The Importance of Data Dictionaries

Artist and Astronaut seeing different images in left screen, and sharing similar musical notes/language in the right screen.

What’s in a word? Quite a lot, in fact.

We may choose our words wisely, spit our words out, or leave our words unspoken. But for others to understand what we mean, we need to share a language. French, American Sign, and Egyptian hieroglyphics are examples of widely-recognized languages. Even street signs and traffic lights are a universal language.  

Professions and organizations, in general, harbor unique languages that have evolved over time. Employees learn to speak it, and later contribute to it, as they integrate into their work community. These local languages can include images, terminology, acronyms, pet names, slang, and even jokes that fall flat when repeated outside our work environment.  

So what’s the big deal with data? Since everyone has computers, you might think we all talk (and think) about data the same way. But that’s not the case. Each organization or tech community develops a data lexicon that makes sense to them. And because, with a few exceptions, “Data” isn’t spoken widely across organizations, you’ll find that departments, teams, and even individuals tend to split off and define their own specialized data lingual groups. Why is this a problem?

Data can be hard to talk about and challenging to share. When two organizations meet to collaborate on a project involving data, it’s rare that they speak the same data language. When two databases connect, they need field terms, attributes, and values to match. Even within organizations, you may find that your marketing department has labeled its data fields differently than Craig in HR did when he designed a spreadsheet; a table named “Donations” in Marketing may track incoming grants, while Craig may use his table named “Donations” to track vacation days that employees donate to help colleagues in need.  Marketing might save information about fundraising parties in a table called “Galas” and Management might capture the same information in a table called “Events.” When it comes time to get everyone and their databases chatting, it’s a miracle if they understand each other. That’s why Inciter starts every project by creating a Data Dictionary.  

What’s a Data Dictionary?

A Data Dictionary is a short-cut to developing a shared language with our clients. Your aunt may have spent 35 years polishing her organization’s language skills while working in a law office,  but we need our shared language right away. The purpose of a Data Dictionary is to define and document a project-specific universal language for all project associates to use when they refer to data. The process will uncover instances like those experienced by Marketing and Craig in HR, where the same word might mean different things to different people, or different words might be used to capture the same information. Inciter will examine databases, spreadsheets, and other data repositories, consult with your company’s data engineers, and record the terms in use by your company and your data sources. We’ll note the conflicts and the inconsistencies so they can be resolved before we begin moving your data into warehouses. Your Data Dictionary will include terms, fields, attributes, and sources, and can guide us as we collaborate on configuring a new system architecture with your data that will generate the timely and accurate reports you dream of. Your Data Dictionary will also serve you in the future as you modify your system to accommodate organizational changes, growth, and goals. 

We at Inciter want to help you turn your data into the information powerhouse we know it can be. Are you ready to learn a new language? We’re ready when you are.

Let’s work together!

Most nonprofits spend days putting together reports for board meetings and funders. The Inciter team brings together data from many sources to create easy and effortless reports. Our clients go from spending days on their reports, to just minutes.