Why Test Data is So Hard in Government Organizations

Aaron Francesconi blog feature image - govCDOiq.org

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Nov 08, 2023

To understand why test data in government agencies is so hard, we have to look to the past and understand the impacts of legacy systems still in use today. These legacy systems were built by agencies who were amongst the early adopters of computer processing. Established over decades, these systems encapsulate the technological advancements, changes in IT strategies and methodologies, and the effects of governmental budget constraints on long-term IT investments since the 1960s.

Historical Evolution of Systems in Governmental Bodies

Initially, the adoption of IT systems by government agencies aimed at enhancing processing efficiency. As such, these systems were designed to digitize existing manual processes. Transitioning from paper was groundbreaking for organizational operations. Not surprisingly, early IT systems emulated manual workflows, translating each manual step into a digital action. Although this aided in the shift, it posed distinct challenges, notably in generating test data for subsequent legacy systems.

Legacy systems, while once groundbreaking, are running on antiquated architectures, half century old programming languages, mainframe technologies and deeply interwoven organizational and system dependencies. Modernization has been hindered by tight budgets, longstanding institutional habits, and an aversion to change that’s rooted in organizational culture.

Understanding Legacy System Dynamics

Digital Mirroring of Manual Processes:

  • Input Reflection: Systems emulated manual data entry, transforming physical forms into digital counterparts.
  • Sequential Data Flow: Mimicking paper transition between desks, data transitioned from one process to another in sequence.

Dependencies in Data Flow:

  • Chain of Data: Each digital process output became the input for the next, mirroring a paper trail’s sequence.
  • Chain Disruptions: Interruptions in one stage ripple through the system, affecting subsequent data processes.

Data Handling in Legacy Architectures:

  • Batch Modes: Systems often processed data in batches, reflecting end-of-day paper processing.
  • Strict Formats: Inflexible formats for data input and output meant any deviation led to errors.

Intricacies of Legacy Systems

Embedded in legacy systems are peculiar data management techniques, reminiscent of an era where memory was precious. Legacy systems often represent a hodgepodge of data approaches. They can possess remnants of mainframe data management when space was a prized commodity. Unique tactics like bitwise operations or the use of flags instead of modern Boolean data types were commonplace.

Moreover, the challenge doesn’t end at understanding these archaic techniques. Legacy system interfaces, frequently devoid of documentation, pose enigmas for modern developers. The generation and understanding of test data for these systems are fraught with complexities.

IT Has Come a Long Way Since the 1960s

If creating test data for legacy systems weren’t enough, IT technology has transformed itself multiple times since inception. From its infancy in the 1960s, IT has metamorphosed in numerous ways, from disciplined requirement gathering and enhanced documentation practices to the evolution from monolithic structures to microservices. Cloud technology, sophisticated databases, and the emergence of diverse programming languages and data types highlight this transformative journey.

Add in these new technologies to integrate with existing legacy ecosystems while having to maintain legacy systems can make for a nightmare of creating test data that works in the larger modern ecosystems.

Essentials for Effective Test Data

The complexities of a mixed modern and legacy ecosystem underscores the difficulty of creating test data, especially when measuring against the benchmarks / requirements for quality test data. We need to examine the requirements for test data in general.

The aspects of high-quality test data.

Reflective Nature:

  • Data should emulate real-world scenarios, capturing common to rare edge instances.
  • Test data must account for the myriad data types legacy systems handle.

Consistency and Integrity:

  • Ensuring vertical and horizontal relational consistency as well as cross database/ data source integrity.
  • Format adherence is crucial to avoid false outcomes.
  • The integrity of test data, particularly in maintaining referential integrity across various data inputs (think paper forms, electronic forms, across accounts) , is vital for precise test results.
  • When data elements from one category correspond consistently to those in another, it underscores the system’s cohesive functioning and strengthens trust in data dependability and the authenticity of test outcomes.

Volume and Scalability:

  • Legacy systems need test data of varying scales from small datasets to production sized datasets to gauge performance under different loads.

Security Measures:

  • Safeguarding sensitive information through various techniques.
  • Preventing unauthorized access at the system level.
  • Proper controls on access to systems and data.

Freshness and Reuse:

  • Test data must be updated regularly and designed for reuse across tests to maximize resources.


  • Equally important are data sets that test both system acceptance and rejection criteria.

Environment Adaptability:

  • Test data must be congruent with the specific environments of legacy systems.

Schema flexibility:

  • For effective pre-production system testing, it’s crucial to have flexible test data that can adapt to anticipated legislative changes and the consequential data modifications. This adaptability ensures systems are both responsive and prepared for potential regulatory shifts.

