Assessing Data Wrangling Skills – Conversations With Data

By chance, a couple of days ago I stumbled across a spreadsheet summarising awarded PFI contracts as of 2013 (private finance initiative projects, 2013 summary data).

The spreadsheet has 800 or so rows, and a multitude of columns, some of which are essentially grouped (although multi-level, hierarchical headings are not explicitly used) – columns relating to (estimated) spend in different tax years, for example, or the equity partners involved in a particular project.

As part of the OU course we’re currently developing on “data”, we’re exploring an assessment framework based on students running small data investigations, documented using IPython notebooks, in which we will expect students to demonstrate a range of technical and analytical skills, as well as some understanding of data structures and shapes, data management technology and policy choices, and so on. In support of this, I’ve been trying to put together one or two notebooks a week over the course of a few hours to see what sorts of thing might be possible, tractable and appropriate for inclusion in such a data investigation report within the time constraints allowed.

To this end, the Quick Look at UK PFI Contracts Data notebook demonstrates some of the ways in which we might learn something about the data contained within the PFI summary data spreadsheet. The first thing to note is that it’s not really a data investigation: there is no specific question I set out to ask, and no specific theme I set out to explore. It’s more exploratory (that is, rambling!) than that. It has more of the form what I’ve started referring to as a conversation with data.

In a conversation with data, we develop an understanding of what the data may have to say, along with a set of tools (that is, recipes, or even functions) that allow us to talk to it more easily. These tools and recipes are reusable within the context of the data set or datasets selected for the conversation, and may be transferrable to other data conversations. For example, one recipe might be how to filter and summarise a dataset in a particular way, or generate a particular view or reshaping of it that makes it easy to ask a particular sort of question, or generate a particular sort of a chart (creating a chart is like asking a question where the surface answer is returned in a graphical form).

If we are going to use IPython notebook documented conversations with data as part of an assessment process, we need to tighten up a little more how we might expect to see them structured and what we might expect to see contained within them.

Quickly skimming through the PFI conversation, elements of the following skills are demonstrated:

– downloading a dataset from a remote location;
– loading it into an appropriate data representation;
– cleaning (and type casting) the data;
– spotting possibly erroneous data;
– subsetting/filtering the data by row and column, including the use of partial string matching;
– generating multiple views over the data;
– reshaping the data;
– using grouping as the basis for the generation of summary data;
– sorting the data;
– joining different data views;
– generating graphical charts from derived data using “native” matplotlib charts and a separate charting library (ggplot);
– generating text based interpretations of the data (“data2text” or “data textualisation”).

The notebook also demonstrates some elements of reflection about how the data might be used. For example, it might be used in association with other datasets to help people keep track of the performance of facilities funded under PFI contracts.

Note: the notebook I link to above does not include any database management system elements. As such, it represents elements that might be appropriate for inclusion in a report from the first third of our data course – which covers basic principles of data wrangling using pandas as the dominant toolkit. Conversations held later in the course should also demonstrate how to get data into an out of an appropriately chosen database management system, for example.

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