Challenges in Data Science: Acquisition, Normalization & Cleansing
by Nick Jordan, on June 2, 2023
The exhilarating realm of data science is marked by its transformative power: its ability to convert the abstractness of raw data into potent insights that can steer organizational decision-making. However, it would be a gross oversimplification to say that this journey is a straight, smooth path. It's more like navigating through a labyrinth riddled with intricate challenges that often act as substantial barriers to data scientists. This comprehensive article aims to dissect the critical steps involved in this process, namely data acquisition, normalization, and cleansing, scrutinize their apparent and hidden challenges, and suggest pragmatic solutions to these hurdles.
Data Acquisition: It's Not as Simple as ABC
Data acquisition, the pioneering step in the data science process, involves obtaining and ingesting raw data. The most prominent challenge at this stage is indeed access: pinpointing the right datasets, procuring them, and ascertaining their appropriate format.
Let's consider the example of a healthcare organization trying to study the effects of a particular drug. They need to acquire data not only from their internal systems but also from external sources like drug manufacturers, other hospitals, and even patients themselves. Here, gaining access to external data might involve issues related to privacy, consent, and interoperability of disparate systems.
But beyond this ostensible challenge lies a subtle, potential pitfall: bias.
A selection bias might creep in if the data being gathered isn't representative of the entire population under consideration. For instance, if our healthcare organization only considers data from urban hospitals and neglects rural ones, the final analysis might be skewed. Hence, ensuring unbiased, inclusive data is crucial to drive accurate analysis and interpretation.
Data Normalization: Balancing Act for Better Analysis
Data normalization follows data acquisition. This process, which entails converting data to a common scale without warping differences in the range of values, presents its own unique trials. The most palpable challenge lies in picking the right normalization technique compatible with the dataset in question.
However, another challenge looms underneath the surface: managing data
normalization in real-time scenarios, particularly in cases of streaming data. For instance, social media platforms dealing with constant user-generated content need to normalize this data in real-time to make sense of it. Such immediate processing and analysis environments make normalization a daunting task.
Data Cleansing: More Than Just Spring Cleaning
Data cleansing, the practice of spotting and rectifying or deleting corrupt or inaccurate records from a dataset, often proves to be both time-intensive and frustrating. The immediate difficulty is in managing missing or inconsistent data, erroneous entries, and duplicate records.
An interesting case highlighting this challenge is the famous example of 'dirty data' in Google's Flu Trends tool. The tool was designed to predict flu outbreaks based on online search behavior. However, it overestimated the prevalence of flu due to a lack of rigorous data cleansing, such as controlling for media influence on people's search behavior.
Moreover, there's another layer of complexity involved: making judgement calls about outliers. It's often murky whether an outlier signifies a data entry error, a recording blunder, or a genuine deviation from the norm. Deciding whether to keep or discard such data points can dramatically affect the outcomes of the analysis.
Easing the Burden: Comprehensive Solutions
Addressing these challenges necessitates a fusion of strategic foresight and advanced technical solutions. Here are some enhanced suggestions:
Automating the Data Pipeline:
Automation can streamline the data acquisition, normalization, and cleansing process. Machine learning algorithms and AI tools can help identify, correct, or flag data quality issues, potentially reducing manual hours spent on these tasks by up to 60%.
Adopting Robust Data Governance:
A sound data governance framework can uphold high data quality standards, reducing issues related to bias and inaccuracy by up to 50%. This framework can safeguard data integrity right from the acquisition stage.
Investing in Data Collaboration Platforms:
Platforms dedicated to data sharing can simplify data acquisition by providing a hub for sharing and leveraging data across teams or even organizations, saving countless hours spent on redundant data acquisition tasks.
Training & Upskilling:
Continuous learning can keep data scientists up-to-date with the best practices and latest tools for data normalization and cleansing, improving their efficiency by as much as 30%.
Utilizing Advanced Analytics Tools:
Cutting-edge analytics tools can handle real-time data normalization effectively, lifting a significant burden off data scientists' shoulders and reducing the time spent on normalization by nearly 40%.
In conclusion, while data acquisition, normalization, and cleansing indeed pose significant challenges, well-planned strategies and advanced tools can significantly reduce the struggles faced by data scientists. The ultimate objective is to minimize friction, trim manual hours, and allow data scientists to focus on their core competence - extracting valuable insights from data. By addressing these challenges head-on, we can pave the way for a future where data scientists spend more time on decision-making and less on data wrangling.