Babies should not be murdered by poorly maintained databases!

By DJ Kelly May 2, 2008

Also available on the Calgary Herald’s Q.

Databases are important. As a marketer I often preach this to my clients. As a matter of fact, a couple years back I told one that I was working for that if the building caught on fire there was only one thing they had to rescue: their computer server. That computer contained 10 years worth of client data and was, as far as I’m concerned, irreplaceable. I only half-kiddingly said, ‘the company will continue with a new building, you can train new staff, you can do your work with new equipment, but you cannot do business without the information included in that database.’

This past week databases and death collided in real life.

You no doubt have heard the story of the NE Calgary family that lost their child when it took paramedics 30 minutes to respond after they first dialled 911. What happened? It turns out this family has an VOIP phone – also known as an internet phone. The problem is these phones have developed a reputation as being unreliable when calling 911 – deservingly so in this case. The first time the family called for an ambulance they got a support tech – and promptly got disconnected. The second time they called they did finally get connected to emergency services. However before they could give all their data to the dispatcher they were disconnected again. Thinking they passed on enough info they waited for an ambulance to arrive. It never did. (Until a neighbour called from a good old fashion land line.)

So what went wrong? And what does a database have to do with it? Well, it turns out an ambulance was dispatched. To the family’s old address in Ontario. It seems, while the family’s billing information and IP information was updated in the internet phone company’s database, nobody ever updated their emergency contact info. And now a child is dead and a family is grieving with the worst lost imaginable.

In the company’s process ensuring they have the correct address to send a bill to was more important than ensuring the emergency services address was right. Two databases instead of one. Why?

I will remember this example next time I run into a database situation that drives me nuts. Like having Telus tell me it will take 3 months to clear my account after cancelling my home phone line, because their internet and telephone services are on a different billing cycle and are different databases. I’ll take a deep breath, sigh, think about how such a similarly small thing led to the death of a baby in north-east Calgary and thank God no one will die because my ex-phone company can’t keep their customers happy.

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