Data Crime: Arizona Is Not Arkansas

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I call it a “data crime” when someone is abusing or misusing data. When we understand these stories and their implications, it can help us learn from mistakes and prevent future data crimes. The stories can also be helpful if you have to explain the importance of data management to someone.

The Story

After a series of thefts of a particular vehicle type, police in Texas observed that type of vehicle with out-of-state plates leaving a hotel. They ran the Arizona plates, which told them this was potentially a stolen vehicle, so they pulled it over. They pulled their guns on the four occupants of the vehicle.

There was then some discussion between the two officers and dispatch. This revealed that the officer who looked up the plates had entered them incorrectly. The plates were actually from Arkansas (abbreviated as AR), and not Arizona (abbreviated as AZ).

The plates did not appear to be registered in Arizona. Had they looked up the Arkansas plates that they were, the police would have seen that there was nothing wrong with the plates or vehicle. It was a properly registered vehicle holding an innocent family on the way to a basketball tournament. Plate numbers are not unique within the country, so getting the state right is critical.

Although the U.S. state abbreviations have been around for a long time, that doesn’t mean that we have them all memorized, especially with states that start with the same letter. The state name is on the license plate, but the state abbreviation usually isn’t. The police officer had to read the state name on the plate, do the translation, and enter the correct abbreviation.

What We Learned

In this particular case, the app could have used validation to help the police officer know the abbreviation was entered correctly. We’ve probably all seen applications like that where you have to select from a dropdown that includes both the state abbreviation and the state name, or just the state name.  This application used by the police department either didn’t have that or it wasn’t validated during data entry.

This is probably an easy fix, but with a government application, it tends to take some time for approvals. In the meantime, the police must be more conscious when they use this app. It also might not hurt to start memorizing those state abbreviations.

Have you done anything similar in your apps?

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Merrill Albert

Merrill Albert

Merrill Albert is a lifelong data person with a combination of industry and consulting experience. She works throughout the data management capabilities, helping companies better manage their data to drive value from it. She specializes in data governance, helping companies establish their own data governance organizations to effectively manage their data.

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