A Case Study of Turning Spreadsheets into Structured Data Powerhouses
In a former life, I had the nickname of ‘Spreadsheet King’ (perhaps among others that I did not care to hear). I had gotten the nick because of my aggressive use of spreadsheets for financial models, competitors tracking, time series analyses, and the like. However, in all honesty, I have encountered many others in my career much more knowledgeable and capable with spreadsheets than I’ll ever be. So, maybe I was really more like a minor duke or a court jester than true nobility.
Yet, pro or amateur, there are perhaps 1 billion spreadsheet users worldwide , making spreadsheets undoubtedly the most prevalent data authoring environment in existence. And, despite moans and wails about how spreadsheets can lead to chaos, spaghetti code, or violations of internal standards, they are here to stay.
Spreadsheets often begin as simple notetaking environments. With the addition of new findings and more analysis, some of these worksheets may evolve to become full-blown datasets. Alternatively, some spreadsheets start from Day One as intended datasets or modeling environments. Whatever the case, clearly there is much accumulated information and data value “locked up” in existing spreadsheets.
How to “unlock” this value for sharing and collaboration was a major stimulus to development of the commON serialization of irON (instance record and Object Notation) . I recently published a case study  that describes the reasons and benefits of dataset authoring in a spreadsheet, and provides working examples and code based on Sweet Tools  to aid users in understanding and using the commON notation. I summarize portions of that study herein.
Background on Sweet Tools and irON
The dataset that is the focus of this use case, Sweet Tools, began as an informal tracking spreadsheet about four years ago. I began it as a way to learn about available tools in the semantic Web and -related spaces. I began publishing it and others found it of value so I continued to develop it.
As it grew over time, however, it gained in structure and size. Eventually, it became a reference dataset, with which many other people desired to use and interact. The current version has well over 800 tools listed, characterized by many structured data attributes such as type, programming language, description and so forth. As it has grown, a formal controlled vocabulary has also evolved to bring consistency to the characterization of many of these attributes.
It was natural for me to maintain this listing as a spreadsheet, which was also reinforced when I was one of the first to adopt an Exhibit presentation of the data based on a Google spreadsheet about three years back. Here is a partial view of this spreadsheet as I maintain it locally:
When we began to develop irON in earnest as a simple (“naïve”) dataset authoring framework, it was clear that a comma-separated value, or CSV , option should join the other two serializations under consideration, XML and JSON. CSV, though less expressive and capable as a data format than the other serializations, still has an attribute-value pair (also known as key-value pairs and many other variants ) orientation. And, via spreadsheets, datasets can be easily authored and inspected, while also providing a rich functional environment including sorting, formatting, data validation, calculations, macros, etc.
As a dataset very familiar to us as irON‘s editors, and directly relevant to the semantic Web, Sweet Tools provided a perfect prototype case study for helping to guide the development of irON, and specifically what came to be known as the commON serialization for irON. The Sweet Tools dataset is relatively large for a speciality source, has many different types and attributes, and is characterized by text, images, URLs and similar.
The premise was that if Sweet Tools could be specified and represented in commON sufficiently to be parsed and converted to interoperable RDF, then many similar instance-oriented datasets could likely be so as well. Thus, as we tried and refined notation and vocabulary, we tested applicability against the CSV representation of Sweet Tools in addition to other CSV, JSON and XML datasets.
Dataset Authoring in a Spreadsheet
A large portion of the case study describes the many advantages of authoring small datasets within spreadsheets. The useful thing about the CSV format is that these full functional capabilities of the spreadsheet are available during authoring or later updates and modifications, but, when exported, the CSV provides a relatively clean format for processing and parsing.
