Column Names as Contracts

A visualization of data fields named with a controlled vocabulary

Feb 25, 2021 11:00 AM
Data Workshop on Reproducibility (Univ Toronto) | Good Tech Fest (Chicago)
University of Toronto | Chicago

Complex software systems make performance guarantees through documentation and unit tests, and they communicate these to users with conscientious interface design. However, published data tables exist in a gray area; they are static enough not to be considered a “service” or “software”, yet too raw to earn attentive user interface design. This ambiguity creates a disconnect between data producers and consumers and poses a risk for analytical correctness and reproducibility.

In this talk, I will explain how controlled vocabularies can be used to form contracts between data producers and data consumers. Explicitly embedding meaning in each component of variable names is a low-tech and low-friction approach which builds a shared understanding of how each field in the dataset is intended to work.

Doing so can offload the burden of data producers by facilitating automated data validation and metadata management. At the same time, data consumers benefit by a reduction in the cognitive load to remember names, a deeper understanding of variable encoding, and opportunities to more efficiently analyze the resulting dataset.

After discussing the theory of controlled vocabulary column-naming and related workflows, I illustrate how to implement these ideas at various stages in the data management lifecycle, either with the R package convo or with the SQL-based tool dbt.

This talk is based on by related blog post and R package.

Emily Riederer
Senior Analytics Manager