Zero vs blanks again

Here in India, the activities of Subcenters differ quite a bit in the particular services they offer. Therefore, since all use a standard format, there will almost always be a number of fields that are not applicable. Because of this, they maintain that 0 is signficant, because it means “Have the service, but no cases this month”, whereas a blank field means “Don’t have the service” in other words N/A.

Sometimes it can even mean something in-between, like “We normally distribute Iron tablets, but sometimes we don’t have them (blank), and sometimes we have them but there is no demand (0)”. In my view the latter semantics is quite complicated, and hard to get consistent, but I’m being told the health workers handle it well. Thus, a typical report can consist of 50 positive integers, 7 blanks and 20 zeros.

Since data entry on the mobile is quite cumbersome and zeros also tend to fill up the database, I would have preferred zeros to be non-significant and just go with blanks. But then we would lose the above distinction.



Knut Staring

Dept. of Informatics, University of Oslo