So, some of the reasons for small dataset authoring in a spreadsheet include:
- Formatting and on-sheet management - the first usefulness of a spreadsheet comes from being able to format and organize the records. Records can be given background colors to highlight distinctions (new entries, for example); live URL links can be embedded; contents can be wrapped and styled within cells; and the column and row heads can be “frozen”, useful when scrolling large workspaces
- Named blocks and sorting – named blocks are a powerful feature of modern spreadsheets, useful for data manipulation, printing and internal referencing by formulas and the like. Sorting with named blocks is especially important as an aid to check consistency of terminology, records completeness, duplicates checks, missing value checks, and the like. Named blocks can also be used as references in calculations. All of these features are real time savers, especially when datasets grow large and consistency of treatment and terminology is important
- Multiple sheets and consolidated access – commON modules can be specified on a single worksheet or multiple worksheets and saved as individual CSV files; because of its size and relative complexity, the Sweet Tools dataset is maintained on multiple sheets. Multi-worksheet environments help keep related data and notes consolidated and more easily managed on local hard drives
- Completeness and counts - the spreadsheet counta function is useful to sum counts for cell entries by both column and row, a useful aid to indicate if an attribute or type value is missing or if a record is incomplete. Of course, similar helps and uses can be found for many of the hundreds of embedded functions within a spreadsheet
- Controlled vocabularies and data entry validation – quality datasets often hinge on consistency and uniform values and terminology; the data validation utilities within spreadsheets can be applied to Boolean, ranges and mins and maxes, and to controlled vocabulary lists. Here is an example for Sweet Tools, enforcing proper tool category assignments from a 50-item pick list:
- Specialized functions and macros – all functionality of spreadsheets may be employed in the development of commON datasets. Then, once employed, only the values embedded within the sheets are then exported as CSV.
Staging Sweet Tools for commON
The next major section of the case study deals with the minor conventions that must be followed in order to stage spreadsheets for commON. Not much of the specific commON vocabulary or notation is discussed below; for details, see .
Because you can create multiple worksheets within a spreadsheet, it is not necessary to modifiy existing worksheets or tabs. Rather, if you are reluctant or can not change existing information, merely create parallel duplicate sheets of the source information. These duplicate sheets have as their sole purpose export to commON CSV. You can maintain your spreadsheet as is while staging for commON.
To do so, use the simple = formula to create cross-references between the existing source spreadsheet tab and the target commON CSV export tab. (You can also do this for complete, highlighted blocks from source to target sheet.) Then, by adding the few minor conventions of commON, you have now created a staged export tab without modifying your source information in the slightest.
In standard form and for Excel and Open Office, single quotes, double quotes and commas when entered into a spreadsheet cell are automatically ‘escaped‘ when issued as CSV. commON allows you to specify your own delimiter for lists (the standard is the pipe ‘|’ character) and what the parser recognizes as the ‘escape’ character (‘\’ is the standard). However, you probably should not change for most conditions.
The standard commON parsers and converters are UTF-8 compatible. If your source content has unusual encodings, try to target UTF-8 as your canonical spreadsheet output.
In the irON specification there are a small number of defined modules or processing sections. In commON, these modules are denoted by the double-ampersand character sequence (‘&&‘), and apply to lists of instance records (&&recordList), dataset specifications and associated metadata describing the dataset (&&dataset), and mappings of attributes and types to existing schema (&&linkage). Similarly, attributes and types are denoted by a single ampersand prefix (&attributeName).
In commON, any or all of the modules can occur within a single CSV file or in multiple files. In any case, the start of one of these processing modules is signaled by the module keyword and &&keyword convention.
The RecordList Module
The first spreadsheet figure above shows a Sweet Tools example for the &&recordList module. The module begins with that keyword, indicating one of more instance records will follow. Note that the first line after the &&recordList keyword is devoted to the listing of attributes and types for the instance records (designated by the &attributeName convention in the columns for the first row after the &&recordList keyword is encountered).
The &&recordList format can also include the stacked style (see similar Dataset example below) in addition to the single row style shown above.
At any rate, once a worksheet is ready with its instance records following the straightforward irON and commON conventions, it can then be saved as a CSV file and appropriately named. Here is an example of what this “vanilla” CSV file now looks like when shown again in a spreadsheet:
Alternatively, you could open this same file in a text editor. Here is how this exact same instance record view looks in an editor:
Note that the CSV format separates each column by the comma separator, with escapes shown for the &description attribute when it includes a comma-separated clause. Without word wrap, each record in this format occupies a single row (though, again, for the stacked style, multiple entries are allowed on individual rows so long as a new instance record &id is not encountered in the first column).
