214-748-3647, Hello…Is it Me You’re Looking For?

Jul 17, 2012   //   by Karen Lopez   //   Blog, Data, Data Modeling, Database Design, WTF  //  No Comments

A developer, Justin Reese, just shared his own story about using the wrong datatype for phone numbers, over at DailyWTF.  He did this in an XML document, but I see the same mistake being made over and over again in data models and database designs.  In fact, this is a key part of my Data Modeling / Database Design Blunders presentation.  

My client reported that was a strange bug on a certain page in an app I built for them. Where the contact information for a series of offices was being displayed, all the information was correct except for one piece: the phone number. For multiple locations, the phone number displayed was the same: 214-748-3647.

I love reading about his quest to track this problem down and what the issue turned out to be.  I also love that he wrote a DailyWTF about himself.  We all should be doing that: sharing our mistakes so that others can learn from them.  I call that "Free Advice That’s Paid For" in my blog posts. 

In my presentation my first blunder is using numeric datatypes for data values that aren’t actually numbers.  Telephone numbers are one of them.  They may have leading zeros.  We don’t do math on them, usually.  ZIPCodes are another example. Store them as INTEGER and you’ll lose leading zeros.  And many Postal Codes have letters.  Think you have only US customers? You might.  But customers, people who may owe you money, have a way of moving around.  Of course, every design decision comes down to cost, benefit and risk.  So some designs may make a good case for using numeric datatypes for storing values that aren’t actually numbers. But all the protections for data quality and correct retrieval need to be designed in, too.  That’s the trade-off.  Also in my presentation I give a rule of thumb:

If business users call it a number, it ain’t a number. 

SNAGHTML39344e3bCustomer Number. Account Number.  Vehicle Identification NumberSocial Insurance Number.  Social Security Number (yeah, it’s all numbers now, but nothing would stop the powers that be from changing that).  This is especially true for numbers that are managed by people outside your organization.  You just don’t know when they might decide to add letter or special characters.

I get feedback from at least one person at each presentation that my blunders are way too obvious or that they aren’t serious mistakes.  As much as I see poor or inaccurate datatype selection, I have to politely disagree.  These are the number one mistakes I see.  They compromise data quality, lead to tragic data errors, even.  Storing numbers that in fact aren’t numbers as INTEGERS or other numeric datatypes is error prone, leads to nasty slow queries due to all the casting and table scans that may happen.  Eventually, those incorrect data values are going to come looking for you.  Usually after work hours, in production. If you’ve never seen them in the wild, then either you don’t get out enough of you’ve been blessed by working with highly competent data modelers and database designers.  And we all know how rare those are.

Thanks to David Maxwell (@dmmaxwell | blog) for the pointer to this WTF

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