Data Profiling: The BI Grail

In Healthcare analytics, as in analytics for virtually all other businesses, the landscape facing the Operations, Finance, Clinical, and other organizations within the enterprise is almost always populated by a rich variety of systems which are prospective sources for decision support analysis.   I propose that we insert into the discussion some ideas about the inarguable value of, first, data profiling, and second, a proactive data quality effort as part of any such undertaking.

Whether done from the ground up or when the scope of an already successful initial project is envisioned to expand significantly, all data integration/warehousing/business intelligence efforts benefit from the proper application of these disciplines and the actions taken based upon their findings, early, often, and as aggressively as possible.

I like to say sometimes that in data-centric applications, the framework and mechanisms which comprise a solution are actually even more abstract in some respects than traditional OLTP applications because, up to the point at which a dashboard or report is consumed by a user, the entire application virtually IS the data, sans bells, whistles, and widgets which are the more “material” aspects of GUI/OLTP development efforts:

  • Data entry applications, forms, websites, etc. all exist generally outside the reach of the project being undertaken.
  • Many assertions and assumptions are usually made about the quality of that data.
  • Many, if not most, of those turn out not to be true, or at least not entirely accurate, despite the very earnest efforts of all involved.

What this means in terms of risk to the project cannot be overstated.   Because it is largely unknown in most instances it obviously can neither be qualified nor quantified.   It often turns what seems, on the face of it, to be a relatively simple “build machine X” with gear A, chain B, and axle C project into “build machine X” with gear A (with missing teeth), chain B (not missing any links but definitely rusty and needing some polishing), and axle C (which turns out not to even exist though it is much discussed, maligned, or even praised depending upon who is in the room and how big the company is).

Enter The Grail.   If there is a Grail in data integration and business intelligence, it may well be data profiling and quality management, on its own or as a precursor to true Master Data Management (if that hasn’t already become a forbidden term for your organization due to past failed tries at it).

Data Profiling gives us a pre-emptive strike against our preconceived notions about the quality and content of our data.   It gives us not only quantifiable metrics by which to measure and modify our judgement of the task before us, but frequently results in various business units spinning off immediately into the scramble to improve upon what they honestly did not realize was so flawed.

Data Quality efforts, following comprehensive profiling and any proactive quality correction which is possible, give a project the possibility of fixing problems without changing source systems per se, but before the business intelligence solution becomes either a burned out husk on the side of the EPM highway (failed because of poor data), or at the least a de facto data profiling tool in its own right, by coughing out whatever data doesn’t work instead of serving its intended purpose- to deliver key business performance information based upon a solid data foundation in which all have confidence.

The return on investment for such an effort is measurable, sustainable, and so compelling as an argument that no serious BI undertaking, large or small, should go forward without it.   Whether in Healthcare, Financial Services, Manufacturing, or another vertical,  its value is, I submit, inarguable.

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