Data Hygiene

Last updated on 2023-05-08 | Edit this page



  • How should I format data in a database, and why?


  • Explain what an atomic value is.
  • Distinguish between atomic and non-atomic values.
  • Explain why every value in a database should be atomic.
  • Explain what a primary key is and why every record should have one.
  • Identify primary keys in database tables.
  • Explain why database entries should not contain redundant information.
  • Identify redundant information in databases.

Now that we have seen how joins work, we can see why the relational model is so useful and how best to use it. The first rule is that every value should be atomic, i.e., not contain parts that we might want to work with separately. We store personal and family names in separate columns instead of putting the entire name in one column so that we don’t have to use substring operations to get the name’s components. More importantly, we store the two parts of the name separately because splitting on spaces is unreliable: just think of a name like “Eloise St. Cyr” or “Jan Mikkel Steubart”.

The second rule is that every record should have a unique primary key. This can be a serial number that has no intrinsic meaning, one of the values in the record (like the id field in the Person table), or even a combination of values: the triple (taken, person, quant) from the Survey table uniquely identifies every measurement.

The third rule is that there should be no redundant information. For example, we could get rid of the Site table and rewrite the Visited table like this:

id lat long dated
619 -49.85 -128.57 1927-02-08
622 -49.85 -128.57 1927-02-10
734 -47.15 -126.72 1930-01-07
735 -47.15 -126.72 1930-01-12
751 -47.15 -126.72 1930-02-26
752 -47.15 -126.72 -null-
837 -48.87 -123.40 1932-01-14
844 -49.85 -128.57 1932-03-22

In fact, we could use a single table that recorded all the information about each reading in each row, just as a spreadsheet would. The problem is that it’s very hard to keep data organized this way consistent: if we realize that the date of a particular visit to a particular site is wrong, we have to change multiple records in the database. What’s worse, we may have to guess which records to change, since other sites may also have been visited on that date.

The fourth rule is that the units for every value should be stored explicitly. Our database doesn’t do this, and that’s a problem: Roerich’s salinity measurements are several orders of magnitude larger than anyone else’s, but we don’t know if that means she was using parts per million instead of parts per thousand, or whether there actually was a saline anomaly at that site in 1932.

Stepping back, data and the tools used to store it have a symbiotic relationship: we use tables and joins because it’s efficient, provided our data is organized a certain way, but organize our data that way because we have tools to manipulate it efficiently. As anthropologists say, the tool shapes the hand that shapes the tool.

Identifying Atomic Values

Which of the following are atomic values? Which are not? Why?

  • New Zealand
  • 87 Turing Avenue
  • January 25, 1971
  • the XY coordinate (0.5, 3.3)

New Zealand is the only clear-cut atomic value.

The address and the XY coordinate contain more than one piece of information which should be stored separately:

  • House number, street name
  • X coordinate, Y coordinate

The date entry is less clear cut, because it contains month, day, and year elements. However, there is a DATE datatype in SQL, and dates should be stored using this format. If we need to work with the month, day, or year separately, we can use the SQL functions available for our database software (for example EXTRACT or STRFTIME for SQLite).

Identifying a Primary Key

What is the primary key in this table? I.e., what value or combination of values uniquely identifies a record?

latitude longitude date temperature
57.3 -22.5 2015-01-09 -14.2

Latitude, longitude, and date are all required to uniquely identify the temperature record.

Key Points

  • Every value in a database should be atomic.
  • Every record should have a unique primary key.
  • A database should not contain redundant information.
  • Units and similar metadata should be stored with the data.