Do not fear blanks!

Do not fear blanks!

Sometimes information is missing. Maybe it was never collected, maybe it was wrong. Whatever the case, let blanks be blank.

Are you missing something?
Are you missing something?

Don’t use placeholders when you mean “I don’t know”. Using abbreviations like “N/K” or even words like “Unknown” can seem helpful but are only really useful for humans who speak your language (and understand what the abbreviation really means!)

Don't use placeholders
Don’t use placeholders

Placeholders make it harder to work out that there is actually something missing. Think about all the ways you can write “Not Known”! It’s far better to leave a blank. Blanks are familiar and can be picked up by lots of tools.

Tip: Blanks are fine for numbers too.

See all the tips in one place: Good Quality Open Data

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Consultant: Data Science & Data Analysis – Making the complex, simple

3 thoughts on “Do not fear blanks!”

  1. Made me think of a few things: Placeholders and dummy values (‘unknown’, etc.) sometimes end up in data files because the input systems require values for those fields, so the people inputting the data come up with a variety of ways to make the data entry form accept the input. (Consistency also depends a great deal on the input system, e.g. dropdowns and lookups versus free text fields.) In the case of such data quality issues, improving quality is less about transformations to the data (making cells blank, etc.), but rather about changes to the input systems (relaxing or strengthening validations as the case may be). Fulfilling some of these lessons can require taking a much longer/wider view through data’s full lifecycle.


    1. Great comment James!

      I agree completely. When I worked on a strategic information architecture project, we quickly realised that we needed “eventual completeness” which made data validation a little more complex.

      As a charity offering free financial advice, most of our initial contacts were from folks who were desperate for some help. Asking the advisors to complete everything that would eventually be required for good advice wasn’t working. We ended up with a ton of workarounds! By thinking through the stages a client goes through, we understood there’s a point at which we do need everything so we could relax the requirements until that stage.

      We saw a boost in morale and reduction in records with nonsense place holder information.


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