Data Quality

Is it worth emulating Christopher Columbus?

Graphic showing a ship with a compass in the background

Christopher Columbus is one of the most recognizable historical figures. Thanks to his discovery in 1492 of a new continent - America - he became a symbol of the entire movement, which lasted several hundred years, related to the exploration of the farthest corners of our planet. Today we admire his courage, because thanks to the fleet under his command, consisting of three small ships, he managed to make a voyage that changed the world. If we look a little closer at the details of this expedition, we too, living more than 500 years after him, can learn something. From his mistakes.

History of the expedition

It is well known that Columbus called the indigenous peoples of America Indians because he was certain that he had sailed to India, which is what the entire known area of Asia was called in his time. What's more, his letters indicate that he was unaware until the end of his life that he had discovered a new, hitherto unknown continent. However, if we dig a little deeper into the story, we will understand where the misunderstanding came from.

At the time of Columbus, the realization that the earth was round was, at least in scientific circles, widespread. Moreover, there were reasonably precise calculations of its size. If we combine this fact with the knowledge that people had no idea of the existence of America, it means that Columbus intended to sail across the entire Atlantic, North America and the Pacific to reach Asia at the end. On his three small ships this would have been impossible. His plan was flawed because he did not take proper care of the quality of the data.

Ah, the data

Yes, he was disappointed by the data! Firstly, in determining the route to India, he relied on the work of the Persian astronomer Alphraganus, who calculated the diameter of the earth in the ninth century. His calculations were not accurate. However, Columbus was able to use the much more accurate calculations of the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes. However, this is not the end of the misunderstandings. The second problem was that Alphraganus used the Arabian mile as a unit of measurement in his works. Columbus assumed he was referring to the much shorter Roman mile. The distance marked by these two serious errors became the basis for planning his expedition.

Someone may say, it's a good thing this happened, because we would probably still be waiting a long time to discover America. However, we must fully understand the consequences. Had it not been for the unknown continent, the existence of which Columbus could not have assumed, the entire expedition would have either ended with the starvation of 90 participants or, at best, with an embarrassing return home. After all, after crossing the Atlantic, Columbus' expedition would still have had to cross the entire Pacific. This would have been an impossible feat.

Two ways

So the natural question arises, what lessons can we learn from this Columbus expedition in relation to our business world? In my opinion, we can interpret this expedition in two radically different ways. The first is that "to the brave the world belongs". So, we can be unconcerned with the data, ignore the analysis, or even contradict the facts. There is always a chance that there will be some undiscovered new "America" where we lead our Insurance Company in this way.

The second interpretation is that Christopher Columbus personally had already exhausted all the resources of luck that were available, and we cannot rely on luck when running our Insurance Companies. However, this means that we need to get our data and analysis under control. Put the reins of predictability on them, and always confirm key information twice. Our process of managing, integrating and analyzing data must therefore proceed under tightly controlled conditions in accordance with the principles of Data Governance. And the quality of the data at every stage must be controlled.

Make your choice

Looking at the mistakes of Christopher Columbus, it's worth taking two steps back ourselves. On a day-to-day basis, we have told ourselves that such quality and data management problems are not a threat to us. After all, other companies have them too. But if we step back and ask ourselves simple questions like: how often are there errors in my reports? Can I trust the data I receive? Haven't there been smaller data incidents in the organization that have somehow managed to be contained, though?

And it is the word "somehow" that is the key, because if we do not control the growing and even flooding wave of data then "somehow" is not enough. Eventually, someone will make a decision that is bad for the company based on bad data. Before that happens, I suggest learning from the story of Christopher Columbus and turning "somehow" into quality.

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Lukasz Nienartowicz

Responsible for the development of the Business Intelligence area at Britenet. For more than 12 years he has been involved in building data warehouses and analytical solutions for industries such as banking, insurance, automotive and public sector. He is particularly fascinated by the area of client data processing and analytics. He specializes in advising clients on how to overcome their business challenges and grow their organizations with the help of data.