Tidycells Package

Indranil Gayen

2019-08-27

tidycells

Read Tabular Data from Diverse Sources and Easily Make Them Tidy

TL;DR

Given a file_name which is a path of a file that contains table(s). Run this read_cells() in the R-console to see whether support is present for the file type. If support is present, just run

Note Just start with a small file.

Inspiration

A spreadsheet is really flexible in storing and sharing data. Many organizations use excel files as their fundamental medium of data exchange (particularly in the government sector). These data are generally not in tidy format (thanks to ultra flexibility of spreadsheets!).

This is a great time killer for R data scientist adopting tidyverse techniques. A lot of time is spent to bring the data into a consumable or usable format (tidy format).

For example, you may check out Database of Indian Economy (a public data dissemination platform from Reserve Bank of India). This platform is a great source of Indian economy data. However, since the target audience of this platform is possibly common people and not data scientists, the data structure is not suitable for ready consumption in tidyverse functions. This is not only one, but there are plenty of great source of data which provides data in “eye-relaxing” format rather than tidy format.

Thanks to great packages like tidyr, tidyxl, unpivotr (and many other sweet packages mentioned in reference) which enable users to spend less time in reshaping the data and focus more on analysis rather than data wrangling.

These packages require user interaction and decision to transform and reshape the raw data (which is still easier than doing copy-paste and transpose in excel) into the tidy format.

However, consider the situations like, you are given a pile of excel (or any other format of spreadsheets) which are somehow similar but are generated by various human hands over a long period (obviously the format and structure will change from file to file). Or you want to build an automated forecast mechanism based on some spreadsheet which updates periodically (possibly you may get the updated file through some automated channel like web scraping, FTP transfer etc.). Or simply you want something like “I’m Feeling Lucky!”

Introduction

The package provides utilities to read, cells from complex tabular data and heuristic detection based ‘structural assignment’ of those cells to a columnar or tidy format.

Read functionality has the ability to read (in a unified manner) structured, partially structured or unstructured tabular data (usually spreadsheets for public data dissemination and aimed for common human understanding) from various types of documents. The tabular information is read as cells. The ‘structure assignment’ functionality has both supervised and unsupervised way of assigning cells data to columnar/tidy format. Multiple disconnected blocks of tables in a single sheet are also handled appropriately.

These tools are suitable for unattended conversation of (maybe a pile of) messy tables (like government data) into a consumable format(usable for further analysis and data wrangling).

Getting Started

1. Reading Data

Assuming you have a document(in either csv, xls, xlsx, docx, doc, html or in pdf, well not a scanned one) which contains a table, you can read the file directly to a tidy format (let’s refer the same as composed format) using read_cells like the following example:

Let’s see how the file actually looks like

Kid.Name Weight Age
Nakshatra 12 1.5
Titas 16 6.0

Now we can simply run

collated_1 collated_2 collated_3 table_tag value
Weight Nakshatra Kid Name Table_1 12
Weight Titas Kid Name Table_1 16
Age Nakshatra Kid Name Table_1 1.5
Age Titas Kid Name Table_1 6

Not a big deal for csv though. Also looks similar to

Kid.Name measure val_of_measure
Nakshatra Weight 12.0
Titas Weight 16.0
Nakshatra Age 1.5
Titas Age 6.0

So what is this package is doing. Looks trivial right? But we’ll look at some more complicated examples in following sections which perhaps may feel to you as non-trivial. So let’s continue.

Note that read_cells is neutral to file extension which means if somehow .xls file is saved as .csv file, then also it will detect the underlying file correctly as xls and use appreciate function to read tabular information contained in the file.

However, support for each file types apart from csv is based on optional R packages. If you simply type read_cells() in the console, it will print which file types are supported and which package is potentially required for functionality, those are currently not available. If any package is potentially required, install the same and restart the R session to make that effective.

Here is a sample output:

Well, this is like “I’m feeling lucky” kind of thing as told you earlier. If the final result is not what you are looking for, you may have to do some bit of extra work.

