Vampire Dogs, Time-Traveling Cats, and the Importance of Tidy Data

One of the best parts of being a data anthropologist is that you just never know what’s waiting for you out there in the wilds of Data Land. And so it was while reviewing our Patient Demographics chart from the Practice Overview Report that Will, our chief data scientist, let us in on the mystery of Vampire Dogs and Time-Traveling Cats.

But before I go there, let’s take a step back. Take a look at the chart below. As you can see, the average canine age is 6.8 and the average feline age is 7.5. Patient demographics are clearly broken down by color. Easy, right?

But what about what you can’t see? That’s one of the exciting challenges of data: sometimes it takes wrestling notorious complexity in order to produce clear, beautiful figures. Indeed, for us, that’s the heart of our skill and expertise: making the complex clear, informative, and attractive. And apparently also fighting the undead – which is something you may find yourself doing if you fail to keep your data clean.

What follows is the tale of two pets – Max and Bubba – as well as tips to help you keep your data tidy. Not connecting the dots yet? Stay with me. It will all eventually make sense, I promise.

Max takes the meaning of senior canine to a whole new level

Max was born just shy of the turn of the century. Notice that I’m not being specific about which century. If it had been this century, Max would now be an impressive but not-unheard-of sixteen years old. A senior canine by any standards, but quite possibly living a long and healthy life.

We had some concerns about Max, though, because he wasn’t born at the turn of this century. According to his practice’s database, he was born at the turn of the last century. In fact, he was born just a few hours before midnight on what I’m sure was a blustery winter’s night, the eve of December 31, 1899. And according to the PIMS, he’s still going.

Incidentally, my grandmother, may she be of blessed memory, lived to 102. If Max had been a person, I’d have applauded him for giving both her and the world’s oldest documented living person a run for their money. Ms. Violet Brown of Jamaica is, according to Wikipedia, 117 years old and still going strong. She was born on March 10, 1900. Max is beating her by three months and 11 days. I wonder if she knows?

The good news is that Max won’t be cursed to wander through all eternity alone. When we had this conversation, Will shared a spreadsheet that included Max and 66,145 of his closest friends. One was born just a few years after the birth of Christ, in the year 4 A.D., making her over 2,000 years old. Several thousand were mysteriously born a few hours after Max, all in perfect synchrony, in the first second of January 1, 1900.

Bubba the short-haired domestic cat could tell us a thing or two about the future

Bubba was, by all appearances, an ordinary domestic short-haired cat. Good sized, loving, a kind face, he was a lovely cat who sadly passed away a few short years ago. But Bubba died with an interstellar secret: he could bend the rules of the space-time continuum.

According to his PIMS, Bubba was born in early spring of the year 9500 and represents a double mystery. Not only was he born in the future; he died in the past. Unfortunately, Bubba had fewer friends than Max to keep him company during his travels through time, but we do know that there are at least a couple of hundred pets out there – canine, feline, reptile, and other – busily bending space-time like Beckham.

Putting their entertainment value aside, the stories of Max and Bubba demonstrate the importance of keeping your data tidy. Vampire dogs and time-traveling cats might make for a funny blog entry, but they and other data gaffes can do some seriously unfunny damage to your information. Not sure where to begin data clean-up? It’s time for those tips I promised you earlier.

Tips to help you keep your practice data tidy – one byte at a time

Required fields

These can be very tricky. If a field is required and you don’t know the value or have a good estimate, use a standard alternative that everyone in your practice agrees on. (This, by the way, can also explain several thousand pets born on January 1, 1900. Vampire dogs aren’t always a bad thing). Good options for required text fields are “null” (meaning “no value” in data-speak) or NA (for “not applicable”), “9999” for numerical fields, and 01/01/1900 for date fields.

Non-Required fields

If you don’t know the value and don’t have a useful estimate, the best data is no data. Leave it blank.

All data in its place

Avoid putting data where it doesn’t belong. For example, if a pet is deceased, mark them as deceased in the appropriate field, instead of putting “Bogard (deceased)” in the Name field. If the field you’re looking for isn’t available, put it in a Notes field and develop a shared understanding and practice about what goes there.

Special characters: great for passwords, bad for data

The fewer * & % $ # ( ) – [ ], the better.

Formatting

Use standard and agreed-upon formats for dates (e.g., MM/DD/YYYY), phone numbers (e.g. xxx-xxx-xxxx), addresses (e.g., how to enter unit numbers), etc.

Data protocols

Communication is the key to standardization: once you have your data protocols in place, share them with the rest of your team.

Telephone support

Last but not least, call us! We have a whole team of folks who can advise on best practices in confusing scenarios. We’d be very happy to help keep your data clean, fresh, and most importantly, valuable to you.

Until our next adventure together in Data Land,

Kevin Keystone
Director of Product Development and Resident Data Anthropologist

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