Data Cleaning Process

Introduction: Missing values, noise, and inconsistencies contribute to inaccurate data. So far, we have looked at techniques for handling missing data and for smoothing data. “But data cleaning is a big job.

  • The first step in data cleaning as a process is discrepancy detection. Discrepancies can be caused by several factors, including poorly designed data entry forms that have many optional fields, human error in data entry, deliberate errors (e.g., respondents not wanting to divulge information about themselves), and data decay (e.g., outdated addresses).Discrepancies may also arise from inconsistent data representations and the inconsistent use of codes. Errors in instrumentation devices that record data, and system errors, are another source of discrepancies. Errors can also occur when the data are (inadequately) used for purposes other than originally intended. There may also be inconsistencies due to data integration (e.g., where a given attribute can have different names in different databases).


  • As a starting point, use any knowledge you may already have regarding properties of the data. Such knowledge or “data about data” is referred to as metadata. For example, values that are more than two standard deviations away from the mean for a given attribute may be flagged as potential outliers. In this step, you may write your own scripts and/or use some of the tools that we discuss further below. From this, you may find noise, outliers, and unusual values that need investigation.


  • As a data analyst, you should be on the lookout for the inconsistent use of codes and any inconsistent data representations. Field overloading is another source of errors that typically results when developers squeeze new attribute definitions into unused (bit) portions of already defined attributes (e.g., using an unused bit of an attribute whose value range uses only, say, 31 out of 32 bits).


  • The data should also be examined regarding unique rules, consecutive rules, and null rules. A unique rule says that each value of the given attribute must be different from all other values for that attribute. A consecutive rule says that there can be no missing values between the lowest and highest values for the attribute, and that all values must also be unique (e.g., as in check numbers). A null rule specifies the use of blanks, question marks, special characters, or other strings that may indicate the null condition (e.g., where a value for a given attribute is not available), and how such values should be handled. (1) the person originally asked to provide a value for the attribute refuses and/or finds that the information requested is not applicable (e.g., a license-number attribute left blank by non drivers); (2) the data entry person does not know the correct value; or (3) the value is to be provided by a later step of the process. The null rule should specify how to record the null condition, for example, such as to store zero for numerical attributes, a blank for character attributes, or any other conventions that may be in use.


  • There are a number of different commercial tools that can aid in the step of discrepancy detection. Data scrubbing tools use simple domain knowledge (e.g., knowledge of postal addresses, and spell-checking) to detect errors and make corrections in the data. These tools rely on parsing and fuzzy matching techniques when cleaning data from multiple sources. Data auditing tools find discrepancies by analyzing the data to discover rules and relationships, and detecting data that violate such conditions. They are variants of data mining tools. For example, they may employ statistical analysis to find correlations, or clustering to identify outliers.


  • Some data inconsistencies may be corrected manually using external references. For example, errors made at data entry may be corrected by performing a paper trace. Most errors, however, will require data transformations. This is the second step in data cleaning as a process. That is, once we find discrepancies, we typically need to define and apply (a series of) transformations to correct them.


  • Commercial tools can assist in the data transformation step. Data migration tools allow simple transformations to be specified, such as to replace the string “gender” by “sex”. ETL (extraction/transformation/loading) tools allow users to specify transforms through a graphical user interface (GUI). These tools typically support only a restricted set of transforms so that, often, we may also choose to write custom scripts for this step of the data cleaning process.


  • The two-step process of discrepancy detection and data transformation (to correct discrepancies) iterates. This process, however, is error-prone and time-consuming. Some transformations may introduce more discrepancies. Some nested discrepancies may only be detected after others have been fixed. For example, a typo such as “20004” in a year field may only surface once all date values have been converted to a uniform format. Transformations are often done as a batch process while the user waits without feedback. Only after the transformation is complete can the user go back and check that no new anomalies have been created by mistake. Typically, numerous iterations are required before the user is satisfied.


  • Another approach to increased interactivity in data cleaning is the development of declarative languages for the specification of data transformation operators. Such work focuses on defining powerful extensions to SQL and algorithms that enable users to express data cleaning specifications efficiently.