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How to start a successful privacy data mapping project

Data mapping is the cornerstone of your privacy strategy. Starting a successful project requires leadership buy-in and thoughtful prioritization.
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In the world of privacy management, understanding your data footprint is king. But let's be real — achieving this clarity is easier said than done, especially in a complex business data ecosystem. That's where data mapping comes in. It's not just another item on your to-do list — it's the compass that guides you through the complex terrain of data governance.

It boils down to this: Do you want answers? Your data map is your go-to. It's the starting point, the cornerstone. It's how you handle the big questions, the deep dives into your data world. So, let's cut through the noise and get real about data mapping. It's about making smart choices and staying ahead of the game. 

What is data mapping in privacy? 

Data mapping meaning? It's more than tech talk. It's the cornerstone of your privacy strategy. Think of it as your data playbook. It's not just listing data — it's about understanding its entire scene — where it hangs out, who it talks to, and why it's there. This is vital in large organizations where you're expected to be the data whisperer, knowing every piece of data like an old friend.

Imagine you’ve been promoted and are now responsible for the data privacy of a company with 5,000+ people. You’re expected to know everything about that business to accurately assess the risk and give it your seal of approval. But without a data map, that’s nearly impossible. 

How can you handle questions about sensitive personal data usage if you don’t have a core understanding of where it lives and how it flows through the business? 

As Alysa Hutnik of Kelley Drye stressed in our recent webinar, “Having a solid data map is like the holy grail from our perspective. Because if a company has it, then everything else is easier.” Having a data map makes it easy to facilitate a conversation about why you're using data, for what purposes. 

Data mapping is more than a compliance checkbox. Data mapping is the process of getting a crystal-clear picture of your data landscape. Why is this important? Well, it's about legal justifications, understanding roles, and processing data correctly. It's the kind of insight that lets you make sharp, informed decisions. You're not just identifying where your data is — you're understanding why it's there, how it's being used, and what impact it has.

This clarity is priceless — it helps you stay ahead of risks, nail compliance, and build trust with your customers. That’s the real power of proper data mapping. Unfortunately, not many companies have data maps yet — which adds to the obscurities around the topic — and why it’s so important to align on what data maps are and what they are not. 

Busting myths: what data mapping is not

There's a lot of confusion about what data mapping is, and it's time to clear that up. The data mapping definition is commonly confused with other terms and types of data organization. Peter Wang from Ketch hit the nail on the head during our webinar when he explained the differences between data mapping examples and data lineage, system registry, and data catalog. 

Data lineage? It's a detailed history of your data's journey — where it's been and all the changes it's gone through. Think of it as the backstory of your data in granular, low-level detail. Things like, “ "these two columns were summed together to create this other column in this other table.” Is that useful? Absolutely, for other use cases. But this level of detail is too small to materially aide in the process of privacy-specific data mapping.

And a system registry — that's a roll call of your data systems. It doesn't dive deep. It’s like knowing players' names in a football team but having no clue about their positions or strategies. A data map, on the other hand, brings the game to life — it shows you the plays, the tactics, the real action.

Then there's the data catalog. This is similar to a data map, but it’s more for data practitioners, not privacy program leaders. It provides context around things like data quality, lineage, ratings, and hygiene. Really, though: it's only part of the story. Many of these catalogs miss out on big-ticket items, especially data from third-party SaaS applications. They lack the muscle that a true data map packs, which is all about recording processing activities in detail.

Starting a successful data mapping project

Creating an effective data map isn’t a solo mission. It’s a team sport, and it demands a solid game plan. To get started on the right foot, nail down these pillars to ensure organizational support, collaboration, and drive.

Leadership buy-in

You can have the best data mapping software and a detailed plan, but without commitment and support from the higher-ups, you're basically a rudderless ship. In our recent webinar, we drilled down on this: effective data mapping is about more than the tools and tactics — it’s about investment — of time, resources, and, yes, money.

Getting leadership buy-in is about aligning the vision and purpose of your data mapping strategy with the organization's broader goals. This means securing not just agreement but active support and resources from the top. We're talking about ensuring that the leadership understands the value of data mapping and is willing to back this understanding with tangible support.

This level of buy-in is critical for several reasons. First, it ensures that your data mapping initiative has the necessary resources to be successful. Second, it signals to the entire organization that this is a priority, fostering a culture where data is respected and properly managed.

So, before you set sail on your data mapping journey, ensure your leadership team is on board and ready to steer the ship alongside you. 

Practitioner support

When it comes to data mapping, your real MVPs are your departmental stakeholders and data practitioners. We're talking about the people who rely on data to do their jobs every day. They have insights that no software can replicate.

As much as we'd love a magical data mapping tool that does it all, that’s not reality. No software can hand you a perfect data map on a silver platter. You need the human touch — the insights and expertise that only come from people who are working with the data day in and day out. You need to identify people most knowledgeable on data practices and how PI is stored. This includes stakeholders like:

  • Marketing teams, relying on customer data for campaign personalization
  • Human resources leaders, making decisions with employee data
  • Data analysts, data scientists, and data engineers, extrapolating insights from complex data sets

This is why practitioner support is crucial: while tools for data mapping can give you a great foundation, these data practitioners can share insights no one else has. Their knowledge and understanding of data practices, storage, and usage are invaluable. They help you see beyond the numbers and understand the stories behind the data.

There’s an important additional point here: it’s not just about extracting information from these practitioners. It’s about building a culture of collaboration and respect for data. It’s about breaking down the silos and creating an environment where information flows freely, where data practices are transparent and understood by everyone involved.

A realistic strategy

Building your data map is a journey, not a race to the finish line. Perfection? That's a myth. You need to focus on identifying and tackling the high-risk areas first. Your first version should address the most pressing questions. From there, it's about building and refining. 

Don't get caught up in trying to catalog every single piece of data from the get-go. That's like trying to boil the ocean — impossible and frustrating.

A common trap we see is people spending too much time in the data discovery phase, trying to detect every single data point. This approach can lead you down a rabbit hole of endless columns and attributes. For most businesses, the best place you can start is understanding the flow and use of your most critical data. If this sounds right to you, you should dictate your priorities based on risk exposure hypotheses. For example:

  • Do you receive consistent inquiries from people asking to be removed from marketing lists, asking “how did you get my data?” You may want to begin with marketing stakeholders and systems. 
  • Is your business growing at a fast clip with many new employees? Starting with your HR team to see how they are managing this sudden influx of employee personal data could be a great idea. 

To make sure you don’t spread yourself to thin, focus your energy on the most significant areas of data flow in your organization. That's how you create a data map that's practical, useful, and aligned with the most critical company needs.

Remember: the data mapping process isn’t a one-and-done, point-in-time exercise. It's a continuous journey, adapting and evolving as your organization and its data landscape change. The goal is to create a first version that answers the most critical questions and then build from there.

The continuous evolution of data mapping

In the end, data mapping is more than a compliance checkbox. It's a critical tool in your privacy arsenal — one that requires collaboration, clear strategy, and strong leadership support. It's about knowing your data landscape inside out and using that knowledge to make informed, responsible decisions. 

That's the kind of approach that not only keeps you compliant but also builds trust with your customers. And in today's world, that trust is your most valuable asset.

In a world where data privacy is becoming increasingly complex, a dynamic and up-to-date data map is your best ally. It keeps you one step ahead, ensuring your privacy operations are as robust and effective as they can be.

Read time
8 min read
December 16, 2023
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