Know-your-borders

Borderlands

I’m always banging on about how important it is to take borders into account when managing data.  What works on one side of a border will very likely not work on the other.  Many think that, with globalisation and with borders coming down throughout the world, cultures on either side of them will start to merge into a homogenous entity.  This does not square with reality.

The border between The Netherlands and Germany is completely open – if you can find where it actually is you can cross backwards and forwards all day every day and not ever be stopped or controlled (though you might attract the curiosity of the locals).

But don’t be fooled – even porous and largely invisible borders like these hide major differences.  I recently moved just 7 km into Germany from The Netherlands. On a clear day, from my house on top of a hill (yes, they have those in Germany – they start just after the border) I can see the windmills on the Dutch side of the border (yes, really!).  Without veering off the subject of data too much (I’d like to tell you about the quality of German tea, the price of German coffee and having to be interviewed by a bank manager to open an account, the first time that’s ever happened to me in my 51 years!) here are some of the major differences I’ve been noticing on this side of the border. In fact, apart from using the same currency, writing date elements in the same order, and both using the comma as a decimals delimiter in numbers, it’s been hard to find similarities.

A different language is spoken

Though the Dutch optimistically believe that Germans along the border can manage Dutch, we haven’t found one yet. When I ask somebody if they speak Dutch (which I do often, as my German is still hopeless) the victim either freezes with a look of total horror on their face, or they just laugh.  The languages use slightly different alphabets (Dutch, for example, has the extra letter/dipthong: IJ), they contain different diacritical marks, and even the punctuation can vary – ‟Dutch” quotation marks but „German‟ quotation marks.  And, to manage these differences, different keyboards are used – Germans have a QWERTZ instead of a QWERTY keyboard.  As I am an old dog not wanting to learn too many new tricks, I’m glad I can easily pop back across the open border to buy my computer hardware.

Badly localised websites (most of them, unfortunately) ignore local settings and user preferences and present themselves in the new country’s languages.  Sites such as Google’s Blogspot and Blogger mercilessly change their interface language every time a border is crossed, as though the customer can magically learn that new language just by crossing the border.

If only it were that easy!

The legal framework for data, its collection and its use are all different. No Google StreetView in Germany, for example.  If you want to know what’s going on in my front room here, you’ll have to pop along in person.

Telephone numbers are structured differently, and are much shorter – or much longer – in Germany. In The Netherlands they’re all one length. Germans (from the Duke down to the dustmen) expect formal forms of address to be used, completely opposite to Dutch informality.  Personal names are different, company legal forms are different and, given the way that the German language works, company and thoroughfare names are longer too.

Then there’s the addressing system.  But that’s another story – one I’ll be tackling in next month’s post.

Countries have internal borders too.  Bad Bentheim, where I now live, is in the Land (province) of Niedersachsen, but just 4 km to the south is the border with Nordrhein-Westfalen.  They have windmills too.  And BBC television, which Niedersachsen does not have.  I’m wondering if my local DIY store stocks 4 km lengths of coax cable – how can anybody survive Saturday evening without Strictly Come Dancing?

Even when a border hardly appears to exist, the differences on either side can be immense, and there is little to suggest that these differences will disappear in the short or medium term. Don’t be fooled – you need to know about these differences when working with data from both countries.