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Archive for June 8th, 2008

Is a database of graduate names really necessary?

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Databases are great tools. They make complex information easy to understand. The proliferation of them on news Web sites is also a positive development. Reporters request, compile and uncover mountains of data doing their jobs. Put the data in the hands of the readers.

There are hundreds of useful databases on news Web sites today. But what’s increasingly sad — almost as sad as the tendency to create and dump unrelated databases without any context into data ghettos — is the increasing tendency to create databases of information that, really, a database isn’t useful in helping to understand. In the worst instances, it really just complicates the information for the sake of saying, “Look at all the databases we’re giving you!”

Let’s check some information a database is good for:

  • Crime statistics that allow me to sort by location, type of crime, etc.? Check.
  • Salary information for publicly paid employees, broken down by job title, salary, department, name, etc.? Check.
  • Property tax assessments that show me how much my — or my neighbors — home has gone up or down? Check.
  • Restaurant health inspection results, especially violations? Check.
  • Summer camps sorted by location, length, type and date? Check.

But does the world really need a database to search the name of high school graduates at a particular school? Apparently, Brevard & Lee Counties in Florida do. Des Moines, Iowa, thinks so, too.

Many papers, including my own, run graduation lists at the end of the year. I don’t personally get anything out of this (and thankfully, though I did penance as an intern in college typing these up for weeks, the data desk handles typing them here). But I see the utility to a community, especially a small one, in being able to see that “Jeff’s daughter graduated,” or “Betsy from church was valedictorian.” Plus, it might be nice as the student to have and clip your graduation list for your scrapbook.

I could even see the paper keeping these lists in an internal database. It could be useful down the road to have the names handy of the graduates of a class if someone goes on to do something famous, or if you want to find students who were under a certain teacher or administrator when that person reaches a milestone or dies. Or if something happens to someone and you want to go back and check they were indeed a graduate of City High School in 2005. I could see that.

I can also see, to some extent, the IndyStar’s database with profiles of valedictorians and salutatorians in the counties it covers. They used some of that information to compile a story that ran last weekend looking at the trends in colleges and majors, etc. of the best of class. It was actually a pretty interesting story, and at least it gives that database context.

What I don’t understand is why you would take something that is most digestible as a simple list and put it into columns and rows? What’s the reason — because you can? Chances are if I have an interest in it — enough that I would actually know the name of the graduate, as each of the databases asks for — I already know he or she graduated. The only purpose I see it serving then is double-checking, such as, “Wasn’t Molly supposed to graduate this year? Uh oh, maybe she didn’t pass Algebra after all.” About the only useful idea I’ve come up with of interest to even a narrow margin of the public is being able to do some type of data analysis to see how common your name is. For example, in Des Moines, there are three pages worth of people graduating with “Smith” as or in their last name.

It just seems there are better uses of your time and resources, other data that would be useful to compile and host. Not only that, but frivolous databases get dumped into those data ghettos, creating an overwhelming list that further waters down the useful ones.

What do you think? Does a graduation list need a database or does it just complicate it? Also, share the most unnecessary use of database you’ve come across. Sadly, I have a feeling this isn’t the silliest.