Chapter 2. Is It Just Me, or Does This Data Smell Funny?

Kevin Fink

You are given a dataset of unknown provenance. How do you know if the data is any good?

It is not uncommon to be handed a dataset without a lot of information as to where it came from, how it was collected, what the fields mean, and so on. In fact, it’s probably more common to receive data in this way than not. In many cases, the data has gone through many hands and multiple transformations since it was gathered, and nobody really knows what it all means anymore. In this chapter, I’ll walk you through a step-by-step approach to understanding, validating, and ultimately turning a dataset into usable information. In particular, I’ll talk about specific ways to look at the data, and show some examples of what I learned from doing so.

As a bit of background, I have been dealing with quite a variety of data for the past 25 years or so. I’ve written code to process accelerometer and hydrophone signals for analysis of dams and other large structures (as an undergraduate student in Engineering at Harvey Mudd College), analyzed recordings of calls from various species of bats (as a graduate student in Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington), built systems to visualize imaging sonar data (as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Applied Physics Lab), used large amounts of crawled web content to build content filtering systems (as the co-founder and CTO of N2H2, Inc.), designed intranet search systems ...

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