J.E. Olson, in his book Data Quality: The Accuracy Dimension defines data profiling as "the use of analytical techniques to discover the true content, structure, and quality of data" . Understanding the structure of data is quintessential for database developers in order to provide accurate technical solutions (reports, database objects for various purposes), though in order to answer business questions is important to understand also the content, the projection of business processes in database environment and, not less important, is the Data Quality reflected in the value the data has for an enterprise, being highly dependent on the understanding of data content and structure.
Typically DBMS store also metadata about the data chunks and data structures they contain – tables, the columns they contain and their data types, the relations between tables, various types of indexes and other constraints, database objects like views, stored procedures or user-defined functions. When taken together they provide together with the logical and semantical data models a good overview over the data structure, though the complexity of such systems, sometimes made of hundreds of tables, if often hard to comprehend, especially when one or more layers of abstraction reside in between the database structure and consumer. On the other side, the structure is one thing, while the data contained by the structure is another thing, attributes being more or less correctly misused for various purposes, with different degree of completeness, actuality, accuracy, etc. I discussed about Data Quality and the most important dimensions in several posts, highlighting the importance of having data with an acceptable quality. Thus in Data Quality initiatives, especially the ones done during data migration/conversion between various systems, data profiling occupies an important place.
A natural question (actually two): what analytical metrics could be used in order to understand the data and how complex do they have to be? Nowadays data mining, the process of extracting patterns from data, gains day by day in importance, more and more complex techniques being used, visualization techniques together with complex algorithms allowing to derive rules from data. Do we have to go so far? The Statistics offers us for example a simple set of techniques and concepts which could be used to understand the data, though Statistics deals mainly with quantities. Therefore if we could translate the volume of data into various metrics, we could reuse in theory the metrics as input for statistical reasoning. And again do we have to go so far? As we will see further on, data profiling could be done using several simple metrics, like the number of records, the number of missing values (see completeness), the number of distinct values and the distribution formed by them, the minimum and maximum values, or the minimum and maximum length of values. There are also more complex techniques that attempt to identify the correlation existing between the various attributes, falling already in the direction of data mining techniques.
Volume of Data
The number of records, as the name intuitively denotes, it resumes in identifying the number of records each table/dataset from a set of table/datasets contains. It’s only a dimension of the volume of data, reflected also in the number of tables/datasets in scope, and the number of attributes each of them contains. So the volume of data could be considered as a measure of number of records, number of tables and number of attributes. If we want to be more accurate in measurement, given the fact that each attributes could have a different maximum length, the maximum length could be considered as a forth dimension of the volume of data. Now each database vendor decides on whether it reserves the respective maximum length or it considers only the actual used length (e.g. an attribute of type string could have a maximum length of 250 characters but it holds values with a maximum length of 30 characters). Things are even more complicated because the structural length is different than the physical lengths (the number of bits allocated for storage). The physical storage occupied by a database could be in theory easily identified, though if only a subset is considered then it might be needed to consider the actual size of the volume of data in scope. The subset resumes not only to tables, but also to attributes as maybe not all the attributes from a table are used, records as there could be also inactive/disabled or other type of irrelevant records, and even data content, in case data could be stripped of not useful content.
Considering a given table/dataset the above mentioned metrics could be obtained fairly easy by running queries against the table/dataset itself or against the metadata. As I highlighted above, database vendors store metadata about their data structure, of importance in this context being the tables, the attributes, attributes’ data type and maximum length. There are also vendors that store the number of records as statistics for various purposes, though the statistics are not always up to date, now it depends also on profiling requirements. On the other side getting the number of records is a simple task, even in automated manner. Considering for exemplification the AdventureWorks database coming with SQL Server, the number of records from a table can be easily identified with the help of the count aggregate function available in all important RDBMS:
The number of attributes the table contains could be obtained by doing a simple count against the number of attributes returned by a SELECT * statement or by querying directly the metadata:
The same tables (actually catalog views starting with SQL Server 2005) could be used in order to retrieve the name of the attributes, their data type, length related attributes and whether the attribute accepts NULL values. Actually given the fact that the respective views will be used in multiple queries, it makes sense to encapsulate them in a view:
Thus the needed query becomes:
For more information on the meaning of user_type and system_type and the other related metadata stored, or on the length of each data types in SQL Server please check the local or online SQL Server documentation (see: Mapping System Tables to System Views, respectively Data Types).
Analyzing the Data Content
Analyzing the content resumes in studying the completeness for each attribute, what values are used and their distribution, the minimal/maximal/average values and minimal/maximal/average length of values.
