Every day we hear about data - the stuff that's on our hard drives, the digital guts of everything we do, such as sending e-mail, snapping pictures, reading Web pages, shopping for groceries, registering for school or sending flowers.
At the very lowest level, data is made up of ones and zeros saved on a disk or as electrical charges on a memory chip or microprocessor. But data must be organized or it's only noise.
Data are organized in packets of information that zip around the Internet, or that are saved on CDs, DVDs and flash drives. In the word processing documents on your computer, the data is the text, of course, but there's also information that determines the file type and formatting such as the font, type size, margins, etc. With digital images, the data is the individual pixels.
So, data must be organized, and organized in an organized way. That's even more true with database programs used to store and retrieve information such as names and addresses for mailing lists, inventory at the auto parts store or grocery store, and on and on. Databases can be general in design and have a wide variety of uses, such as the database program you likely have installed on your computer, or they can be custom written for special tasks that require a high degree of reliability or deal with large amounts of data.
Some applications you already use work like databases. You can use a word processor like a simple database by typing in names and addresses for a mailing list, but it wouldn't be as efficient as a pure database program. A spreadsheet can be used as a database, too. It stores information and calculates on demand, and with the click of a column information can be sorted alphabetically or numerically.
A true database, however is more efficient in terms of searching for particular information. A database program is designed to be very efficient and safe with data, and to do those things very well. Databases allow information to be presented on demand; data stays organized and available until requested by the user or another program.
Some database systems are tiny in terms of the amount space they take up on a computer and go through years of tests before they are put to use in satellites and spacecraft, for example, where reliability is the most important aspect. Some databases hold much more information, such as the one used at Ancestry.com, which claims to have approximately 600 terabytes of genealogical data, or the equivalent of 300 billion printed pages. (A terabyte is 1 trillion bytes, or a 1,000 gigabytes; most PCs have hard drives in the 100- to 500-gigabyte range.)
You may have heard of or read the acronym "SQL," which stands for structured query language. That's language as in computer language for communicating with a database. Query is what you do when you retrieve information from a database. And structured means the query language is precisely organized to work with data. Many databases use SQL or a form of SQL. (There are different ways to pronounce SQL; some say "S-Q-L," some say "sequel" and some say "ess-queue-ell.")
SQL is highly efficient in terms of the time it takes to access a database. Every tiny bit of a second longer it takes to supply information can really add up, for example, at a company with 1,000 employees using the same database or on a retailer's Web site that thousands of customers are trying to access at the same time.
If you use a blog or a content management system, more than likely you're using MySQL - which obviously stands for "My SQL" - an open-source database system. MySQL is the database behind tens of millions of blogs and management systems. Storing all your posts in a database is a much more efficient way for a blog to work than having separate pages specially coded for each post.
If you use Microsoft Office on your computer, the database program Access is included. Access is a powerful tool, and if you want to try it out, look for templates that will get you started with cataloging CDs or creating a mailing list. On older Macintosh computers, try the Appleworks database. On a newer Mac, MySQL is included, though the learning curve is steep and you'll need to use Google to find a user-friendly front end for it. FileMaker is a great database for both Windows and Mac computers that is easy to use and very extendable. Go to www.filemaker.com. The free OpenOffice suite at www.openoffice.org includes a database called Base.
Even if you don't use a database at home or work, you probably still benefit from one every day.
Every news Web site you visit employs some kind of database on its back end; it's the only possible way to manage updating a site during a 24/7 news cycle, as well as manage archived stories, classified advertising and reader comments. Checking out at the grocery store involves the terminal referring to a database for price and inventory each time an item is scanned, and swiping your ATM card queries your bank's database.
It's difficult to think of anything that doesn't use a database in some form in the modern world.
Follow-up: David Pogue at the New York Times reviews several new consumer products that hope to make easier the transition from analog to digital for photo prints, cassette tapes and LPs: www.snurl.com/2e4g3.
Mark Ratledge is an information technology consultant in Missoula. Contact him through his Web site and blog at http://www.songdogtech.net.