Data Dependencies:

  • Understanding and accounting for data dependencies is crucial, especially in complex systems where outputs from one module might serve as inputs to another.

Putting it together with the requirements for modern test data and the limitations of the environment in which government agencies operate, there were a few approaches that agencies landed on.

The Traditional Approach to Tackling the Test Data Challenges

Because these systems have been around a long time, testing strategies were developed and landed on three major strategies for deriving test data: Copying live / production data, creating synthetic data, and masking production data.

Live/Production Data

One of the most commonly utilized approaches is to copy data directly from production. This involves taking a snapshot of the live environment. While it provides a realistic environment for testing, it comes with security and data privacy concerns.

Copying Live Data: Advantages and Disadvantages

Using live or production data for testing offers a realistic environment that can effectively mimic real-world scenarios, ensuring that applications are vetted thoroughly against actual use cases. This method can significantly enhance the reliability of tests, as developers and testers can uncover issues that might only manifest in genuine conditions. Furthermore, leveraging real data often expedites the testing process since generating synthetic data or setting up mock environments can be time-consuming. However, the approach comes with its fair share of pitfalls. The foremost concern is data privacy and security. Exposing sensitive information, such as customer data, in testing environments can lead to data breaches or violations of data protection regulations. This approach also necessitates rigorous data handling and protection measures, escalating operational costs. Additionally, if the production data is voluminous, managing and setting up such massive datasets for testing can be challenging and resource-intensive.

However, real customer information might be exposed to unauthorized personnel or potential breaches, especially if proper precautions aren’t taken to safeguard the data. Furthermore, regulatory and compliance issues, such as GDPR, can come into play, where using real customer data without explicit consent or without proper protection measures can result in hefty fines and legal repercussions.

Synthetic Data

Generating synthetic data ensures privacy but might not capture all real-world scenarios.

Creating Synthetic Data: Advantages and Disadvantages

Generating synthetic data for testing is a method that involves creating data that isn’t derived from actual user information but is structurally similar to real-world data. One of the primary advantages of this approach is that it addresses data privacy concerns, ensuring that sensitive information isn’t exposed in testing environments. This makes it easier to adhere to data protection regulations and avoids potential legal ramifications. Additionally, synthetic data can be tailored to meet specific testing needs, enabling testers to create scenarios that might be rare in real-world datasets, thereby ensuring a thorough examination of system capabilities. However, on the flip side, synthetic data might not always capture the complexity and unpredictability of real-world data. This means that while the system might perform well with synthetic data, unforeseen issues could arise in a live environment. Furthermore, creating high-quality synthetic data that truly mimics the intricacies of real data can be both challenging and resource-intensive, potentially slowing down the testing process.

Mask Data:

Data masking, also known as data obfuscation or data anonymization, involves transforming original data in a way that the structure remains unchanged, but the data itself is protected.

Masking Data: Advantages and Disadvantages

One of the chief merits of this approach is that it enables organizations to utilize real-world data for testing while safeguarding sensitive or confidential information. This provides a realistic testing environment without compromising data privacy, helping ensure compliance with data protection regulations. Moreover, since the data structure remains consistent with real-world data, it often leads to more accurate testing outcomes. However, on the downside, the process of masking can sometimes introduce anomalies or biases if not done correctly, which might skew test results. Data masking also requires an initial investment in terms of tools and expertise to ensure that the masking is effective and irreversible. Additionally, if the original data needs to be restored from its masked state for any reason, the process can be complex and might not always yield perfect results.

While data masking is intended to protect sensitive information, there have been instances where poorly-implemented or shallow masking techniques allowed for the data to be unmasked. Advanced analytics, data correlations, or other external data sources can sometimes be used to reverse-engineer masked data. In cases where only basic transformations are applied without sufficient randomness or encryption, attackers can potentially deduce the original data. Additionally, if an individual has access to both the original and the masked datasets, they might discern patterns or methodologies used in masking, making it easier to link masked records to real-world individuals. This highlights the importance of employing robust and thorough data masking methods to ensure genuine protection.

Final Thoughts

It is clear these test data generation strategies have major downsides when implemented. Understanding and tackling test data within these systems require a blend of historical knowledge and modern solutions. As IT continues to grow and evolve, addressing these challenges becomes pivotal for organizations that thrive on the bedrock of their legacy systems.

In my forthcoming article, I’ll uncover the potential of modern technology in reshaping the landscape of data testing. I’ll dive deep into the techniques and innovations that empower organizations to craft superior, streamlined test data like never before. If you’re keen to understand the next big leap in governmental data management, this is an article you won’t want to miss.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn.  Re-published with permission from Aaron Francesconi.


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