Completeness could be studied as a metric of the number of records that have not-null values, or the complementary metric, the number of records that have null values, or as a percentage of the two from the total number of records. For example in order to study the completeness of “Color” attribute could be used the following query:
Studying completeness of attributes is important especially for the cases in which the attribute becomes mandatory, the number of null records equating with the number of changes that need to be made in order to make the respective values available. In contrast, the not-null values could be a base for further review.
The next step is determining the values used in attributes, in other words the number of distinct values appearing in an attribute. Eventually, especially for list of values, it could be considered as a percentage from the number of values available. For example it could be studied how many accounts are used from the number of accounts defined. On the other side there are also attributes for which the list of possible values are not explicitly delimited, as in the case of colors available for Products, though that doesn’t necessarily happen in all business cases. In order to determine the number of distinct colors used for queries could be used the following query:
Please note that the NULL value is ignored by count aggregate function. I’m mentioning that because there are cases in which the NULL value has a meaning of its own, in such cases the NULL could be placed with a meaningful (e.g. ‘’n/a in this case).
Attributes’ usage is quite an important subject when considering metadata, being for example important to study which attributes are referenced in various tables. For example is of importance studying which Products appear in Purchases, Sales Orders, Inventory, etc, especially the respective Products have to receive special attention in what concerns Data Quality.
The number of distinct values is just a measure in studying attributes’ usage, a more complex analysis being performed based on the frequency distribution of values based on the number of references in a given table/dataset. This can be easily done using a count together with a grouping based on the studied attribute. Here’s the example for color:
As can be seen from the above output (called a univariate frequency table), the result shows not only the number of records with NULL values, but also the number of distinct values. Attributes’ usage could be used also as a criteria for prioritizing Data Cleansing by focusing first on the attributes with the highest frequency. Eventually the frequencies could be expressed also as percentages in ratio with the number of records, the percentages being often considered as more representative values in visualization of data.
Often it’s useful to study the frequency of values based on explicit (e.g. Product Category/Subcategory) or implicit (ad-hoc defined) categories instead of studying values’ distribution.
A third technique used in analyzing attribute’s usage is based on identifying the range of values, here simple statistical tools like minimum, maximum, average or standard variation of values could be of importance in understanding the data. The minimum and maximum could be applied for all data types, but they are meaningful mainly for the numeric and date-time data types, and both could take advantage of the whole specific range of statistical tools. Studying the maximum and minimum value within for a string data attribute makes sense only when there is a strong lexicographical motivation, therefore as example I will consider the List Price from same Product table.
The 0 values could be excluded from analysis because at least in this case they represent rather the lack of a valid List Price. At least in this case the average and standard deviation doesn’t really make sense, while the minimum and maximum reveal the range of values used. As in the case of frequencies, it’s useful to study the frequency of values based on explicit or implicit categories. Here’s an example based on List Price aggregation at Subcategory level:
I tend to believe that such analysis at category level is less important in Data Profiling, though there could be also exceptions, for example the case of ABC analysis.
Analyzing the Data Structure
The understanding of the structure of data is facilitated by the metadata available in the database itself, the logical/semantical data models and other types of documentation (e.g. functional specifications, data dictionaries, etc.), but as specified above even if the data are filled in a given predefined structure, when the database is not adequately normalized or that the data attributes are misused, results structures in structures, sometimes people use their own encodings varying from person to person, while other times such encodings are standardized, and even implemented in tools. When we talk about structure, the simplest metrics that could be created are based on the minimal and maximal length of attributes, while the average length could be used for example as a base for calculating the volume of data. Here’s the example script based on Color attribute:
The discovery of special structures (patterns) used inside of an attribute are not so easy to determine using simple scripts, at least not unless the structure is known in advance. There are tools and I’ve seen also some SQL scripts available that allow identifying the patterns in data, though they have more or less precision and I believe human intervention is requested (semi-automatic methods).
Analyzing Data Relations
Talking about patterns, also the discovery of relations between attributes could be considered as special type of pattern discovery, the above last statement applying for them too, the data mining field providing many tools for this type of discovery. In theory the relation between attributes could be discovered by grouping two or more attributes and analyze the output and interdependence between them. Whether that can be achieved by a database developer, it depends also on his skills and knowledge in statistics and data mining field, often being required an experience Data Analyst for this type of tasks.
There are more to say about Data Profiling topic, there are many more (complex) techniques that could be used to profile the data, especially in respect to Data Quality, which mainly focuses on 6 important dimensions of data: accuracy, duplicates (or uniqueness), completeness, consistency, conformity and referential integrity. If in previous posts I addressed the respective topics from a theoretical point of view, I will try to attempt to develop the subjects from Data Profiling perspective in next posts, showing various techniques that could be used by developers for this purpose.
 Olson, J.E. (2003). Data Quality: The Accuracy Dimension. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. ISBN: 1-55860-891-5