Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Consequences Of Data Mutability

Today's blog, like yesterday's blog, is based on a discussion in Principles of Big Data: Preparing, Sharing, and Analyzing Complex Information. The book's table of contents is shown in an earlier blog.

Here is an example of a immutability problem:  You are a pathologist working in a university hospital that has just installed a new, $600 million information system. On Tuesday, you released a report on a surgical biopsy, indicating that it contained cancer. On Friday morning, you showed the same biopsy to your colleagues, who all agreed that the biopsy was not malignant, and contained a benign condition that simulated malignancy (looked a little like a cancer, but was not).  Your original diagnosis was wrong, and now you must rectify the error.  You return to the computer, and access the prior report, changing the wording of the diagnosis to indicate that the biopsy is benign.  You can do this, because pathologists are granted "edit" access for pathology reports.  Now, everything seems to have been set right.  The report has been corrected, and the final report in the computer is official diagnosis.

Unknown to you, the patient's doctor read the incorrect report on Wednesday, the day after the incorrect report was issued, and two days before the correct report replaced the incorrect report. Major surgery was scheduled for the following Wednesday (five days after the corrected report was issued).  Most of the patient's liver was removed.  No cancer was found in the excised liver.  Eventually, the surgeon and patient learned that the original report had been altered.  The patient sued the surgeon, the pathologist, and the hospital.

You, the pathologist, argued in court that the computer held one report issued by the pathologist (following the deletion of the earlier, incorrect report) and that report was correct.  Therefore, you said, you made no error.  The patient's lawyer had access to a medical chart in which paper versions of the diagnosis had been kept.  The lawyer produced, for the edification of the jury, two reports from the same pathologist, on the same biopsy: one positive for cancer, the other benign.  The hospital, conceding that they had no credible defense, settled out of court for a very large quantity of money. Meanwhile, back in the hospital, a fastidious intern is deleting an erroneous diagnosis, and substituting his improved rendition.

One of the most important features of serious Big Data resources (such as the data collected in hospital information systems) is immutability.  The rule is simple.  Data is immortal and cannot change.  You can add data to the system, but you can never alter data and you can never erase data.  Immutability is counterintuitive to most people, including most data analysts.  If a patient has a glucose level of 100 on Monday, and the same patient has a glucose level of 115 on Tuesday, then it would seem obvious that his glucose level changed.  Not necessarily so.  Monday's glucose level remains at 100.  For the end of time, Monday's glucose level will always be 100.  On Tuesday, another glucose level was added to the record for the patient.  Nothing that existed prior to Tuesday was changed.

The key to maintaining immutability in Big Data resources is time-stamping.  In the next blog, we will discuss how data objects hold time-stamped events. 

key words: mutability, archiving, dystopia, George Orwell, newspeak, persistence, persistent data, saving data, immutability, time-stamp, time stamp, altered data, data integrity 

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