Numbers Don’t Lie, But People Do

Business intelligence tools aren't of much use unless you put reliable data into your systems, and that's why RFID can be so important.
Published: February 11, 2010

An article in The New York Times suggests that the New York City police force manipulated crime data to make the city appear safer than it really is (see Retired Officers Raise Questions on Crime Data). “The retired members of the force reported that they were aware over the years of instances of ‘ethically inappropriate’ changes to complaints of crimes in the seven categories measured by the department’s signature CompStat program, according to a summary of the results of the survey and interviews with the researchers who conducted it,” the Times wrote.

I find this interesting, because CompStat is the department’s tool for discerning where crimes occur, and for determining where to deploy patrolmen. It’s credited with helping to bring down crime in New York City. But it turns out that police manipulated the data. For instance, thefts of items worth more than $1,000 must be recorded in CompStat, so the officers looked up the value of items on eBay to come up with a lower price than a victim reported, in order to avoid having to report a crime.

This shows how human nature can prevent companies—and police departments—from obtaining the accurate information they need to achieve their goals. And it happens all the time. An employee doesn’t want to get in trouble for not replenishing items on a pick list, so he claims he picked them. The inventory-management system thus shows the goods as being on the floor when they really aren’t. Analysis of the data subsequently suggests the company is doing a good job of managing inventory—when, in fact, it is not.

RFID can help by automating the collection of certain types of data (it will never automate the process of updating the crime database). At American Apparel‘s stores that have an RFID inventory-management system installed, inventory is updated in the company’s database when a tag is read on an item as someone brings it from the back of the store to the sales floor. If someone is in a hurry, a tag might be missed, but it can be picked up later when employees take inventory on the floor with handhelds. When American Apparel analyzes this information, it knows the data is extremely accurate, and can thus have more confidence in any conclusion drawn from it.

I have heard countless stories from folks in every industry regarding how the data they use is unreliable because workers enter information incorrectly into a database, or fail to scan a bar code, or scan a bar code twice, and so forth. RFID systems aren’t perfect. It’s always possible to miss a tag, but it’s usually more accurate than people are. And as systems improve, companies will get much more out of their business intelligence tools, because they’ll be analyzing much more accurate data.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.