was a bit surprised by the warranty registration card. The initial few questions made sense: serial number, place of purchase, date of purchase, my home address.  The other questions struck me as a bit too inquisitive: number of household occupants, household income, own/rent my residence, marital status, and education level. Obviously, this card was a Trojan horse of sorts; provide registration details –and all kinds of other personal information.  They wanted me to give away my personal information so they could analyze it, sell it, and make money off of it.

Companies collecting and analyzing consumer data isn’t anything new –it’s been going on for decades.  In fact, there are laws in place to protect consumer’s data in quite a few industries (healthcare, telecommunications, and financial services). Most of the laws focus on protecting the information that companies collect based on their relationship with you.  It’s not the just details that you provide to them directly; it’s the information that they gather about how you behave and what you purchase.  Most folks believe behavioral information is more valuable than the personal descriptive information you provide.  The reason is simple: you can offer creative (and highly inaccurate) details about your income, your education level, and the car you drive.  You can’t really lie about your behavior.

I’m a big fan of sharing my information if it can save me time, save me money, or generate some sort of benefit. I’m willing to share my waist size, shirt size, and color preferences with my personal shopper because I know they’ll contact me when suits or other clothing that I like is available at a good price.  I’m fine with a grocer tracking my purchases because they’ll offer me personalized coupons for those products.  I’m not okay with the grocer selling that information to my health insurer.  Providing my information to a company to enhance our relationship is fine; providing my information to a company so they can share, sell, or otherwise unilaterally benefit from it is not fine.  My data is proprietary and my intellectual property.

Clearly companies view consumer data to be a highly valuable asset.  Unfortunately, we’ve created a situation where there’s little or no cost to retain, use, or abuse that information. As abuse and problems have occurred within certain industries (financial services, healthcare, and others), we’ve created legislation to force companies to responsibly invest in the management and protection of that information. They have to contact you to let you know they have your information and allow you to update communications and marketing options. It’s too bad that every company with your personal information isn’t required to behave in the same way.  If data is so valuable that a company retains it, requiring some level of maintenance (and responsibility) shouldn’t be a big deal.

It’s really too bad that companies with copies of my personal information aren’t required to contact me to update and confirm the accuracy of all of my personal details. That would ensure that all of the specialized big data analytics that are being used to improve my purchase experiences were accurate. If I knew who had my data, I could make sure that my preferences were up to date and that the data was actually accurate.

It’s unfortunate that Acme Rotisserie isn’t required to contact me to confirm that I have 14 children, an advanced degree in swimming pool construction, and that I have Red Ferrari in my garage. It will certainly be interesting to see the personalized offers I receive for the upcoming Christmas shopping season.

Project Success = Data Usability

One of the challenges in delivering successful data-centric projects (e.g. analytics, BI, or reporting) is realizing that the definition of project success differs from traditional IT application projects.  Success for a traditional application (or operational) project is often described in terms of transaction volumes, functional capabilities, processing conformance, and response time; data project success is often described in terms of business process analysis, decision enablement, or business situation measurement.  To a business user, the success of a data-centric project is simple: data usability.

It seems that most folks respond to data usability issues by gravitating towards a discussion about data accuracy or data quality; I actually think the more appropriate discussion is data knowledge.  I don’t think anyone would argue that to make data-enabled decisions, you need to have knowledge about the underlying data.  The challenge is understanding what level of knowledge is necessary.  If you ask a BI or Data Warehouse person, their answer almost always includes metadata, data lineage, and a data dictionary.  If you ask a data mining person, they often just want specific attributes and their descriptions — they don’t care about anything else.  All of these folks have different views of data usability and varying levels (and needs) for data knowledge.

One way to improve data usability is to target and differentiate the user audience based on their data knowledge needs.  There are certainly lots of different approaches to categorizing users; in fact, every analyst firm and vendor has their own model to describe different audience segments.  One of the problems with these types of models is that they tend to focus heavily on the tools or analytical methods (canned reports, drill down, etc.) and ignore the details of data content and complexity. The knowledge required to manipulate a single subject area (revenue or customer or usage) is significantly less than the skills required to manipulate data across 3 subject areas (revenue, customer, and usage).  And what exacerbates data knowledge growth is the inevitable plethora of value gaps, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies associated with the data. Data knowledge isn’t just limited to understanding the data; it includes understanding how to work around all of the imperfections.

