As I’ve written in previous posts, data preparation and data enrichment are exciting areas for entrepreneurs, investors, and researchers. Startups like Trifacta, Tamr, Paxata, Alteryx, and CrowdFlower continue to innovate and attract enterprise customers. I’ve also noticed that companies — that don’t specialize in these areas — are increasingly eager to highlight data preparation capabilities in their products and services.
During a recent episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I spoke with Ihab Ilyas, professor at the University of Waterloo and co-founder of Tamr. We discussed how he started working on data cleaning tools, academic database research, and training computer science students for positions in industry.
Academic database research in data preparation
Given the importance of data integrity, it’s no surprise that the database research community has long been interested in data preparation and data wrangling. Ilyas explained how his work in probabilistic databases led to research projects in data cleaning:
In the database theory community, these problems of handling, dealing with data inconsistency, and consistent query answering have been a celebrated area of research. However, it has been also difficult to communicate these results to industry. And database practitioners, if you like, they were more into the well-structured data and assuming a lot of good properties around this data, [and they were also] more interested in indexing this data, storing it, moving it from one place to another. And now, dealing with this large amount of diverse heterogeneous data with tons of errors, sidled across all business units in the same enterprise became a necessity. You cannot really avoid that anymore. And that triggered a new line of research for pragmatic ways of doing data cleaning and integration. … The acquisition layer in that stack has to deal with large sets of formats and sources. And you will hear about things like adapters and source adapters. And it became a market on its own, how to get access and tap into these sources, because these are kind of the long tail of data.
The way I came into this subject was also funny because we were talking about the subject called probabilistic databases and how to deal with data uncertainty. And that morphed into trying to find data sets that have uncertainty. And then we were shocked by how dirty the data is and how data cleaning is a task that’s worth looking at.