Tag Archives: google refine

How to: convert XML or JSON into spreadsheets using Open Refine

curly brackets

Curly brackets pattern by Dan McCullough

One of the most useful applications of the data cleaning tool Open Refine (formerly Google Refine) is converting XML and JSON files into spreadsheets that you can interrogate in Excel.

Surprisingly, I’ve never blogged about it. Until now. Continue reading

How to: clean a converted PDF using Open Refine

Our initial table

This spreadsheet sent in response to an FOI request appeared to have been converted from PDF format

In a guest post post for OJB, Ion Mates explains how he used OpenRefine to clean up a spreadsheet which had been converted from PDF format. An earlier version of this post was published on his blog.

Journalists rarely get their hands on nice, tidy data: public bodies don’t have an interest in providing information in a structured form. So it is increasingly part of a journalist’s job to get that information into the right state before extracting patterns and stories.

A few months ago I sent a Freedom of Information request asking for the locations of all litter bins in Birmingham. But instead of sending a spreadsheet downloaded directly from their database, the spreadsheet they sent appeared to have been converted from a multiple-page PDF.

This meant all sorts of problems, from rows containing page numbers and repeated header rows, to information split across multiple rows and even pages.

In this post I’ll be taking you through I used the free data cleaning tool OpenRefine (formerly Google Refine) to tackle all these problems and create a clean version of the data. Continue reading

How to: combine multiple rows in a dataset where text is split across them (Open Refine)

When you’ve converted data from a PDF to a spreadsheet it’s not uncommon for text to end up being split across multiple rows, like this: text split across rows In this post I’ll explain how you can use Open Refine to quickly clean the data up so that the text is put back together and you have a single row for each entry. Continue reading

How to: clean up spreadsheet headings that run across multiple rows using Open Refine

Something that infuriates me often with government datasets is the promiscuous heading. This is when a spreadsheet doesn’t just have its headings across one row, but instead splits them across two, three or more rows.

To make matters worse, there are often also extra rows before the headings explaining the spreadsheet more generally. Here’s just one offender from the ONS:

A spreadsheet with promiscuous headings

A spreadsheet with promiscuous headings

To clean this up in Excel takes several steps – but Open Refine (formerly Google Refine) does this much more quickly. In this post I’m going to walk through the five minute process there that can save you unnecessary effort in Excel. Continue reading

A sample dirty dataset for trying out Google Refine

I’ve created this spreadsheet of ‘dirty data‘ to demonstrate some typical problems that data cleaning tools and techniques can be used for:

  • Subheadings that are only used once (and you need them in each row where they apply)
  • Odd characters that stand for something else (e.g. a space or ampersand)
  • Different entries that mean the same thing, either because they are lacking pieces of information, or have been mistyped, or inconsistently formatted

It’s best used alongside this post introducing basic features of Google Refine. But you can also use it to explore more simple techniques in spreadsheets like Find and replace; the TRIM function (and alternative solutions); and the functions UPPER, LOWER, and PROPER (which convert text into all upper case, lower case, and titlecase respectively).

Thanks to Eva Constantaras for suggesting the idea.

UPDATE: Peter Verweij has put together an introduction to some other cleaning techniques here.

Two reasons why every journalist should know about scraping (cross-posted)

This was originally published on Journalism.co.uk – cross-posted here for convenience.

Journalists rely on two sources of competitive advantage: being able to work faster than others, and being able to get more information than others. For both of these reasons, I  love scraping: it is both a great time-saver, and a great source of stories no one else has. Continue reading

Data Shaping in Google Refine – Generating New Rows from Multiple Values in a Single Column

One of the things I’ve kept stumbling over in Google Refine is how to use it to reshape a data set, so I had a little play last week and worked out a couple of new (to me) recipes.

The first relates to reshaping data by creating new rows based on columns. For example, suppose we have a data set that has rows relating to Olympics events, and columns relating to Medals, with cell entries detailing the country that won each medal type:

However, suppose that you need to get the data into a different shape – maybe one line per country with an additional column specifying the medal type. Something like this, for example:

How can we generate that sort of view from the original data set? Here’s one way, that works when the columns you want to split into row values are contiguous (that is, next to each other). From the first column in the set of columns you want to be transformed, select Transpose > Transpose cells across columns into rows:

We now set the original selected column headers to be the cell value within a new column – MedalType – and the original cell values the value within a Country column:

(Note that we could also just transform the data into a single column. For example, suppose we had columns relating to courses currently taken by a particular student (Course 1, Course 2, Course 3), with a course code as cell value and one, two or three columns populated per student. If we wanted one row per student per course, we could just map the three columns onto a single column – CourseCode – and assign multiple rows to each student, then filtering out rows with a blank value in the CourseCOde column as required.)

Ticking the Fill down in other columns checkbox ensures that the appropriate Sport and Event values are copied in to the newly created rows:

Having worked out how to do that oft-required bit of data reshaping, I thought I could probably have another go at something that has been troubling me for ages – how to generate multiple rows from a single row where one of the columns contains JSON data (maybe pulled from a web service/API) that contains multiple items. This is a “mate in three” sort of problem, so here’s how I started to try to work it back. Given that I now know how to map columns onto rows, can I work out how to map different results in a JSON response onto different columns?

For example, here’s a result from the Facebook API for a search on a particular OU course code and the word open in a Facebook group name:

{“data”:[{“version”:1,”name”:”U101 (Open University) start date February 2012″,”id”:”325165900838311″},{“version”:1,”name”:”Open university, u101- design thinking, October 2011″,”id”:”250227311674865″},{“version”:1,”name”:”Feb 2011 Starters U101 Design Thinking – Open University”,”id”:”121552081246861″},{“version”:1,”name”:”Open University – U101 Design Thinking, Feburary 2011″,”id”:”167769429928476″}],”paging”:{“next”:…etc…}}

It returns a couple of results in the data element, in particular group name and group ID. Here’s one way I found of creating one row per group… Start off by creating a new column based on the JSON data column that parses the results in the data element into a list:

We can then iterate over the list items in this new column using the forEach grel command. The join command then joins the elements within each list item, specifically the group ID and name values in each result:


You’ll notice that for multiple results, this produces a list of joined items, which we can also join together by extending the GREL expression:


We now have a column that contains ‘||’ and ‘::’ separated items – :: separates individual group results from each other, || separates the id and name for each particular group.

Given we know how to create rows from multiple columns, we could try to split this column into separate columns using Edit column > Split into separate columns. This would create one column per result, which we could then transform into rows, as we did above. Whilst I don’t recommend this route in this particular case, here’s how we could go about doing it…

A far better approach is to use the Edit cells > split multi-valued cells option to automatically create new rows based on splitting the elements in a single column:

Note, however that this creates blanks in the other columns, so we need to Edit cells > Fill down to fill in the blanks in any other columns we want to refer to. After doing that, we end up with something like this:

We could now split the groupPairs column using the || separator to create two columns – Group ID and group name – giving us one row per group, and separate columns identifying the course, group name and group ID.

If the above route seems a little complicated, fear not…Once you apply it, it starts to make sense!