April 4th, 2006 by Robert Lerner

The Data Quality Act is in the news again. The federal law, enacted in 2000, requires federal agencies to develop data quality standards that ensure the accuracy of the information they provide to the public. Overall, the law doesn’t seem to be a bad one and, really, who would argue that requiring federal agencies meet certain data quality standards is wrong-sighted?

The law certainly isn’t perfect. And unfortunately, it has also enabled a number of special interest groups to misuse it in order to bury or postpone federal regulations that they oppose. These groups file petitions to delay regulations or projects that, they claim, don’t meet the data quality standards imposed by the law. Certain groups appear to have been fairly successful with these tactics, particularly with respect to regulations governing toxic chemicals.

But, as I noted, the law is in the news again, and this time because of a decision in the federal appeals court.

Some background. A couple of years ago, the Salt Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce filed a Data Quality Act petition to gain unpublished data from a study funded, in part, by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, whose parent agency is the Department of Health and Human Services. The published study suggested that lowering salt intake also lowered blood pressure, and so it made the not-so-surprising recommendation that Americans lower their salt intake. The Salt Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce claimed that the study was flawed, because it failed to break out its findings into demographic groups, and hence they filed a petition to obtain undisclosed data that they hoped might shed light on this issue.

In November 2004, however, the Virginia federal district court ruled that the Data Quality Act does not give any group or individual “a legal right to information or its correctness.” On March 6, 2006, this ruling was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Alexandria, Virginia.

The ruling is interesting, because for now it has stopped special interest groups from manipulating the law to their own ends. It is also interesting, because it enables the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to provide one more piece of evidence that a certain level of salt intake can be deleterious to our health.

But apart from these issues, the news gave the Data Quality Act some additional publicity, which I think is important in terms of highlighting the importance of good quality data. While I have some reservations about the overall efficacy of this law, I do believe that it is important as a symbolic gesture. That’s because it underlines the importance of high quality data and the need to leverage data quality technology, as well as a data governance framework, to ensure the quality of an organization’s data.

I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but it is true that many organizations still don’t “get it” with respect to the quality of their data. Many feel they are taking adequate steps if they are implementing data quality technology and processes in a limited way — perhaps only in a specific business unit or perhaps only for their customer data, even though they might also have business data on hand.

I am pleased that in this case the Data Quality Act won an important victory, though I am also aware that someone will suspect that my pleasure derives from the fact that I am on a diet. In answer to this suspicion – no, I’m not worried about my salt intake and, while dieting is not the most pleasant of pastimes, I am not cranky enough during any diet to revel in someone’s loss.

I think it would be a shame if the Data Quality Act could be high-jacked by special interests, because this is sometimes what happens in organizations that don’t have strong support from upper management for their data quality initiatives.