The term ”reference data” and related Reference Data Management (RDM) is used commonly in the data quality and Master Data Management (MDM) realm.
As with most terms it may be used with slightly different meanings. Usually, but not necessarily always, reference data are core data entities defined outside a given organization.
I have come across the below discussed kinds of reference data:
Reference Data in Investment Banking
The term “reference data” is well established in investment banking. Reference data are core master data entities as counterparties, securities and currencies. These are the things you deal with in investment banking. They are not made up for a given bank or other single financial institution but are shared across the whole market and should optimally be the same to every institution at exactly the same point of time.
In Master Data Management in general we usually see reference data as value lists helping describing and standardizing internal master data.
One example will be a country list. A list of countries should be the same for every organization in the world. However available lists does differ though most variations usually don’t have any business impact as the academic question about if Antarctica should be in the list or not.
A list of codes describing to which industry a given company belongs is another example of reference data. As examined in the post What are they doing? you may choose to standardize on SIC codes or standardise on NACE codes or develop your own set of codes for that purpose.
Big Reference Data
In geography a country list is in the top levels of defining locations. Further deep we may have postal code systems within each country as ZIP codes in the United States and PLZ codes in Germany. Yet further deep we have every single valid postal address eventually all over the world. This is what I call big reference data.
A way of sourcing industry codes for your customers, suppliers and other business partners will be picking from or enriching from a business directory like for example the D&B WorldBase or any other of the many business directories around. Such directories may also be seen as big reference data.
The dramatic increase in the use of social media and related social network profiles has emerged as a new kind of big reference data serving as links to our internal master data.