October 5, 2011
by Graham Rhind, GRC Database Information
When visiting a data quality software supplier’s site recently to download a white paper, I noticed that the country list on the sign up form didn’t contain South Sudan (which became a new country on 9th July 2011) or the new territories which came into existence when the Netherlands Antilles were dissolved on 10th October 2010 (Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten).
I shot off a tweet to the company concerned and they told me they were using the United States’ Department of State list. That list had added South Sudan but had failed to make the changes required by the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles. In the meantime that list has removed Netherlands Antilles and added Curaçao, but does not yet have entries for Bonaire, Saba, Sint Eustatius or Sint Maarten.
Most companies rely on external sources for their country names and code lists, such as the World Bank and the United Nations, both of which use lists which exclude most of the world’s territories ; or the ISO (International Organization for Standardization). Even if you manage your own lists for internal purposes, you may be dependent on an external third-party source for public-facing interfaces. One common one is online shopping/credit card clearing services. It is not uncommon to come across e-commerce sites which have not updated their lists for many years, like the one illustrated. We assume that we can trust services like this to get things right, and we don’t check often enough to ensure that the systems are as up to date as they should be.
Relying on other organisations for your country lists is problematic. To start with, unless you are aware of global changes (and too many people aren’t), or you check the list every day, you won’t notice changes as they happen, as with the data quality company I mentioned above. Secondly, maintenance of country code lists is not the core business of the United Nations, the World Bank and so on. They maintain a list in order to facilitate their own business – and that is rarely likely to coincide with your business. Many of these organisations are very heavily politically dependent or influenced, such as the United Nations or ISO (which doesn’t include Kosovo in its listing, for example), whereas you are likely to need to manage the reality of the situation on the ground, with less emphasis on political niceties. Finally these lists are often updated only long after a country has come into being – it can take ISO many months to assign a country code – whereas you will ideally need to be ready to make changes to your data before the country comes into existence.
When you are managing international data your country code is likely to be linked to other data, such as currency, international telephone number access code, address format or postal code structure, which is not taken account of in country name lists being maintained purely for political purposes. Using lists which exclude Kosovo, for example, which is a de facto entity and has language, currency and addressing differences with Serbia, will cause problems for your data quality.
Maintenance of country lists and codes needs to be given more thought and more attention. If you’re not in a position to manage your own lists, take a look at the one we offer free: http://www.grcdi.nl/countrycodes.htm . It may not suit your needs, but it is one of the few lists created without a political agenda, which is updated ahead of requirement, and with name and address data management specifically in mind. Using a correct and up to date country lists will improve your data quality and can save you from considerable embarrassment.
Graham Rhind is an acknowledged expert in the field of data quality. He runs his own consultancy company, GRC Database Information, based in The Netherlands, where he researches postal code and addressing systems, collates international data, runs a busy postal link website and writes data management software. Graham speaks regularly on the subject and is the author of four books on the topic of international data management.