Introducing PyRefine: OpenRefine meets Python

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Python OpenRefine Data Data cleaning Experiment

I’m knocking the rust off my programming skills by attempting to write a pure-Python interpreter for OpenRefine “scripts”.

OpenRefine logo

OpenRefine is a great tool for exploring and cleaning datasets prior to analysing them. It also records an undo history of all actions that you can export as a sort of script in JSON format. One thing that bugs me though is that, having spent some time interactively cleaning up your dataset, you then need to fire up OpenRefine again and do some interactive mouse-clicky stuff to apply that cleaning routine to another dataset. You can at least re-import the JSON undo history to make that as quick as possible, but there’s no getting around the fact that there’s no quick way to do it from a cold start.

There is a project, BatchRefine, that extends the OpenRefine server to accept batch requests over a HTTP API, but that isn’t useful when you can’t or don’t want to keep a full Java stack running in the background the whole time.

My concept is this: you use OR to explore the data interactively and design a cleaning process, but then export the process to JSON and integrate it into your analysis in Python. That way it can be repeated ad nauseam without having to fire up a full Java stack.

I’m taking some inspiration from the great talk “So you want to be a wizard?” by Julia Evans (@b0rk), who recommends trying experiments as a way to learn. She gives these Rules of Programming Experiments:

  • “it doesn’t have to be good
  • it doesn’t have to work
  • you have to learn something”

In that spirit, my main priorities are: to see if this can be done; to see how far I can get implementing it; and to learn something. If it also turns out to be a useful thing, well, that’s a bonus. Some of the interesting possible challenges here:

  • Implement all core operations; there are quite a lot of these, some of which will be fun (i.e. non-trivial) to implement
  • Implement (a subset of?) GREL, the General Refine Expression Language; I guess my undergrad course on implementing parsers and compilers will come in handy after all!
  • Generate clean, sane Python code from the JSON rather than merely executing it; more than anything, this would be a nice educational tool for users of OpenRefine who want to see how to do equivalent things in Python
  • Selectively optimise key parts of the process; this will involve profiling the code to identify bottlenecks as well as tweaking the actual code to go faster
  • Potentially handle contributions to the code from other people; I’d be really happy if this happened but I’m realistic…

If you’re interested, the project is called PyRefine and it’s on github. Constructive criticism, issues & pull requests all welcome!

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