The function read_cells has a few layers or stages of processing. You can choose the stage to stop processing and give intermediate results. Then you may manipulate the intermediate result, tune it and finally again resume processing (or do it outside read_cells completely!).

Notice that read_cells can be broken into pieces like

Now to make you understand what you can do with intermediate results, let’s explain to you other functionalities of the package and what are the steps followed by read_cells.

The flowchart of read_cells (which will make more sense once you go through following section)

2. Making Data tidy

2.1 as_cell_df

If you have any R object x, you can call as_cell_df convert it into a cell-df format (the format to store cell by cell information. See the documentation of as_cell_df or cell_df-class for more details).

Each stored cell has an address specified by row and column and a value (converted to a string) and a possible data type. Thus the cell_df structure is defined. This is the first level of operations performed by read_cells.

You can even see how the data looks by issuing plot command.

2.2 value_attribute_classify

Next task is to assign each cell into value, attribute (of those values) and empty (irrelevant information). This is referred to in the package as value/attribute classification (VA classification). There are main 4 alternative ways to do this apart from manually editing by hand. These are documented in value_attribute_classify function.

For now, we’ll use the most useful classifier, numeric_values_classifier. It assumes the cells which can be converted to a number, as values and rest as attributes. If the cell is storing a number as a string (remember the famous warning you may have seen in Excel about “Number Stored as Text”) it will treat that as values.

Let’s take a sample example

name sal age
Mr. X 1,000 35
Mr. Y 12,000 60

We can either do this

Or this

Let’s plot it

Once VA classification is done, if you plot the cells you’ll notice the color scheme is now pointed at VA classification (which is given by Type) rather than cell types.

2.3 analyze_cells

After this stage now the cell-df is ready for analysis (to understand data blocks, the orientation of attributes with respect to data or values). This is done via the following command.

This takes a while (the time taken is largely dependent on the complexity of the underlying tabular structure). Once it’s done you can plot the cell analysis and see how the heuristic detection has performed. Currently, only interactive way is developed for possible modifications in a cell analysis (covered in the subsequent section: Interactive Modules).

2.4 compose_cells

Having a cell analysis at hand, the next process to perform is to compose this cell analysis to form a composed columnar format data.frame. This is easily done as

row col data_block value major_1 major_2 minor_1
2 1 1 5.1 setosa Sepal.Length Species
3 1 1 4.9 setosa Sepal.Length Species
4 1 1 4.7 setosa Sepal.Length Species
5 1 1 4.6 setosa Sepal.Length Species
6 1 1 5 setosa Sepal.Length Species
7 1 1 5.4 setosa Sepal.Length Species
row col data_block value major_1 major_2 minor_1
2 2 1 1,000 Mr. X sal name
3 2 1 12,000 Mr. Y sal name
2 3 1 35 Mr. X age name
3 3 1 60 Mr. Y age name

After this, you may like to see how the final data is connected or rendered from the actual table. To do this you may run

There is an optional interactive version of it, which is explained in the subsequent section Interactive Modules.

2.5 collate_columns

The data should be consumable after the composition stage, in most of the cases. However, in the presence of extreme variations in the underlying data structure, another step may be required which can be coined as “collation of columns”. If somehow the data is a bit cooperative in a sense that from the data itself it can be inferred that which column should be mapped with which column, then this stage is useful. It is a stage which does approximate string matching (which is enhanced if you have optional dependency stringdist package) to find out inter-column mapping among various data blocks (if the data has multiple small tables). In case there is only one table (a single data block) then this stage will do almost nothing except renaming the columns. In iris and dummy_dat example, this is kind of meaningless. This will be clear to you once you move forward to the next section (where “A more complicated example” is discussed).

The function collate_columns is designed to carry out this operation. This can be easily done as

collated_1 collated_2 collated_3 value
Sepal.Length setosa Species 5.1
Sepal.Length setosa Species 4.9
Sepal.Length setosa Species 4.7
Sepal.Length setosa Species 4.6
Sepal.Length setosa Species 5
Sepal.Length setosa Species 5.4

Note: You may omit this stage by choosing read_cells(..., at_level = "compose").

