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Chit Chat with New Datasets – Facets in OpenRefine (Was /Google Refine/)

One of the many ways of using Google OpenRefine is as a toolkit for getting a feel for the range of variation contained within a dataset using the various faceting options. In the sense of analysis being a conversation with data, this is a bit like an idle chit-chat/getting to know you phase, as a precursor to a full blown conversation.

Faceted search or faceted browsing/navigation typically provides a set of limiting search filters to a set of search results that limits or restricts the displayed results to ones that fulfil certain conditions. In a library catalogue, the facets might refer to metadata fields such as publication date, thus allowing a user to search within a given date range, or publisher:

Where the facet relates to a categorical variable – that is, where there is a set of unique values that the facet can take (such as the names of different publishers) – a view of the facet values will show the names of the different publishers extracted from the original search results. Selecting a particular publisher, for example, will then limit the displayed results to just those results associated with that publisher. For numerical facets, where the quantities associated with the facet related to a number or date (that is, a set of things that have a numerical range), the facet view will show the full range of values contained within that particular facet. The user can then select a subset of results that fall within a specified part of that range.

In the case of Open Refine, facets can be defined on a per column basis. For categorical facets, Refine will identify the set of unique values associated with a particular faceted view that are contained within a column, along with a count of how many times each facet value occurs throughout the column. The user can then choose to view only those rows with a particular (facet selected) value in the faceted column. For columns that contain numbers, Refine will generate a numerical facet that spans the range of values contained within the column, along with a histogram that provides a count of occurrences of numbers within small ranges across the full range.

So what faceting options does Google Refine provide?

Here’s how they work (data used for the examples comes from Even Wholesale Drug Dealers Can Use a Little Retargeting: Graphing, Clustering & Community Detection in Excel and Gephi and JSON import from the Twitter search API…):

- exploring the set of categories described within a column using the text facet:

Faceted views also allow you to view the facet values by occurrence count, so it’s easy to see which the most popular facet values are:

You can also get a tab separated list of facet values:

Sometimes it can be useful to view rows associated with particular facet values that occur a particular number of times, particulalry at the limits (for example, very popular facet values, or uniquely occurring facet values):

- looking at the range of numerical values contained in a column using the numeric facet:

- looking at the distribution over time of column contents using the timeline facet:

Faceting by time requires time-related strings to be parsed as such; sometimes, Refine needs a little bit of help in interpreting an imported string as a time string. So for example, given a “time” string such as Mon, 29 Oct 2012 10:56:52 +0000 from the Twitter search API, we can use the GREL function toDate(value,"EEE, dd MMM y H:m:s") to create a new column with time-cast elements.

(See GRELDateFunctions and the Java SimpleDateFormat class documentation for more details.)

- getting a feel for the correlation of values across numerical columns, and exploring those correlations further, using the scatterplot facet.

This generates a view that generates a set of scatterplots relating to pairwise combinations of all the numerical columns in the dataset:

Clicking on one of these panels allows you to filter points within a particular area of the corresponding scatter chart (click and drag a rectangular area over the points you want to view), effectively allowing you to filter the data across related ranges of two numerical columns at the same time:

A range of customisable faceting options are also provided that allow you to define your own faceting functions:

  • the Custom text… facet;
  • the Custom Numeric… facet

More conveniently, a range of predefined Customized facets are provided that provide shortcuts to “bespoke” faceting functions:

So for example:

  • the word facet splits strings contained in cells into single words, counts their occurrences throughout the column, and then lists unique words and their occurrence count in the facet panel. This faceting option thus provides a way of selecting rows where the contents of a particular column contain one or more specified words. (The user defined GREL custom text facet ngram(value,1) provides a similar (though not identical) result – duplicated words in a cell are identified as unique by the single word ngram function; see also split(value," "), which does seem to replicate the behaviour of the word facet function.)

  • the duplicates facet returns boolean values of true and false; filtering on true values returns all the rows that have duplicated values within a particular column; filtering on false displays all unique rows.
  • the text length facet produces a facet based on the character count(?) of strings in cells within the faceted column; the custom numeric facet length(value) achieves something similar; the related measure, word count, can be achieved using the custom numeric facet length(split(value," "))

Note that facet views can be combined. Selecting multiple rows within a particular facet panel provides a Boolean OR over the selected values (that is, if any of the selected values appear in the column, the corresponding rows will be displayed). To AND conditions, even within the same facet, create a separate facet panel for each ANDed condition.

PS On the OpenRefine (was Google Refine) name change, see From Freebase Gridworks to Google Refine and now OpenRefine. The code repository is now on github: OpenRefine Repository. I also notice that openrefine.org/ has been minted and is running a placeholder instance of WordPress. I wonder if it would be worth setting up an aggregator for community posts, a bit like R-Blogger (for example, I have an RStats category feed from this blog that I syndicate to the RBloggers aggregator, and have just created an OpenRefine category that could feed a OpenRefinery aggregator channel).

PPS for an example of using OpenRefine to find differences between two recordsets, see Owen Stephens’ Using Open Refine for e-journal data.

Written by Tony Hirst

November 6, 2012 at 10:39 am

7 Responses

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  1. Hi,

    Great article on facet capabilities. Regarding openrefine.org I initially wanted to do something like you stated (with other functionality) but the community look more into the direction of a comprehensive GitHub solution (see discussion here:
    https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups=#!topic/google-refine/hiH0KDaTGWY) using GitHub page and wiki. Feel free to join the conversation and share your vision.

    Right now I tried to keep a list of all “good” tutorial on this delicious account (http://www.delicious.com/magdmartin) and I’m adding your article right now ;)

    Thanks

    • Hi Martin – Thanks for the comment; I will try to get a little bit more involved with the community… though I have to admit I tend to be more of a loosely joined/network style collaborator than a community-style collaborator (if that makes an sense?!). Commitment issues, I guess!;-)

      The R-bloggers approach is a thematic aggregation, and this sort of thing is possible using WordPress and eg a FeedWordPress plugin. It’s easy enough for this to live separately from other community initiatives – one thing it would do is provide a good place for both keeping up with OpenRefine tricks, tips and extensions, and providing a lightweight, loosely joined user community,

      Tony Hirst

      November 6, 2012 at 5:53 pm

  2. Thank you for this helpful post. Could you further explain how to use custom numeric facets? I believe what I want is to facet on a custom range. My specific query is “show me only and all of the records with a value of 1″ (there are a lot). The distribution graphic will not let me hone in on that narrow of a range. Thanks for any advice you have.

    sherribee

    November 7, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    • Hi Sherri – if there is a single known item value that you want to filter on, why not just use a filter?

      Tony Hirst

      November 7, 2012 at 9:27 pm

  3. [...] Note that we might then order the tweets as displayed in the table using time/date order (a note on string to time format conversions can be found in this postFacets in OpenRefine): [...]

  4. [...] Tony Hirst has a great post on faceting tricks. Something not covered is clustering data using facets. We use this as a way to join rows where authors have multiple logins eg Tony Hirst and Tony.Hirst [...]

  5. [...] Chit Chat with New Datasets – Facets in OpenRefine (Was /Google Refine/) [...]


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