Freebase Gridworks: A power tool for data scrubbers

I’ve had many conversations with Stefano Mazzocchi and David Huynh [1, 2, 3] about the data magic they performed at MIT’s Project Simile and now perform at Metaweb. If you’re somebody who values clean data and has wrestled with the dirty stuff, these screencasts about a forthcoming product called Freebase Gridworks will make you weep with joy.

There’s one by David, and another by Stefano. Using common public datasets about food, international disasters, and US government contracts, they fly through a series of transformations that:

  • Merge similar names using a host of methods:
    • Automatic title-casing
    • A rich expression language
    • Analysis of “edit distance” between similar phrases, using several clustering algorithms
  • Split multi-valued facets
  • Create new facets (e.g., a year column from a data column)
  • Morph linear scales to log scales where appropriate

It’s all live, undoable, and fully instrumented, by which I mean that every transformation updates the counts of the values in each facet, and displays histograms of the new distribution of values — along with sliders for selecting and focusing on subsets.

As the open data juggernaut picks up steam, a lot of folks are going to discover what some of us have known all along. Much of the data that’s lying around is a mess. That’s partly because nobody has ever really looked at it. As a new wave of visualization tools arrives, there will be more eyeballs on more data, and that’s a great thing. But we’ll also need to be able to lay hands on the data and clean up the messes we can begin to see. As we do, we’ll want to be using tools that do the kinds of things shown in the Gridworks screencasts.

17 Comments

  1. “As the open data juggernaut picks up steam, a lot of folks are going to discover what some of us have known all along. Much of the data that’s lying around is a mess. That’s partly because nobody has ever really looked at it.”

    Please print that on a t-shirt and mail to:

    1330 New Hampshire Ave NW
    Washington, DC 20036

    MyType has been getting its hands dirty with messy data for a few months now. When is Freebase Gridworks forthcoming? (I haven’t had a chance to watch the vids yet.)

  2. Jon, have any of the many tools like this you’ve seen convinced you that they will see meaningful use?

    I’m just not sure the ‘average joe’ is able to do what the expert users who present the screencast can. There’s the data cleaning challenge, the question-posing challenge, the tool-learning challenge … in many cases I think we need someone who can interpret the results we ask for. I’m thinking of NYTimes infographics here.

  3. I just watched both screencasts: wow! I’ve needed this tool so many times over the past few years (both while working for the Guardian newspaper and for my own personal projects). I can’t wait.

    Neil: Gridworks doesn’t need to work for the average joe – it needs to work for expert and semi-expert users (like journalists) who work with this kind of data. And if those users are sharing their results, a dataset only needs to be cleaned up once.

    You can bet newspaper infographics departments will be all over this once it’s released.

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