What is Reference Data?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Reference data is information about the nature and location of anything from other data to objects. It is used to create a database for quickly and accurately locating things when needed. Reference data is used in a variety of fields, and it can be organized and stored in a number of different ways, including in digital databases, as well as physical ledgers. Maintaining good reference data is a key part of efficient and effective storage.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

A common example of reference data is a database used to track the locations of objects in physical space. People who need to locate objects can check the database to determine where they are and update the database to reflect changes in the location or number of objects. On its own, the reference data does not have an inherent value, but because it provides a frame of reference for finding things, it becomes critical for the operation and function of the business endeavor.

In information technology, reference data performs the same function. It is an example of high level data used to provide information about what is being stored and where to find it. Users may not interact directly with this part of the data architecture, but it is important to functions from saving documents to finding stored images and videos. The reference data is updated by the system as data changes to make sure it is accurate and complete.

Corruptions to high level data storage can pose a threat to the integrity of the whole system. Just as people may not be able to locate objects in physical space if that section of the database is missing or has garbled information, reference data for an electronic database can become damaged, making it impossible for the system to find lower level data. A user trying to access something will encounter a database error, reflecting the fact that the system tried to get to the data and could not because it did not know where to look.

Maintaining robust data systems involves regularly updating the database, being alert for viruses and other threats, and fixing data architecture as soon as problems start to develop, without waiting for database errors. Typically, companies only support the most recent releases of their products, and thus it is important to buy new editions as they come out, both for security and to ensure that technical support will be available if a problem develops with the database.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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