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Databases for Change

By Bill Nicolich,

This is a guest editorial from Bill Nicolich.

There's a lot of talk about meaningful change this election season. Candidates suggest that casting a vote for them allows people to contribute to change. We'd do well to put some effort into the voting decision - but there's a lot of action that each of us can take in our own spheres to make our country and community a better place. I think database professionals are in a unique position to bring about meaningful change.

While conducting some due dilligence about candidates and the issues, I downloaded Obama's PDF document entitled "The Blueprint for Change - Barack Obama's Plan for America." The document lists some of Obama's ideas for change - and several of them mention the creation of databases.

Under ethics reform, Obama suggests we build a "centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format." Another idea is to create a public "Contracts and Influence" database that will "disclose how much fedreal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them."

Without endorsing any specific candidate, allow me to suggest that if these databases were to be created and made available, I think they would help Washington ethics reform because the information would promote accountability.

One of the reasons why waste and corruption occurs is because information is often difficult and costly to acquire. This is a powerful abstraction that clarifies how database professionals can really make a difference. We can help reduce information costs and help distribute actionable information to people. We can help the education process and hence the process of needed reform.

During normal work hours I often find myself helping various departments clean and improve data, build new data-centric tools for customers, help customers find products with database-driven tools and so forth. The end result is that I help boost company productivity and help generate profits. There's definitely some sense of accomplishment in that. However, I also find myself wishing I could more often use my experience and skills to help some other good causes.

I'd venture to guess there's more than a few database professionals who feel the same way. Not all of us are currently employed somewhere that satisfies the need for cosmic purpose. But even if you are currently working for a great non-profit or government agency doing great things, I'd bet one could think of some projects to work on that could only be accomplished by a database professional that could make a unique contribution.

I visited the Web site of a big non-profit that I'm fond of and noticed they don't have spelling correction. They've got a lot of educational material there and some spelling correction could help people find the content they need. I could help them put the database pieces together. I called them up and asked if I could help, but since then haven't followed through completely. I'm probably not alone with this scenario. I'd bet in the database community there have been many good ideas thought of and not finished. The problem is, not just anybody can do some of the things we can do. It's going to take one of us database professionals to do it. I plan to go back and get that project done.

Whoever is elected in the US will set some projects in motion and will likely help bring about some needed change. But individually we can do more than vote. Perhaps it's time for us to leverage our unique abilities. Since we're not talking about money-making schemes, this line of thinking is more conducive to sharing ideas - so let's do that. Change often requires information collection, processing, retrieval and distribution. That's our bag - so what is it we can do to help things along?

Bill Nicolich


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