Improving businesses with better information management


By Nur Dirie Hersi Fursade, Ph.D.

This is the first of a two-part series that will discuss the development of knowledge and intelligence through business data. The goal of this article is to raise awareness and educate the Somali business community on the relationships between data, information, knowledge, decisions, and outcomes.

New opportunities are emerging in many areas and regions of Somalia after years of destruction and hopelessness. Telecom companies, stores, schools and universities, health centers, social clubs, and many other types of businesses are opening daily.  During my recent trip to the country, however, I noticed that most of those businesses are not progressing well because of their inability to harness hidden assets and resources within their businesses. If they could identify and utilize key data, they would develop a greater understanding of their business and the steps required to move forward.

Data are pieces of facts with no meaning attached. As an example, let’s take a look at a small business that buys and sells jewelry. Assume the following four gold pieces in Figure 1 are some of the many gold items in the business inventory:

Figure 1: Some of the Gold Items in Store Inventory

The business owner wants to keep track of his/her assets, which in this case are gold pieces. The owner needs to be able to describe his stock in terms of price, carat, weight, and other relevant facts. In information management we call these descriptions data attributes. Attributes are what define the objects. Consider for instance the following values for the necklace:

Attribute                                Attribute Value

ID:                                           101

TYPE:                                     Necklace

CARAT:                                  24

WEIGHT (in grams):              83

PRICE/GRAM:                      42

MANUFACTURED:              Dubai

We have defined six attributes, each with a corresponding value. And 101, Necklace, and 83 are examples of data. The data or values do not have meaning by themselves unless attached to an attribute. As an example, 83 does not have a meaning unless we look at its attribute, from which we can then deduce that it is the weight of the piece in grams.

Businesses generate large number of data during the operations of their activities. Identifying, capturing, collecting, and analyzing the most relevant attributes and corresponding data is critical to the success of any business. There are often thousands of objects and attributes involved in a business. Professionals known as data architects identify the most relevant objects and corresponding attributes and group them into separate tables. The collection of these objects and corresponding values is known as a database.

Business databases may contain from several to thousands of tables depending on the size and operations of the business, and tables may in turn have millions of rows of data. Specific software programs are required to build and maintain these databases. A one-person operation might simply use Microsoft Excel. Small businesses may need to use a database program such as Microsoft Access. Mid to large sized businesses will need multi-user database programs such as MySQL, MS SQL Server, Oracle, or IBM DB2.

After data is collected into a database, it must also be processed and converted into information before our minds can process it. Let us take the example of the data in the wristband of a hospital patient, as shown in Figure 3, which is obtained from a database. The sticker has the following data: Sticker#: 10021-090958-F-MOG-SOM

Figure 3: Patient in a Hospital
The sticker# is simply data with no rational meaning. Now let us process it in the hospital application software. We enter the code retrieved from the database into the hospital application software and generate an output similar to what is shown in Figure 4:

Figure 4: Patient Code Information OutputThe output values and corresponding attributes show that the patient is a female born in Mogadishu, Somalia on September 9, 1958, with the hospital ID 10021. The above example shows how the data you collect and store, known as raw data, is processed and converted into information. Figure 5 shows a sketch of this conversion process where data is converted into information.

Figure 5: Converting Data into Information

Suppose we have over 100,000 patients in the hospital database. Such data could be summarized and grouped by gender, birth location, and date of birth.  This could then be correlated with other patient data in the database such as duration of hospitalization, type of diagnosis, doctors, nurses, prescriptions, medical lab results, etc.  Health service providers would have a wealth of information about local health needs, through which they could develop and implement services for the community. This is a simple example of the role that data management could play in business development.

Due to the globalized nature of the world today, business owners and management regardless of their locations and business sizes need high quality information on their operating environment. This information must be relevant, valid, and reliable. Generating high quality information requires that businesses setup infrastructures to capture, collect, and analyze relevant business data in a proper and planned way.

Nur Dirie Hersi Fursade, Ph.D., Database Consultant.