Here’s a model that categories and describes business users based on their views of data usability and their data knowledge needs

Level 1: “Can you explain these numbers to me?”

This person is the casual data user. They have access to a zillion reports that have been identified by their predecessors and they focus their effort on acting on the numbers they get. They’re not a data analyst – their focus is to understand the meaning of the details so they can do their job. They assume that the data has been checked, rechecked, and vetted by lots of folks in advance of their receiving the content. They believe the numbers and they act on what they see.

Level 2: “Give me the details”

This person has been using canned reports, understands all the basic details, and has graduated to using data to answer new questions that weren’t identified by their predecessors.  They need detailed data and they want to reorganize the details to suit their specific needs (“I don’t want weekly revenue breakdowns – I want to compare weekday revenue to weekend revenue”).  They realize the data is imperfect (and in most instances, they’ll live with it).  They want the detail.

Level 3: “I don’t believe the data — please fix it”

These folks know their area of the business inside/out and they know the data. They scour and review the details to diagnose the business problems they’re analyzing.  And when they find a data mistake or inaccuracy, they aren’t shy about raising their hand. Whether they’re a data analyst that uses SQL or a statistician with their favorite advanced analytics algorithms, they focus on identifying business anomalies.  These folks are the power users that are incredibly valuable and often the most difficult for IT to please.

Level 4: “Give me more data”

This is subject area graduation.  At this point, the user has become self-sufficient with their data and needs more content to address a new or more complex set of business analysis needs. Asking for more data – whether a new source or more detail – indicates that the person has exhausted their options in using the data they have available.  When someone has the capacity to learn a new subject area or take on more detailed content, they’re illustrating a higher level of data knowledge.

One thing to consider about the above model is that a user will have varying data knowledge based on the individual subject area.  A marketing person may be completely self-sufficient on revenue data but be a newbie with usage details.  A customer support person may be an expert on customer data but only have limited knowledge of product data.  You wouldn’t expect many folks (outside of IT) to be experts on all of the existing data subject areas. Their knowledge is going to reflect the breadth of their job responsibilities.

As someone grows and evolves in business expertise and influence, it’s only natural that their business information needs would grow and evolve too.  In order to address data usability (and project success), maybe it makes sense to reconsider the various user audience categories and how they are defined.  Growing data knowledge isn’t about making everyone data gurus; it’s about enabling staff members to become self-sufficient in their use of corporate data to do their jobs.

Photo “Ladder of Knowledge” courtesy of degreezero2000 via Flickr (Creative Commons license).

The Formula for Analytics Success: Data Knowledge


Companies spend a small fortune continually investing and reinvesting in making their business analysts self-sufficient with the latest and greatest analytical tools. Most companies have multiple project teams focused on delivering tools to simplify and improve business decision making. There are likely several standard tools deployed to support the various data analysis functions required across the enterprise: canned/batch reports, desktop ad hoc data analysis, and advanced analytics. There’s never a shortage of new and improved tools that guarantee simplified data exploration, quick response time, and greater data visualization options, Projects inevitably include the creation of dozens of prebuilt screens along with a training workshop to ensure that the users understand all of the new whiz bang features associated with the latest analytic tool incarnation.  Unfortunately, the biggest challenge within any project isn’t getting users to master the various analytical functions; it’s ensuring the users understand the underlying data they’re analyzing.

If you take a look at the most prevalent issue with the adoption of a new business analysis tool is the users’ knowledge of the underlying data.  This issue becomes visible with a number of common problems:  the misuse of report data, the misunderstanding of business terminology, and/or the exaggeration of inaccurate data.  Once the credibility or usability of the data comes under scrutiny, the project typically goes into “red alert” and requires immediate attention. If ignored, the business tool quickly becomes shelfware because no one is willing to take a chance on making business decisions based on risky information.

All too often the focus on end user training is tool training, not data training. What typically happens is that an analyst is introduced to the company’s standard analytics tool through a “drink from a fire hose” training workshop.  All of the examples use generic sales or HR data to illustrate the tool’s strengths in folding, spindling, and manipulating the data.  And this is where the problem begins:  the vendor’s workshop data is perfect.  There’s no missing or inaccurate data and all of the data is clearly labeled and defined; classes run smoothly, but it just isn’t reality  Somehow the person with no hands-on data experience is supposed to figure out how to use their own (imperfect) data. It’s like someone taking their first ski lesson on a cleanly groomed beginner hill and then taking them up to the top of an a black diamond (advanced) run with step hills and moguls.  The person works hard but isn’t equipped to deal with the challenges of the real world.  So, they give up on the tool and tell others that the solution isn’t usable.