That’s all. These are the process flow followed by read_cells. Thus, summing it all

collated_1 collated_2 collated_3 value
Weight Nakshatra Kid.Name 12
Weight Titas Kid.Name 16
Age Nakshatra Kid.Name 1.5
Age Titas Kid.Name 6

A half-done item can be further manipulated and after the same, we can give it back to read_cells again to finish further processing (or simply can do it ourselves). Here is a sample manipulation example.

A more complicated example

Let’s take a quick look at another example data as given in

The data looks like (in excel)

Let’s try our luck in this data

Read at once

collated_1 collated_2 collated_3 collated_4 collated_5 table_tag value
Score Male School A Student Name Utsyo Roy Sheet1 95
Score Male School A Student Name Nakshatra Gayen Sheet1 99
Score Female School A Student Name Titas Gupta Sheet1 89
Score Female School A Student Name Ujjaini Gayen Sheet1 100
Score Male School B Student Indranil Gayen Sheet1 70
Score Male School B Student S Gayen Sheet1 75
Score Female School B Student Sarmistha Senapati Sheet1 81
Score Female School B Student Shtuti Roy Sheet1 90
Score Male School C Name I Roy Sheet1 50
Score Male School C Name S Ghosh Sheet1 59
Score Female School C Name S Senapati Sheet1 61
Score Female School C Name U Gupta Sheet1 38

Let’s understand step by step procedures followed by read_cells.

Then you need to run compose_cells with additional new argument print_attribute_overview = TRUE

head(dcfine) looks like

school sex name value
School A Male Utsyo Roy 95
School A Male Nakshatra Gayen 99
School A Female Titas Gupta 89
School A Female Ujjaini Gayen 100
School B Male Indranil Gayen 70
School B Male S Gayen 75

This is still not good right! You had to manually pick some weird column-names (when it was evident from data which columns should be aligned with whom).

The collate_columns functions does exactly this for you. So instead of manually picking column-names after compose cells you can simply run

collated_1 collated_2 collated_3 collated_4 collated_5 value
Score Male School A Student Name Utsyo Roy 95
Score Male School A Student Name Nakshatra Gayen 99
Score Female School A Student Name Titas Gupta 89
Score Female School A Student Name Ujjaini Gayen 100
Score Male School B Student Indranil Gayen 70
Score Male School B Student S Gayen 75

Looks like staged example! Yes you are right, this is not always perfect (same is true for analyze_cells also). However, if the data is somehow helpful in demystifying underlying columns structure (like this one), then this will be useful.

Once again, these functions read_cells (all functionalities combined), analyze_cells, collate_columns are here to ease your pain in data wrangling and reading from various sources. It may not be full-proof solution to all types of tabular data. It is always recommended to perform these tasks manually whenever expected results are not coming.

3. Support for Multiple Formats

When coming to support for multiple formats (assuming you have all the required packages as specified by read_cells) you can run following set of command to test the multi-format support in read_cells.

Each file is with the wrong extension and the original extension should be the file name part before extension (intentionally created for testing this feature). Like for example, docx.csv is actually a docx. You can copy into some location where you have write access, then rename appropriately and open it to verify.

4. Interactive Modules

The package also provides shiny based interactive visualisations for understanding how the heuristic is functioning and also provides object (like cell-df or cell-analysis) editing capabilities.

The shiny package is required for these functions. Most of the features are self-explanatory and guided. Check out interactive documentation of any of these functions listed below. All of these functions are available as RStudio Addins. Here are screenshots of each interactive widgets.

  1. Plot tune (part of all modules)
  2. visual_crop() for data crop and deletion of sections

  1. visual_va_classify() for interactive VA classification
  2. visual_data_block_inspection() this shows how the heuristic has performed the analysis after analyze_cells

  1. visual_orientation_modification() for modification to heuristic based results
  2. visual_traceback() this is for observing how the original data is composed to form the final output. (compose_cells is called internally)

For each of these modules, there is a dynamic plot option available from plotly. If you have that package the corresponding tab will be activated. Since all of these modules are entirely optional the dependency is kept at tidycells ‘suggests’ level only.