Field Notes: Building Data Dictionaries

The scariest ghost stories I know take place when the history of data — how it’s collected, how it’s used, and what it’s meant to represent — becomes an oral history, passed down as campfire stories from one generation of analysts to another like a spooky game of telephone.

These stories include eerie phrases like “I’m not sure where that comes from”, “I think that broke a few years ago and I’m not sure if it was fixed”, and the ever-ominous “the guy who did that left”. When hearing these stories, one can imagine that a written history of the data has never existed — or if it has, it’s overgrown with ivy and tech-debt in an isolated statuary, never to be used again.


The best defense I’ve found against relying on an oral history is creating a written one.

Enter the data dictionary. A data dictionary is a “centralized repository of information about data such as meaning, relationships to other data, origin, usage, and format”, and provides us with a framework to store and share all of the institutional knowledge we have about our data.

As part of my role as a lead data scientist at a start-up, building a data dictionary was one of the first tasks I took on (started during my first week on the job). Learning about our data is a crucial part of onboarding for data-focused roles, and documenting that journey in the form of a data dictionary provides a useful data asset for the company (which helps to preserve institutional knowledge) and simultaneously provides a good resource for analyzing the data. 

My data dictionary is a Google Sheets workbook that looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 11.31.56 AM

I use one sheet for each database, and the same fields throughout:

  • Table: the table name, exactly the way it appears in the database
  • Table Notes: general notes on the table, like the theme of the data in the table, how often it gets updated, and where it comes from
  • Field: the field name, exactly as it appears in the database
  • Definition: a user-friendly (often long-form) definition of the field
  • Example value: used to show what data in that field actually looks like
  • Field notes: general notes on the field, sometimes including values, caveats or notes of interest, and places (like tables) to find more information about that field

Yours doesn’t have to look like this, and I’ve seen data dictionaries with other fields and structures, but feel free to borrow mine if you’re looking for a format to start with and riff on — it’s worked well for me so far.

Lessons Learned and Best Practices

I’ve built at least half a dozen data dictionaries for various companies, and through that experience, some personal best practices have shaken out:

1. Start small and iterate

A couple of times while building a data dictionary, I tried to document every piece of data I found while spelunking around my company’s database, which was very painful and not a great use of time. Don’t do this.

Focus on starting with the data that’s important and useful to you and documenting those fields or tables. Then, as you incorporate more data from other tables or databases, focus on documenting those incrementally. Avoid shaving the yak. 

2. Answer your own frequently asked questions

Over time, I’ve found myself asking the same questions over and over again about data lineage and usage, so those are the questions I try to answer when building and filling in a data dictionary. Here’s a basic list of questions to consider:

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 1.22.57 PM

3. Consider who will be using your data dictionary and how

The structure, content, and location of your data dictionary should be very different if your context is for analyst use in the trenches vs. for business stakeholder understanding. It could also look different depending on the people or groups who will be using it as a reference.

For example, my data dictionaries tend to contain notes pertaining to analyzing the data that others might not need — things I might edit or remove if I were creating a shared cross-functional resource. I’ve also created versions of data dictionaries that are structured as documents rather than spreadsheets, a format that lends itself well to going very in-depth about fields (if you can’t fit that info in a spreadsheet cell) or sharing with less-technical folks alongside a deliverable (like an analysis). These also make a great first draft to be turned into a more shareable version later.

4. Plan for a living document

For a data dictionary to be useful, it has to be kept up-to-date. This is a challenge that straddles both technical and cultural realms.

Technically, to keep a data dictionary up-to-date, it should to be straightforward for collaborators to access and update. It’s also helpful to be able to see when these updates are made to track important changes. Culturally, the importance of a data dictionary should be acknowledged, and upkeep should be incentivized. It’s easy to skip documentation if it’s not required or seen as important, and this is how documentation grows stale (and eventually dies when deemed worthless).

I’ll freely admit that I have yet to implement a data dictionary that perfectly addresses both of these challenges, but I’m working on it, and others have made good suggestions on the “how” below that I plan to incorporate in my own work.

Improvements + More Discussion

There are a few things about my own data dictionaries that could be improved. Namely, I plan to make my data dictionary more “internally public” (as something like a Github wiki or a Confluence page), and add it to source / version control (git) to track changes.

Some of my biggest concerns are making sure that others know about, have access to, and can use and update any data dictionaries I’m building. Some of this is cultural and some of this is technical, so I’m doing by best to tackle these concerns as I’m building, and asking others for advice along the way.

For more ideas and best practices around data dictionaries, check out these two Twitter threads which are full of great suggestions. If you’ve built a data dictionary and have some best practices to share, or if you have questions about how to get started, please feel free to chime in on Twitter or as a comment here.