Feeds

Structured data is boring and useless

And unstructructured data? Hmmm, sexy

Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable

Editor's blog We all know that structured data is boring and useless; while unstructured data is sexy and chock full of value. Well, only up to a point, Lord Copper.

Genuinely unstructured data can be a real nuisance - imagine extracting the return address from an unstructured letter, without letterhead and any of the formatting usually applied to letters.

A letter may be thought of as unstructured data, but most business letters are, in fact, highly-structured. This issue exercises Duncan Pauly, founder and chief technology officer of Coppereye, which sells indexing technology that exploits data structures, even when the data is in an unstructured container.

Duncan comes from the Oracle database world and has a deep understanding of data analysis and structure - and he finds that a fundamental knowledge of database and data structures is becoming increasingly rare.

I have to agree. At an IDC conference on Business Performance Management and Business Intelligence yesterday, I heard a speaker use Google Earth as an example of the use of unstructured data: "You just type in your postcode..."

Hold on a second. The data is geocoded by postcode of all things and identified by latitude and longitude (and, presumably, there's catalogued metadata associated with the photographs) - how on Earth [sorry] can it be called unstructured?

And, no, Google has not rendered data analysis and so on obsolete - my wife, an information scientist, never tires of pointing out that an unstructured search engine should be the last resort of the researcher, not the first. If you understand the structure and semantics of your data, there are usually more effective ways of retrieving the data you need than such a search engine can provide.

So, Duncan, what is the issue that's concerning you, exactly?

The labels "structured data" and "unstructured data" are often used ambiguously by different interest groups; and often used lazily to cover multiple distinct aspects of the issue. In reality, there are at least three orthogonal aspects to structure:

  • The structure of the data itself.
  • The structure of the container that hosts the data.
  • The structure of the access method used to access the data.

These three dimensions are largely independent and one does not need to imply another. For example, it is absolutely feasible and reasonable to store unstructured data in a structured database container and access it by unstructured search mechanisms.

What does that actually mean for the user of the data?

Unstructured data I take to be a sequence of tokens that require human interpretation or heuristics to derive semantic content. Structured data, however, has associated or implied metadata to define or label its semantics. Typically, unstructured data tends to be textual, where structured data tends contain vectors of quantitative scalar or referential identities.

OK, so (as I take it) truly unstructured data resists automation, a human has to be involved to provide the semantics necessary. The processing of structured data, even in unstructured containers, can be automated routinely - which is the business of developers. Perhaps we should throw this subject open to the readers of this blog; who are, presumably, mostly developers - what aspects of this issue do you think they should consider?

Well, perhaps:

  1. Do storage vendors, database vendors and search vendors misuse the "structured/unstructured" labels, and why?
  2. As search-engine user interfaces become more widely used and data-stores federate databases proper and document-style datastores, do we need to think more clearly about the distinction between unstructured and structured data?
  3. What are the implications of separating data-models from container models from access models? An RDBMS with an XML engine and a BLOB datatype, for example, stores a lot more than just relational data.

All right, all you practising developers. It's over to you...

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

More from The Register

next story
NO MORE ALL CAPS and other pleasures of Visual Studio 14
Unpicking a packed preview that breaks down ASP.NET
DARPA-derived secure microkernel goes open source tomorrow
Hacker-repelling, drone-protecting code will soon be yours to tweak as you see fit
Cheer up, Nokia fans. It can start making mobes again in 18 months
The real winner of the Nokia sale is *drumroll* ... Nokia
Put down that Oracle database patch: It could cost $23,000 per CPU
On-by-default INMEMORY tech a boon for developers ... as long as they can afford it
Another day, another Firefox: Version 31 is upon us ALREADY
Web devs, Mozilla really wants you to like this one
Google shows off new Chrome OS look
Athena springs full-grown from Chromium project's head
Apple: We'll unleash OS X Yosemite beta on the MASSES on 24 July
Starting today, regular fanbois will be guinea pigs, it tells Reg
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.