Seth Godin published an article recently that touched on something I’ve been thinking. And it gave me a phrase to steal to describe it. Machine Unreadable.
Databases are useful. I use them every day. I’m taking a class to learn how to use them well, to do more sophisticated things with them. But they’re not for all things.
At work, an important point that is often forgotten is that people are involved in the work. Information gets jammed into a database whether it belongs there or not, and that information, even though it might be complete and correct, can become incomprehensible—incomprehensible to a reader, to a user, to a maintainer.
How often at work do we load up a spreadsheet with a database output, fuss with the colors and borders a bit, and then send it off to an unwitting person to fill the rest in? Too often. And the table doesn’t mean anything to the person that receives it. It barely means anything to us who own the data. But the Word of the Database is Law, especially to the managers who summarize it for the Holy Powerpoint. It is spoken of authoritatively in hushed tones. It is mysterious and awesome. It is bogus.
I wish we spent more time thinking about what the data means—especially to the people we share it with. I think it’s a mark of distinction when a person asks, “Why are we doing this?” when we send data in an esoteric format that is destined to be ignored or misunderstood. (Which one is worse?) If we want to solve problems, we—the data and database owners—ought to feel more responsible for being understood. At the very least, it’s the humane thing to do.
I could riff on this for a while. It’s something that gives me fits at work. The idea, if not the implementation, seems so simple and obvious: translation. If not everyone can or wants to use the central information in the same format then it’s silly to do that. Like language translation, some might be formulaic, some might be art. Whatever the case, spare a thought for the humans involved.