A number of our posts and those of others, such as the excellent post by Jim Harris – “Predictably poor data quality” on the Dataflux Community of Experts site are exploring the concept of “behavioural data quality” – or people as part of the data quality problem.

A common concern is that people sometimes don’t treat data as if it matters, unless there is a direct impact on them. Building on the this area and our previous post “Would you allow this?” made me wonder what would happen if data were made of gold and radioactive?

As regular readers of our blog will know, we have made a number of posts illustrating the ways in which user behaviours can degrade data quality (The Data Zoo, Would you allow this?, How tasty is your data quality cheese?“). These all illustrate different aspects of user behaviours regarding data. In this post, we will take a hypothetical look at how people might treat data if it were easily recognised as valuable and also that there are clear personal consequences for misuse.

Please note, I am not a nuclear engineer, so some of these concepts may not match scientific theory. Here we are using the idea of a level of radioactivity which will be recognised by all as causing long term harm but not immediate death!

Firstly, if all data was radioactive gold, when engaged in data collection activities, people would want to gather as much data as possible (due to its value), but not more than is required by the organisation (due to its radioactivity). People would also want to ensure that they passed the data on to data stewards for long term storage as soon as possible to avoid the effects to them of radioactive exposure.

Secondly, due to the radioactivity of the data, people would ensure that all the data was put into suitable, lead-lined data storage facilities. Again, due to the radioactivity, people would not be tempted to hang on to data in their own personal data stores, they would want to be sure that the data was safely looked after. Similarly, the design of data storage facilities would ensure that all data was safelystored with suitable containment facilities and logging of what data is stored where.

When engaged in data exploitation activities, people would recognise the value of the gold data that they had, so would be keen to maximise the benefits gained from it. At the same time, they would recognise the risks caused by the radioactivity and use the minimum amount of data required to solve a particular problem. Similarly, people would be keen to return data to safe storage as soon as they had finished with it.

Data protection and data security problems would be less likely due to the problems of radioactive data stored on laptops and USB data sticks causing a health hazard and due to the value of this data,  so there would be fewer sensitive data sticks left on trains etc.

Due to the value of the data, when engaged in data enhancement activities, people would recognise the value of their gold data and would be keen to seek more ways to derive value from this data. Once this extra value had been obtained, they would want to ensure that the data was put safely back in storage as soon as possible.

When considering data disposal, organisations would be far more interested in disposing of data that no longer provided benefit (due to the high costs of storage) so there is less likely to be large volumes of redundant data left in storage. Similarly, it would be more likely that there would be correct and careful disposal of redundant data to prevent any future health issues.

Admittedly, this is an exagerated fictional scenario, but it does hopfully make people consider how the majority of data users would treat data if it was more readily understood to be of value and that there would be personal consequences for mis-use.

Our challenge as data professionals is to seek to get people to treat data as if it had the value of gold and the health risks of a radioactive substance. How do we sell such a message?

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6 thoughts on “Radioactive gold data

  • 14th June 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Good post, Julian.

    This made me think of what Innocentive is doing these days. By allow others to “mine for gold”, they’re unearthing things that other would not. Wikinomics does a great job of explaining this.

    It would be useful to replicate that “gold digging” mentality in many organizations.

  • 14th June 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Rather oddly glowing but great blog post, Julian.

    Paraphrasing J. Robert Oppenheimer (who was literally quoting the Bhagavad Gita after the Trinity test in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was detonated), perhaps we need to view our behaviors that lead to and perpetuate the poor data quality undermining useful and business critical information thusly:

    “Now I have become Poor Quality, Destroyer of Data.”

    Best Regards,


  • 14th June 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Great post, Julian.

    A very effective way of emphasising the personal cost/benefit that should be intrinsic in every function within a business, i.e. “What are the benefits for me of doing this correctly? What are the cost of getting it wrong?”

    Sadly, due to bad computer systems, these have all got reversed. There are large personal benefits to holding on to data locally and huge personal costs to handing it over.

    This situation will persist until good systems design and performance make it easier, and so personally more beneficial, for people to do what has the greatest benefit for the enterprise.


  • 15th June 2010 at 9:36 am

    Empower and incentivise – a couple of key words I feel for tackling behaviour I’ve found.

    In a data team where low-paid data entry staff had a fairly low opinion of data (and their jobs) we made each member responsible for a set of data, they were given DQ training and the results were incredible, new found pride, great skills on their CV and high quality data as a result.

    There was no real salary increase, we just shared bonuses when a new client date was hit.

    Great post, got me thinking as usual!

  • 15th June 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Thank you all for your useful comments:

    Gold digging is clearly an outcome if people value the data and what it represents. In some cases, staff do not see the benefits that data can provide.

    I presume you were not describing yourself when stating you have become the destroyer of data?

    Agreed, poor systems and processes encourage poor practices towards data. However, I have seen some cases where the systems and processes were not too bad, but the Data Anarchists still wanted to do their own thing.

    Superb example of a little lateral thinking delivering good DQ, and hence business benefits, and all at minimal cost. Useful nugget of advice.

  • 23rd July 2010 at 2:09 am

    Great post, Julian.I really like your ideas about making the consequences for misusing data obvious. We have a community for IM professionals (www.openmethodology.com). We would love to bookmark your work in the future. Check us out sometime.


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