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Fear of Databases May 29, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,

“It’s all in the database!”

I’m sure most of you (if you are in the UK, I must remember that the web is a world spanning medium) have seen the adverts by the wonderful TV Licencing authority or the DVLA. If not they go something like:

“We keep records” {background music}
“We know if you have paid…or not.” {Music become more sinister}
We will find you, you cannot hide” {more affirmative music}
“It’s all in the database” {doom-laden musical flourish}

OK, maybe I lay it on a bit with the music.

Now, as a database professional, I see “it’s all in the database” as a good thing. With luck it will be a well designed database with referrential integrity and all nicely validated.

Nearly all news media stories about actual or perceived threats to electronic privacy also site “The Database” as the core.
“They {who?} will hold all your web searches in a vast Database”.
” A laptop holding a Database of 1 million double glazing customers has been stolen”. I bet it was actually 10 thousand and in a spreadsheet.

It’s getting to the point where I don’t feel comfortable telling people I meet outside of the IT world that I am a database expert. Databases are hardly ever now seen in a good light, they seem to be linked only to things bad and Orwellian.

The Database is also often cited when companies get things wrong for their customers. You ring up to complain about some aspect of non-service and are often told “Oh, it doesn’t agree with you in the Database” or “the Database has got it wrong”. No it hasn’t, the person putting the information in the database got it wrong. I’ve been in the unusual situation of being told a lie where the database was given as the cause but I had access to that database. So I checked and the database was fine. It was being used as a convenient and much maligned excuse.

Very little is mentioned of the beneficial uses of databases.
For most of us our salary is processed via databases and it is a lot cheaper and more reliable than having half a hundred pay clerks doing it manually in pen and ink.
Databases are used to hold or index much of that vast quantity of stuff that you can search for on the net. Even the useful stuff on Klingons.
I for one would welcome a UK-wide database holding my basic medical details so that when I go to my GP or hospital, they do not need my memory (and in fact my consciousness) to tell them my medical past. If I have an allergy to a common drug I damned well want all medical people to know that before they put 10cc of the stuff into my veins.

And to wrap up my bad-tempered tirad, I now find it particularly tricky to talk about what I still feel is my most significant achievement in IT, namely an 80TB Database of genetic information. Without getting into the topic of Bioethics, which is beyond the scope of this blog, Genetics and a lot of biological stuff is now painted grey, if not deep, murkey, scary Red by the media. I tell John down the pub that I created a huge genetics database, he is sure I am either working on a secret government project to know all about his inner workings or some evil company combining tomatoes and monkeys into some awful, new thing that {and he has seen the movies to prove this} in all likelihood will turn into a zombie killer, escape and do for mankind.

Maybe I’ll just tell people I shoplift for a living, it might be more socially acceptable than being involved in Databases or Genetics.



1. merkaba33 - May 29, 2009

To be fair, Gattaca was scary as hell.

The idea of our gentetic information and frailities being tracked and used to make economic decisions about us is a real threat. Right now your health is used to price insurance premiums. When and if all of our genetic information is catalogued, and insurance companies get their hands on it, I bet they would love to use that information to “adjust the risk profile” of the individual policy holders.

Yes there is very useful and beneficial uses to databases. Personally I think you should be proud of what you do. I understand the concerns people have, but database professionals are not going to make or break the situation. Unfortunately, we have to rely on legislatures to decide who is able to access that kind of information. If they do not, then the open market will decide.

And if that happens, then we could be looking at a very different world than we live in right now. I’m not saying worse, and I’m not saying better. But *very* different.

mwidlake - May 29, 2009

Thanks for the comment Merkaba.

To be fair, Gattaca was scary as hell

Yeah, but what about “Alien”, I’m never going to land on a desolate planet and then volunteer to go into the big, derelict space craft 🙂

As you point out, there are questions to be thought about and decided in respect of bioethics, my rant is more directed to the general use of Database as a negative thing. Would the world be better off without Lasers? I’ve never heard anyone suggest so or referring to lasers generically as a Big Bad thing (I’ll strategically ignore the Strategic Defence Initiative). As a component of guided missiles, guns, as pure weapons they could be viewed as pretty negative, but as the thing which makes you CD and Blue-Ray player work and for etching small components, they are great.

In fact, many technological things have little databases in them, helping it all work, so the laser comparisson is maybe not a bad one.

I could have replaced “Database” with “Computer” in my posting, but it seems to me that computers get plenty of good press. Databases don’t. And I’m really annoyed by it!

2. PdV - May 29, 2009

Nice one Martin

You on a mission?

A good blog or presentation should always have a bit of a rant, a grain of passion, in it. If not you end up with boooring content and a snoring audience.

Databases are like a good tool: they can be used for bad or for good.

The TV license commercial in the UK was a bit heavy-handed at times, I’d blame the peculiar british sense of humour for over-doing that one a bit. Did you mean this one?

And what do I tell the taxi drivers, pub-visitors etc?
“Work? oh well, I help people and businesses who work with computers…” And then I may have to dodge questions about WinXP and pegasus.

mwidlake - May 30, 2009

Hi Piet,

Yes, that is indeed one of the adverts. Thanks for finding it.
And yes, I am on a mission! I predict it will be as successful as all my others…

I know what you mean about having some passion or spark in a blog. If you are at the top of your field then a blog can stand on it’s technical merits alone (most of my current blog roll falls into that category, which is not to say they do not show passion and spark as well) . Otherwise, I think it has to be a significantly enjoyable experience in order to find the time to read the blog.

That is, if you can get people to find your blog in the first place. How in heck do you get the search engines to catalogue a blog well? I searched on count(*) oracle min max, expecting my long postings to maybe pop up many pages in. I actually got very few hits (which was a surprise) and no mention of mine at all.
It makes me wonder how much good info is out there that you never find via search engines.

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