Data mapping 101: A how-to guide

  • by Osano Staff
  • · posted on April 25, 2022
  • · 4 min read
Data mapping 101: A how-to guide

Google Maps gives you everything you need to go from Point A to Point B, populating relevant points of interest along the way. Similarly, data mapping is a tool for helping businesses understand the data they hold on customers– where it starts and where it ends. Privacy laws like the GDPR require data maps. Companies use data mapping to perform data protection impact assessments and respond to data subject access requests (DSARs) and records of processing activities (RoPAs).

If a website visitor were to complete a DSAR today, do you know how to locate all the data you hold on the individual? Can you articulate the purpose of each piece of data collected and which legal allowance justifies it?

Data mapping identifies personal and non-personal information across systems and assembles it in 1 place so you can easily find, track, and protect it. So how do you start mapping your data? In this blog post, you’ll learn why mapping your data is essential, what to include in a data map, and how to use data mapping tools to automate the process.

Why map your data?

Even small companies collect large amounts of data from website visitors. Marketing, IT, HR, and other departments collect data for various purposes. This information often spans many systems. 

A data map identifies all personal data collected by your company across those systems, standardizing the data into one central database. The resulting data map makes it easy to respond to data requests, determine whether there is information you need to delete, and ensure compliance with privacy laws like the GDPR, CCPA, and CPRA.

The GDPR requires data mapping to:

  • Maintain RoPAs.
  • Perform data privacy impact assessments (DPIAs).
  • Swiftly identify compromised data in case of a breach to aid in making the necessary notifications.
  • Legally obtain consent.
  • Respond to DSARs.
The less data your company holds on customers, the less it has to protect. Use data mapping to reduce data collection, keeping only necessary, relevant, and up-to-date information.

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Mapping your data isn’t just a legal requirement– it’s a good business practice. Data mapping collates all pertinent customer information in 1 place for operational purposes. When you properly store and manage customer data, you’ll enhance user trust while eliminating the risk of fines for noncompliance.

How to map your data

In a survey of privacy professionals worldwide, the International Association of Privacy Professionals found that 47% said “locating an individual’s data within the organization was the most difficult thing to deal with” during a data request. 

Whether you’re a large business with lots of data scattered across dozens or hundreds of systems or a small business with limited resources to spend on privacy compliance, data discovery is an overwhelming task. 

Too many cooks in the kitchen can be a bad thing. Assign a data protection officer to spearhead the data mapping process and minimize the likelihood of data slipping through the cracks.

What’s in a data map?

A data map is a complete blueprint of how you interact with customers. To stay compliant with the GDPR, let’s use their definition for personal data. According to the GDPR, “Personal data are any information which are related to an identified or identifiable natural person.” Adhere to the GDPR’s definition of personal data by including the following on your data map:

  • How information is collected
  • What information is collected
  • Who receives the data
  • The purpose of the data
  • How you handle data
  • How long data is stored 
Any time a department in your business or a data-receiving third party updates any of this information, your business is responsible for updating the data map.

Data mapping tools to automate the process

Manually populating a spreadsheet leaves room for missed data, human error, and time lost coordinating with multiple departments. By the time you complete the process, a department or third-party app may have updated its data policies, and it’s time to start the process all over again. Most businesses don’t employ a full-time data protection officer, and the team member overseeing data mapping has other tasks to complete. 

A data mapping template and intuitive, AI-driven automation tools can automate the process, making it easy to find and categorize personal and non-personal data across multiple systems. Quickly discover data relationships within your organization by using data mapping tools to scan different systems, homogenize data, and create a searchable database.

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Overcome the top data mapping challenges

The top challenges in mapping data are inconsistency and disparate data sources. Understand how these issues affect the data discovery process to avoid the pitfalls they cause. 


Inconsistency is your greatest enemy during the data discovery process. Are all phone numbers categorized as a “phone number”? During data discovery, you may find some departments classify phone numbers as a “number,” while others notate them as a “cell phone.”

Consistency in data labeling is essential when creating an effective data map. Use data automation tools to ensure uniform labeling of each type of information your business collects and processes.

Disparate data sources

Another enemy of data privacy compliance is disparate data sources. Do you understand where the data you collect goes? Does it stop with your organization or flow on to a third party?

Privacy regulations require businesses to respond to a user’s request to modify or delete data quickly. Knowing where all the data ends up is key to keeping their trust. When your data map accurately details all third parties and the data they receive, it’s easy to provide access, allow updates, or process a deletion request.

Use Data Discovery for data mapping

Manually searching dozens or hundreds of systems is time-consuming and leaves room for error, opening you to noncompliance penalties. Osano’s Data Discovery tool is easy to implement and easy to use. You can set up the AI-driven tool that will collect and classify data in less than an hour — even fragmented and obscure data. 

Try Osano for free for 30 days and learn how we can help you keep track of data. With Data Discovery, you can easily automate privacy rights fulfillment, demonstrate compliance, and build trust with customers by protecting all the data you hold on them. 

About The Author · Osano Staff

The Osano staff is a diverse team of free thinkers who enjoy working as part of a distributed team with the common goal of working to make a more transparent internet. Occasionally, the team writes under the pen name of our mascot, “Penny, the Privacy Pro.”