Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Ontology Mismatch Case Study: Customers & Obligors

Here is a real world example (from a major bank) of the problems of ontology mismatches between different silo systems whose data must never-the-less be integrated. Some systems have the concept of "customer" and implement a customer entity and customer key. Other systems (which do not talk to each other, i.e. there is no universal "system of record" for person or legal entity) have a customer concept, but they are distributed geographically and they have a different key for each state or regional location, and they are called "obligors". So, obligors should be a simple one-to-many relationship to customers.

However, since errors are made by the automated contact address parsing algorithms that try to figure out which customer is associated with which obligor, multiple customers can be associated with a single obligor. Hence, customers and obligors have a many-to-many relationship, and therefore, customers are many-to-many within themselves! Obligors are many-to-many within themselves! Customers not only have duplicates for the same person, they don't always represent a definite person or even set of definite people. They are vague and refer to parts of multiple people. Customers are effectively anything with a customer ID! Very existential.

A particular obligor (which, again, should be a particular customer in a particular location) was linked with three customers: JoeBlow, JaneBlow, a-customer-with-Jane's-name-and-Joe's-SSN! To make things worse, the attempt to clean up customers by defining them as a role of a "legal entity" didn't work in this case because the "customer" was really a married-household which was not a "legal entity" because it doesn't have its own tax id! Even worse, the rationale that legal entities are those things that are separately liable for money demands ignores the fact that both parties in a married household are liable (but even then differing on a state by state basis). Whew!

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