All of the advanced tools and manipulation capabilities don’t do any good if the users don’t understand the data. There are lots of approaches to educating users on data.  Some prefer to take a bottom-up approach (reviewing individual table and column names, meanings, and values) while others want to take a top-down approach (reviewing subject area details, the associated reports, and then getting into the data details).  There are certainly benefits of one approach over the other (depending on your audience); however, it’s important not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: giving the users the fundamental data knowledge they need to make decisions.  The fundamentals that most users need to understand their data include a review of

The above details may seem a bit overwhelming if you consider that most companies have mature reporting environments and multi-terabyte data warehouses.  However, we’re not talking about training someone to be an expert on 1000 data attributes contained within your data warehouse; we’re talking about ensuring someone’s ability to use an initial set of reports or a new tool without requiring 1-on-1 training.  It’s important to realize that the folks with the greatest need for support and data knowledge are the newbies, not the experienced folks.

There are lots of options for imparting data knowledge to business users:  a hands-on data workshop, a set of screen videos showing data usage examples, or a simple set of web pages containing definitions, textual descriptions, and screen shots. Don’t get wrapped up in the complexities of creating the perfect solution – keep it simple.  I worked with a client that deployed their information using a set of pages constructed with PowerPoint that folks could reference in a the company’s intranet. If your users have nothing – don’t’ worry about the perfect solution – give them something to start with that’s easy to use.

Remember that the goal is to build users’ data knowledge that is sufficient to get them to adopt and use the company’s analysis tools.  We’re not attempting to convert everyone into data scientists; we just want them to use the tools without requiring 1-on-1 training to explain every report or data element.

Photo courtesy of NASA.  Nasa Ames Research Center engineer H Julian “Harvey” Allen illustrating data knowledge (relating to capsule design for the Mercury program)

Data Governance: Managing Data as an Asset

 

20121029 GoldBullionI always find it interesting when people pile onto the company’s latest and most popular project or initiative. People love to gravitate to whatever is new and sexy within the company, regardless of what they’re working on or their current responsibilities. There never seems to be a shortage of the “bright shiny object” syndrome – you know, organizational ADHD.  This desire to jump on the band wagon often positions individuals with limited experience to own and drive activities they don’t fully understand. The world of data governance is rife with supporters and promoters that are thrilled to be involved, but a bit unprepared to participate and execute.  It’s like loading a gun and pulling the trigger before aiming – you’ll make a lot of noise and likely miss the target.  If only folks spent a bit of time educating others about the meaning and purpose of data governance before they got started.

Let me first offer up some definitions from a few reputable sources…

“Data governance is a set of processes that ensures that important data assets are formally managed throughout the enterprise” (Wikipedia)

“The process by which an organization formalizes the ‘fiduciary duty’ for the management of data assets”  (Forrester Research)

 “…the overall management of the availability, usability, integrity, and security of the data employed in an enterprise” (TechTarget)

For those of you that have experience with data governance, the above definitions are unlikely to be much of a surprise.  For the other 99%, there’s likely to be some head scratching. I actually think most folks that haven’t been indoctrinated to the religion of data have just assumed that data governance is simply a new incarnation of yesterday’s data quality or metadata discussion.  That probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise; the discussion of data inaccuracy and data dictionaries has gotten so much air time over the past 30 years, the typical business user probably feels brainwashed when they hear anything with “data” in the title.  I actually think that Data Governance may win the prize for being among the most misunderstood concepts within Information Technology.

Data governance is a very simple concept.  Data Governance is about establishing the processes for accessing and sharing data and resolving conflict when the processes don’t work.

A Data Governance initiative is really about instilling the concept of managing data as a corporate asset. Companies have standard methods and processes for asset management: your Procurement group has a slew of rules and processes to support the purchasing of office supplies; the HR organization has rules and guidelines for hiring and managing staff; and the finance organization follows “generally accepted accounting principles” to handle managing the company’s fixed and financial assets.  Unfortunately, what we don’t have is a set of generally accepted principles for data. This is what data governance establishes.

