Data Integrity: What It Is + Best Practices for Businesses

June 21, 2018


What is Data Integrity?

Data integrity, as a state of data, refers to the accuracy, consistency, and reliability of data stored in databases, data warehouses, data marts, or any of your internal data storage locations, such as a CRM.

But what does that really mean? Well, data integrity is all about your data being correct and reliable no matter where its stored and no matter how long you’ve had it. You could think of it as your data quality.

Having your data correct means it must be completely accurate for its entire lifecycle. From the business rules, relations, and dates, to definitions and lineage, it must all be accurate and consistent.

Why Data Integrity for Your Business?

You have data, there’s no doubt, but if that data isn’t reliable, what good will it be to your business?

Data integrity means your data is usable internally. It ensures your data is recoverable, searchable, traceable (to origin) and connected. Time wasted on looking for the right data or the right version of data can hurt your business in efficiency alone.

Because your data integrity is an integral part of both business intelligence and cyber security, without reliable data, both of these processes become unreliable.

  • Business Intelligence: Data is becoming a bigger factor in decision-making at all levels of an organization. This is where data integrity and business intelligence intersect. You want to be able to trust the data you rely on for your next acquisition beyond a shadow of a doubt.
  • Cyber Security: Data integrity is a focus in many cyber security and data security plans – meaning, as part of your own cyber security process, data integrity needs to be built in. Data integrity has become part of a bigger security methodology that includes backup, replication, constraints, validation processes, and more.

Compromised data is of little use to you, so ensure your data integrity is part of your solutions and not adding to your problems.

What Can Compromise Data Integrity?

Your data integrity can be manipulated by many different factors, including:

  • Being hacked and distorted through a ransomware act;
  • Being corrupted upon transmission;
  • Accessed by the wrong person in your company who doesn’t have all of the information right and makes a false change; or
  • An under-qualified employee who input the data incorrectly from the beginning.

If you think about all the data you have and the length of time you’ve had it, these possibilities don’t seem so far out of reach.

Having data that is corrupt can be a liability for a company. Minimizing the risk of data integrity can’t be pinned on one particular act; you need to ensure your data integrity through creating a data integrity process for your company.

What Can You Do to Ensure Data Integrity?

Earlier in this article, we talked about data integrity as the state of your data; however, data integrity isn’t just a state of your data, it’s also a process.

An entire process for data integrity needs to be established in your company, set into motion, and audited for compliance. Your data integrity process should be comprehensive to meet regulations, support your data throughout its lifetime, and ensure standards can be met internally.

A well-defined process put into practice with continuous improvement at the heart of it will set you up for success.

Here are 10 steps you can follow to ensure you data integrity process is top notch:

1. FDA Regulation Compliance

All computer systems need to be 21 CRF Part 11 compliant. You can find those guidelines here. These guidelines ensure that all electronic records are trustworthy and reliable – equivalent to paper records. If a computer system stores data used to make quality decisions, this compliance is not just a best practice – it’s a requirement. Having the right hardware is essential to your data integrity. Your data integrity is tied to this regulation, so it’s a great place to start.

2. Internal Audits

Before you get started creating your data integrity procedures, it’s important to do an internal audit. You may think you know the quality of your data, but it may not actually be where you think it is. Find out what errors need to be righted and what weaknesses you may have in your existing data integrity process. As you move forward, keep completing regular audits so you feel confident that your procedures are being followed and your data integrity is maximized.

3. Software Development Lifecycle

A what? Basically, this means that your software needs to be tested. Over the lifecycle of a software program, quality-related tests should be performed to make sure the software is still qualified to do what it’s supposed to do and that it’s secure. Testing your software throughout its lifecycle helps oversee your many software platforms to make sure nothing is out of date or under-performing. Regular checks are key for success here.

4. Validate your Computer Systems

Now that you’ve done your audit and corrected any errors, your new data integrity process is in place. You can set up a process for your data, but are you sure your systems are completing this process fully and without error? Work with vendors who provide validation to ensure your computer systems provide documented evidence that your processes and procedures are consistently meeting pre-determined quality markers. Basically, don’t set it and forget it. Trusting your data integrity process is working without evidence to back it up won’t give your true peace of mind.

5. Audit Trails

A trail of your data can be a life-saver in a lot of different situations. For data integrity purposes, an audit trail can trace a single piece of data back to its origin. If you need to check in on any changes or deletions, an audit trail will record the identity, date, and time of any such event.

6. Error Detection Software

Human error happens, it’s just part of it. Getting an automated inspection software can help eliminate such errors on your important documents. Accuracy in your data is, after all, one of the most important factors in data integrity. Don’t leave it to chance, aka, manual proofreading.

7. Limited System Access

As mentioned above, it’s possible that someone who shouldn’t be able to access certain files could create errors, either my mistake or maliciously. Limit access to important data by implementing logins. For your data, it’s best to make sure two pieces of information are needed for someone to access it.

8. User Training

User training is such an important part of data security and integrity. Make sure your employees know how they’re supposed to handle data and what data is and is not off-limits for their role. Document that training as proof in case you ever need to refer back to it.

9. Backup and Recovery

Your backup and recovery system should be in place in case of an unexpected event that leads to data loss. You can choose how often to backup your data and a Managed Service Provider may be able to help you determine what’s right for your company. If your data is lost for whatever reason, you’re able to restore it from the last backup, ensuring the integrity of your database.

10. Manage Vendors

Make sure your vendors are supplying quality products that meet your needs and requirements, first and foremost. If a vendor will be handling your data in any way, shape, or form, make sure they know what your expectations are. In order to make your standards of care and processes clear to a vendor, it’s great to have an established vendor management qualification process in place. You are liable for your data integrity no matter what vendor may have interacted with or handled it.

Make Data Integrity a Priority

If you think your internal uses for your data aren’t critical enough to stress over data integrity, refer to the FDA’s Data Integrity Guidance Document which outlines compliance and the tole of data integrity for industries. It’s nothing to shake a stick at and it can be quite a bear to get in order if you haven’t put much thought into the process before.

Data integrity as a process should be a priority for your business, no matter the size of your company. Having inaccurate data can have huge consequences for large and small businesses alike.

Use this as a guide to audit your data and create a process that works for your company. If you need help taking this on, contact a Managed Service Provider with experience in data integrity, data audits, business intelligence, and cyber security.

Make sure your data is an asset and not a liability.