Thursday, 29 January 2015

Accuracy and meaning

My eye was caught this morning by two unrelated news items but which have in common the ideas of accuracy and meaning. How can a seemingly small change be significant?

In some ways my first isn't a small change: the BBC Arabic Service have said they will not describe an act as terrorism or a person as a terrorist. Instead the terminology will be more specific, such as bomber or attacker or gunman. There's an interesting analysis of this by Memphis Barker in the Independent. Apparently this stance is already reflected in the BBC's editorial guidelines which say that the BBC "does not ban the use of the word. However, we do ask that careful thought is given to its use by a BBC voice."

The word itself is interesting in that it derives from the French terrorisme which specifically referred to the then French government's reign of terror.

That said, use of the word, and by extension any emotive word, needs to be carefully considered, especially if it has connotations beyond its literal meaning. Such risk can be exacerbated when working out pithy and attractive headings for web pages (and stories in newspapers), and avoidance of such problems is part of the skill of the newspaper sub-editor. If you're writing for a blog or web site then you will also be taking on that role. If you're an organisation like the BBC then communicating with 'your voice' is also a factor. Are your clients big enough to think this way too?

My second example is something to strike fear into the hearts of anyone running databases: can a small error be catastrophic?

In recording data about companies that had been wound up, the UK companies registrar, Companies House, accidentally failed to notice a letter 'S' in a company name that should not have been there. Taylor & Sons Ltd had not gone into liquidation, it was Taylor & Son Ltd. As this Guardian piece explains, that single letter cost Taylor & Sons dear ... it really did go out of business ... and now, even though they corrected the mistake after three days, Companies House have to carry the can to the tune of what is likely to be several million pounds.

This kind of error can be caused during data prep, when the data is input, or during processing or data retrieval. From your company point of view, it would probably be covered by professional indemnity insurance, should there be a financial liability. Sometimes, however, it might just be embarrassing. In the BBC Domesday Project, an inadvertent error made the UK seem to be highly radioactive. Fortunately it was noticed before publication and fixed by a software engineer doing the data equivalent of a high wire act to correct a single byte of data.

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