Data Management

Data Standards

Standards make it easier to create, share, and integrate data by making sure that there is a clear understanding of how the data are represented and that the data you receive are in a form that you expected.

What are Data Standards?

What are Data Standards?

Data standards are the rules by which data are described and recorded. In order to share, exchange, and understand data, we must standardize the format as well as the meaning.

Why do we need Data Standards? 

Using standards makes using things easier. For example, let's say you need a AAA battery for your flashlight. You don't need to worry about the make of the battery, since all AAA batteries are the same size - because they are produced to a standard. You don't need to worry about getting a specific brand of AAA battery, since all AAA batteries will work in your flashlight.

The Bureau of Land Management notes that "Standards provide data integrity, accuracy and consistency, clarify ambiguous meanings, minimize redundant data, and document business rules." Utilizing data standards allows the agency to move from "project-based" data files to "enterprise" data files - and vice versa. In other words, the data become usable to more than just the project or person that created the data, because you know the data will be in an expected format and you know what is represented by the data.

If different groups are using different data standards, combining data from multiple sources is difficult, if not impossible. If we go back to the case of needing a battery for our flashlight, if there were no standards for AAA batteries, then we wouldn't be able to use just any AAA battery. We'd have to find one specific for our make and model of flashlight. You'd have to have many sets of AAA batteries in your house, one that worked for each item, instead of one set that works in all applicable cases.


Data Standard Examples 

Name: Latitude

Code Name: cor_lat_meas

Format: CHAR(16)

Definition: Coordinate Latitude is the angle between the plane of the reference ellipsoid's equator and a normal to the ellipsoid surface. It is formatted by direction, degrees, minutes, decimal seconds (60 24 32.56 N). This item is analogous to the 'Y' value of a rectangular coordinate system.

FGDC Alias: Y Coordinate

FGDC Definition: This is the Y Coordinate value or northing for a coordinate set.


Another example that relates to data is how we format a date value. We can note a date as:

  • April 2, 1974
  • 04-02-74
  • 04/02/1974
  • 4/2/74
  • 19740402
  • 04021974 - is this April 2 or February 4?
  • 2 April 1974

If you were trying to integrate datasets from different sources, each of which used a different format for their date variable, it would be a much harder task since you would have to convert the dates into a common format before you could integrate the data. If everyone agreed upon what standard they were going to use for dates, then you wouldn't have to do this extra step.


A structured data element name gives us:

  • An informative name
  • A description and definition
  • The ability to assign unique, consistent names
  • The ability to identify the natural relationships of data
  • The ability to identify all of the uses of a data element


Where can I find Data Standards? 

When collecting new data, existing Data Standards should always be used where applicable. The FGDC develops geospatial Data Standards only when no equivalent voluntary consensus standards exist, in accordance with OMB Circular A-119. Some sources for Data Standards are:


Data Administrators / Data Stewards 

These are individuals who design the data and control the way information is represented, and ensure that data can be used for all business needs. See Plan > Data Stewardship for more information.


Data Dictionaries 

Data Dictionaries contain structured data names for people to use. See Describe > Data Dictionaries for more information.


What the U.S. Geological Survey Manual Requires: 

The USGS Survey Manual Chapter 502.2 - Fundamental Science Practices: Planning and Conducting Data Collection and Research addresses data and metadata standards:

"The data collected and the techniques used by USGS scientists should conform to or reference national and international standards and protocols if they exist and when they are relevant and appropriate. For datasets of a given type, and if national or international metadata standards exist, the data are indexed with metadata that facilitate access and integration."

USGS Survey Manual Chapter SM 502.6 - Fundamental Science Practices: Scientific Data Management Foundation specifies that a data management plan will include standards and intended actions as appropriate to the project for acquiring, processing, analyzing, preserving, publishing/sharing, describing, and managing the quality of, backing up, and securing the data holdings.



  • Chatfield, T., Selbach, R. February, 2011. Data Management for Data Stewards. Data Management Training Workshop. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).