Firms full of dirty data

Up to 30 per cent of an organisation's data could be "dirty", according to a top informatics researcher.

Delivering a lecture after winning the British Computer Society's (BCS) Roger Needham Award, Professor Wenfei Fan said that businesses and their customers could be negatively affected by "dirty data" any information which is inconsistent, inaccurate, incomplete or out of date. "Poor quality data can give us trouble the problem is everywhere," he said.

According to Fan, Australia has 500,000 dead people with active Medicare cards, while the US Pentagon's bad data quality led that organisation to attempt to send over 200 dead soldiers back to Iraq.

"In the UK, we're doing no better," he said, saying this country has issued 81 million national insurance numbers to a population of only 60 million.

But it's not just the public sector. Fan said that in a customer database of over half a million records, 120,000 become invalid within a year. And, the error rates for industry range from a fairly accurate one per cent to as high as 30 per cent.

And such dirt can lead to high costs, he said. Among other examples, he cited the case of Lehman Brothers, which inaccurately entered 300 million for a 3 million trade, taking 300 billion off the FTSE 100.

It's not just a problem for high finance, but for retail, too. Fan noted an example from Dell, which sold 15,000 computers in Chile for 79 when they were actually worth 303.

Fan claimed dirty data costs US businesses as much as $611 billion (412 billion) and US customers as much as $2.5 billion (1.68 billion) each year. "Real life data is dirty, and dirty data is costly," Fan said.

While he admitted 100 per cent accuracy was essentially impossible, Fan called for better tools to cross-reference databases to detect incorrect data.

Fan is chair of web data management in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. The Roger Needham award is given by the BCS and Microsoft to a UK-based researcher within ten years of their PhD for their contribution to computer science.

The entertaining lecture can be viewed [a href="

needham_2008" target="_blank"]here[/a]; click option eight' to go directly to Fan's lecture.