Welcome to “Through the Looking Glass,” my new column on TDAN.com.
In this and future columns, I will look at data from diverse and even eccentric perspectives, presenting fresh and sometimes whimsical views of these much-discussed topics.
Readers of TDAN.com may recall my previous articles where I explored data governance from the perspective of classical music. Similarly, I will delve into other ways to think about the world of data, drawing on my decade and a half of experience in this field along with my eclectic interests, from Shakespeare, AI, and Lewis Carroll, to, in this case, J.R.R. Tolkien and his masterwork, The Lord of The Rings.
You see, I have been reflecting on data stewardship as of late, and stewardship is of critical importance to Tolkien’s world. But more on that later. In our world, Data Stewards are sought-after individuals today. I have seen many “data steward” job postings over the last six months and read much discussion about the role in various periodicals and postings. I have always agreed with my editor’s conviction that everyone is a data steward, accountable for the data they create, manage, and use. Nevertheless, the role of data steward, as a job and as a career, has established itself in the view of many companies as essential to improving data governance and management.
It strikes me that all the data steward job descriptions, role explanations, and training materials, I have come across rarely mention the concept of stewardship itself. This has not always been the case. Trevor W. M. Plant wrote extensively about information stewardship vs. ownership in his thesis, Whose Information is It Anyway? An Argument for Information Stewardship. Published in 1997, many of Plant’s observations about Information Resource Management reflect the state of data management and governance today:
Information Resource Management (IRM) has as its goal, the management of information as a resource, but has not been implemented with the level of success expected. Problems with the implementation of IRM are indicated by the presence of redundant or inconsistent data, inability to share information across systems, and difficulty finding the information on systems.
“Information Stewardship” is a concept like Data Stewardship and may even predate it, based on my brief survey of articles on these topics. Plant gives an excellent summary of the essence of stewardship in this context:
Stewardship requires the acceptance by the user that the information belongs to the organization as a whole, not any one individual. The information should be shared as needed and monitored for changes in value.
Charles Roe even went back to the Old English root of the word “steward” in his article, So You Want To Be a Data Steward, to describe metaphorically the role of the data steward:
Data Stewards “own” data, or to be more precise, Data Stewards are responsible for the data owned by the enterprise. If the enterprise is the old-world Lord’s Estate, then the Data Stewardship Team consists of the people who watch over the lifeblood of the estate, including the shepherds who make sure the data is flowing smoothly from field to field, safe from internal and external predators, safe from inclement weather, and safe from disease.
The questions Roe and Plant raise about data stewardship vs. data ownership deserve a column of their own, but for now, I continue with a brief aside about how I came, quite independent of Roe, to look for the original meaning of steward.
One of my new hobbies is listening to podcasts (yes, really, I had never listened to a podcast prior to 2020). One day, I had the notion to search for podcasts about The Lord of The Rings and found The Prancing Pony Podcast. The hosts, Alan Sisto and Shawn E. Marchese, honor Tolkien’s devotion to philology with frequent digressions to “word nerdery,” delving into the backstory of words, both English and Elvish. They introduced me to the Online Etymology Dictionary, so just as Roe had done for his article, I looked up the word “steward”:
Old English stiward, stigweard “house guardian, housekeeper,” from stig “hall, pen for cattle, part of a house” (see sty (n.1)) + weard “guard” (from Proto-Germanic *wardaz “guard,” from PIE root *wer- (3) “perceive, watch out for”).
Used after the Conquest as the equivalent of Old French seneschal (q.v.). Meaning “overseer of workmen” is attested from c. 1300. The sense of “officer on a ship in charge of provisions and meals” is first recorded mid-15c.; extended to trains 1906. This was the title of a class of high officers of the state in early England and Scotland, hence meaning “one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer” (late 14c.). Meaning “person who supervises arrangements” at a meeting, dinner, etc., is from 1703.
“House guardian,” “overseer of workmen,” “one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer;” all of these can be related to modern day Data Stewardship, as Roe did in his fine article. But given my podcast-fueled immersion in the Tolkien Legendarium (which includes The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of The Rings), I thought of the Ruling Stewards of Gondor, who Tolkien introduced in The Two Towers.
We learn first about the stewards from Faramir, son of the then current Steward of Gondor, Denethor. Faramir describes how the stewards governed Gondor (the great kingdom of Men holding the forces of darkness at bay) for many generations following the death of their last king. As Michael Martinez describes them in his blog, The Men Who Would be Steward, “Guardianship is the mark of the Stewards of Gondor. They are guardians, wardens, keeping an ancient trust placed in their hands by a family of kings which, at the end of the Third Age, no longer exists.”
What has always struck me as particularly honorable about the stewards is how they adhered to the guiding principle that they were caretakers of the realm, never considering usurping the crown. If data stewardship is the care of data, a critical asset of the enterprise, on behalf of the organization, then what better metaphor to reference that the Stewards of Gondor?
How does this relate to the present world of data and information, not feudal kingdoms, estates of nobility, or realms of fantasy? On a whim, I search the Online Etymology Dictionary for “Data Steward,” hoping to have it return some Norse heroic legend. Sadly, that did not happen. But, while my query returned the same information on “Steward” as before, for “Data,” I found this:
1640s, “a fact given or granted,” classical plural of datum, from Latin datum “(thing) given,” neuter past participle of dare “to give” (from PIE root *do- “to give”). In classical use originally “a fact given as the basis for calculation in mathematical problems.” From 1897 as “numerical facts collected for future reference.”
“A fact given or granted.” In data circles, we talk a lot
about “Trusted Data” and “Reliable Data,” but the root of the word is a fact
that is inherently trustworthy, ready to use in calculations, and by reasonable
extension, analysis and decision making. Data where trust is a given. Isn’t
that the ultimate measure of successful data stewardship? To strengthen data
management and governance to the point where data can truly be a trusted
enterprise asset, ready for use in critical business processes, advanced
analytics, and innovative products?
 Plant, T. W. M. (1997) Whose Information Is It Anyway? An Argument For Information Stewardship [Master’s Thesis, Air Force Institute of Technology]. Homeland Security Digital Library. https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=3384
 Ibid, pg. viii
 Ibid, pg 26
 Roe, Charles (2012) “So You Want to be a Data Steward”. Dataversity. https://www.dataversity.net/so-you-want-to-be-a-data-steward/#.
 Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of The Rings, 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, May 2004, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, pg. 670.
 Martinez, Michael (June 2013) “The Men Who Would Be Steward”, Middle-Earth Blog. https://middle-earth.xenite.org/the-men-who-would-be-steward/