Keep Data in Context

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 4/10/2012 | 4 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
Context. It's what gives many words a precise meaning, what makes actions appropriate in one instance and not in another, and what makes data gathered for one purpose a privacy nightmare when situations change.

Data in context, or more precisely, data ripped out of its context, is the source of most of the data-driven anxiety customers and clients feel today, and a source of a great deal of the storage-based worry for CIOs in the retail, financial, and healthcare industries. Organizations that pay close attention to context can find themselves eliminating many of the problems.

Much of our trouble with data out of context comes from the nagging feeling that someday, someone is going to figure out that analysis based on data we don't have about our customers is the key to correctly making decisions about our business. The answer? Gather every scrap of data possible, and obsessively hold onto that data forever, just in case one of our bright people figures it out. Unfortunately, that data becomes an attractive nuisance, sending out a siren call to hackers while taking up ever more space in your storage infrastructure.

Customers, clients, and patients don't really mind giving us the information we need (and here's the critical part) if they know we're going to use it for the purpose they expect: If, in short, we keep the data connected to the context of our relationship. In their minds, they've provided something of value (their information) in exchange for something else of value (our goods or services). Trouble comes when we hold onto the information and try to use it outside the proper context. When that happens, we've broken a social contract, even though we're probably acting within the terms of service the customer signed when the whole dance began.

So what's a CIO to do? For starters, begin introducing the concept of data in context if it's not already part of the regular discussion at your organization. Resist the urge to hold onto information "just in case" or to gather more information than your needs require on the outside chance that you'll someday find it valuable. The results can be positive in several directions.

Regulatory compliance becomes easier, especially in the financial services and healthcare fields. Let's be blunt: You don't have to maintain the security of data you don't have. It also goes without saying that you don't have to store data you've never collected. Put your applications and your various departments on a data diet and you'll see results from both reduced compliance costs and reduced storage requirements filter down to the bottom line.

You may also see significant benefits from increased customer satisfaction when you make a point of not asking for information that isn't necessary. If you need to, point out to them that you're not asking as many questions as you could. Customers are smart. They'll get it. What you'll get is better financial results and fewer PR disasters from lost data. That's a winning situation that you don't need a pile of raw data to understand.

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David Wagner   Keep Data in Context   4/11/2012 2:18:26 PM
Re: Data is valuable
Isn't the problem with context that it shifts all the time? Granted i see a few places where it doesn't have to-- like a discrete single purchase.

But in ongoing relationships either internally or externally, a company is shifting context all the time. And you don't necessarily stop wanting to store informaiton because the single event is over.

I do think this is a great way to think about data, but I'm not sure it is a good way to think about destroying data. What am i mssing here, Curt?
sohaibmasood   Keep Data in Context   4/11/2012 12:17:36 PM
Re: Data is valuable
@Megadl: Companies should learn to analyze, plan and gather only the data that is absolutely necessary to improve their service to their customers.


I agree with you completely on this.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. We have been led to believe that more is better and companies tend to hoard up as much data as they can get their hands on. Filtering the effective data from the junk is what is important. It requires good analytical skills plus a mindset that focus on quality instead of quantity. 

Often I have seen companies fishing for trends in a dataset that is so vast that they would probably get results that will be far from reality. Not only does it waste a lot of resources and money but it also paves a way for making decisions based on incorrect information. 
megadl   Keep Data in Context   4/11/2012 10:07:40 AM
Re: Data is valuable
Security is one thing, but companies really should learn to analyze, plan and gather only the data that is absolutely necessary to improve their service to their customers. In my opinion, everything should go well with proper planning. If companies know what they need and how to use the data way before they gather any data and then more towards planning how to secure the data and plan for contingencies, they wouldn't have had to spend so much time and money sorting, fixing and securing the data on the go in the first place. Companies that have so much extraneous data along with poor security only shows how poor the planning is within the company.
Zaius   Keep Data in Context   4/10/2012 8:15:30 PM
Data is valuable
I just recently proofread a dissertaion on the safety of private information and this is much more of a nightmare than I ever dreamed. THere are so many ways to solve this problem that I have to conclu8de that companies want to keep that data or feel that they must. After all it does have value and they do not want to destroy anything that has value, even if it is not theirs.

For healthcare, how about makeing little cards with data strips? A physical card for the provider with the information thay need and one for the client with all the information that they want on it. Both should be password and biometrically  porotected, so loss is not a problem. For places like on line companies, demographic data should be stored with a number that identifies it and is accessible by that number and a password. THe company gets access only to anonymous data and the client knows who they are and has a password.

Yes, storage of private information is what has led to so much identity theft.


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