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Broken Windows Theory and Data Management

What does a sociological theory about civil disorder and crime have to do with data management? More than you might think!

Per Wikipedia, the Broken Windows Theory “suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes.” In other words, by cleaning up the “small” crimes like vandalism and jumping the gate at the subway station, larger, more serious crimes are less likely to occur.

I think this same line of thinking can be applied to data management. If you take care of the small things, the bigger problems are less likely to occur. So what are some of the small things in data management?

  • Updating contact data – This is the “simple” stuff, like address changes, bounced emails, and demographic updates (e.g., areas of interest). This data changes daily and it has to be managed really frequently in order to stay on top of it.
  • Actively managing duplicate records – Every database has duplicate records. Every single one. You should have data management practices in place that allow you to proactively identify potential duplicate records, as well as a process for how those records can be merged.
  • Cleaning out old records – The longer you’ve had your primary data management system, the more records you’ll have, and the more records you have, the more likely you are to have records that are no longer useful (e.g., deceased that don’t need to be tracked, prospect/leads that were imported long ago and are stale). Just like managing duplicate records, you should have a process in place that helps you identify the old records you already need, and a process that allows you to purge those records from your database.

These are just a few examples; you can probably think of several more that apply in your organization.

I’ve discussed a related phenomenon in the past, the cycle of doom. As discussed here, the cycle of doom posits that if you don’t actively manage your data, keeping it clean and up-to-date, in very short order staff will learn to mistrust the data. As a result they’ll manage the data they need on their own, and the primary data source will get worse and worse, as fewer users update and use the data.

If all of that bad data was taken care of early on, that primary data source would flourish, as opposed to dying.

So what are you doing with your data to make sure your “broken windows” aren’t sending you into the cycle of doom?