The reason that you see the term process in nearly every definition of data governance is that until you establish and standardize data related processes, you’ll never get any of the work done. Getting started with data governance isn’t about establishing a committee – it’s about identifying the goals and identifying the policies and processes that will direct the work activities. You can’t be successful in managing an asset if everyone has their own rules and methods for accessing, manipulating, and using the asset.  This isn’t rocket science – geez – the world of ERP implementations and even business reengineering projects learned this concept more than 10 years ago.

The reason to manage data as a corporate asset is to ensure that business activities that require data are able to use and access data in a simple, uniform, consistent manner.  Unfortunately, in the era of search engines, content indexing, data warehouses, and the Cloud,  finding and acquiring data to support a new business need can be painful, time consuming, and expensive.  Everyone has their own terms, their own private data stash, and their own rules dictating who is and isn’t allowed to access data.  This isn’t corporate asset management– this is corporate asset chaos.  A data governance initiative is one of the best ways to get started in managing data as a corporate asset.

So You Think You’re Ready for a Data Warehouse Appliance

Toasters by meddygarnet via Flickr

Many of our clients have asked us about whether it’s time to consider replacing their aging data warehouses with data warehouse appliance technologies. I chock up this emerging interest to the reality that data warehouse life spans are 3 to 4 years and platforms need to be refreshed.   Given the recent crop of announcements by vendors like Oracle and Teradata along with the high visibility of newer players like Netezza, Paraccel, and Vertica.

The benefit of a data warehouse appliance is that includes all of the hardware and software in a preconfigured solution that dramatically simplifies running and managing a data warehouse. (Some of the vendors have taken that one step further and actually sell software that is setup to work with specially defined commodity hardware configurations). Given the price/performance differences between the established data warehouse products and the newer data warehouse appliances, it only makes sense that these products be considered as alternatives to simply upgrading the hardware.

The data warehouse appliance market is arguably not new. In the 1980s companies like Britton-Lee and Teradata argued that database processing was different and would perform better with purpose-designed hardware and software. Many have also forgotten these pioneers argued that the power of commodity microprocessors vastly exceeded the price/performance of their mainframe processor competitors.

The current-generation appliance vendors have been invited to the table because of the enormous costs that have evolved in managing the enormous data volumes and operational access associated with today’s data warehouses. Most IT shops have learned that database scalability doesn’t just mean throwing more hardware and storage at the problem.  The challenge in managing these larger environments is understand the dynamics of the data content and the associated processing.  That’s why partitioning the data across multiple servers or simply removing history doesn’t work – for every shortcut taken to reduce the data quantity, there’s an equal impact to user access and the single version of truth.  This approach also makes data manipulation and even system support dramatically more complicated.

It’s no surprise that these venture capital backed firms would focus on delivering a solution that was simpler to configure and manage.  The glossy sales message of data warehouse appliance vendors comes down’ to something like: “We’ve reduced the complexity of running a data warehouse..  Just install our appliance like a toaster, and watch it go!”   There’s no question that many of these appliance vendors have delivered when it comes to simplifying platform management and configuration; the real challenge is addressing the management and configuration issues that impact a growing data warehouse: scalable load processing, a flexible data architecture, and manageable query processing.

We’ve already run into several early-adopters that think all that is necessary is to simply fork-lift their existing data warehouse structures onto their new appliance.  While this approach may work initially, the actual longevity of the appliance – or its price/performance rationale will soon evaporate.  These new products can’t work around bad data, poor design habits, and the limitations of duplicate data; their power is providing scalability across enormous data and processing volumes.  An appliance removes the complexities of platform administration. But no matter what appliance you purchase, and no matter how much horsepower it has, data architecture and data administration are still required.

In order to leverage the true power of an appliance, you have to expect to focus effort towards integrating data in a structure that leverages the scalability strengths of the product. While the appliances are SQL-based, the way they process loads, organize data, and handle queries can be dramatically different than their incumbent data marts and data warehouses. It’s naïve to think that a new appliance can provide processing scalability without any adjustments.  If it was that simple, the incumbent vendors would have already packaged that in their existing products.


In Part 2 of this post, I’ll elaborate on the faulty assumptions of many companies that acquire data warehouse appliances, and warn you against making these same mistakes.


photo by meddygarnet via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

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