The Dataset Module
The &&dataset module defines the dataset parameters and provides very flexible metadata attributes to describe the dataset . Note the dataset specification is exactly equivalent in form to the instance record (&&recordList) format, and also allows the single row or stacked styles (see these instance record examples), with this one being the stacked style:
The Linkage Module
The &&linkage module is used to map the structure of the instance records to some structural schema, which can also include external ontologies. The module has a simple, but specific structure.
Either attributes (presented as the &attributeList) or types (presented as the &typeList) are listed sequentially by row until the listing is exhausted . By convention, the second column in the listing is the targeted &mapTo value. Absent a prior &prefixList value, the &mapTo value needs to be a full URL to the corresponding attribute or type in some external schema:
Notice in the case of Sweet Tools that most values are from the actual COSMO mini-ontology underlying the listing. These need to be listed as well, since absent the specifications in commON the system has NO knowledge of linkages and mappings.
The Schema (structure) Module
In its current state of development, commON does not support a spreadsheet-based means for specifying the schema structure (lightweight ontology) governing the datasets . Another irON serialization, irJSON, does. Either via this irJSON specification or via an offline ontology, a link reference is presently used by commON (and, therefore, Sweet Tools for this case study) to establish the governing structure of the input instance record datasets.
A spreadsheet-based schema structure for commON has been designed and tested in prototype form. commON should be enhanced with this capability in the near future .
Saving and Importing
If the modules are spread across more than one worksheet, then each worksheet must be saved as its own CSV file. In the case of Sweet Tools, as exhibited by its reference current spreadsheet, sweet_tools_20091110.xls, three individual CSV files get saved. These files can be named whatever you would like. However, it is essential that the names be remembered for later referencing.
My own naming convention is to use a format of appname_date_modulename.csv because it sorts well in a file manager accommodating multiple versions (dates) and keeps related files clustered. The appname in the case of Sweet Tools is generally swt. The modulename is generally the dataset, records, or linkage convention. I tend to use the date specification in the YYYYMMDD format. Thus, in the case of the records listings for Sweet Tools, its filename could be something like: swt_20091110_records.csv.
Once saved, these files are now ready to be imported into a structWSF  instance, which is where the CSV parsing and conversion to interoperable RDF occurs . In this case study, we used the Drupal-based conStruct SCS system . conStruct exposes the structWSF Web services via a user interface and a user permission and access system. The actual case study write-up offers more details about the import process.
Using the Dataset
We are now ready to interact with the Sweet Tools structured dataset using conStruct (assuming you have a Drupal installation with the conStruct modules) .
Introduction to the App
The screen capture below shows a couple of aspects of the system:
- First, the left hand panel (according to how this specific Drupal install was themed) shows the various tools available to conStruct. These include (with links to their documentation) Search, Browse, View Record, Import, Export, Datasets, Create Record, Update Record, Delete Record and Settings ;
- The Browse tree in the main part of the screen shows the full mini-ontology that classifies Sweet Tools. Via simple inferencing, clicking on any parent link displays all children projects for that category as well (click to expand):
One of the absolutely cool things about this framework is that all tools, inferencing, user interfaces and data structure are a direct result of the ontology(ies) underlying the system (plus the irON instance ontology, as well). This means that switching datasets or adding datasets causes the entire system structure to now reflect those changes — without lifting a finger!!
Some Sample Uses
Here are a few sample things you can do with these generic tools driven by the Sweet Tools dataset:
- Browsing the ontology tree (then, Browse by Kind)
- Viewing an instance record
- Viewing a Class Type Report
- Viewing an Attribute Report
- Searching by facet (check the tabs)
- Doing a multi-value filtering (make selections from the various tabs),
- Exporting stuff in a variety of formats.
Note, if you access this conStruct instance you will do so as a demo user. Unfortunately, as such, you may not be able to see all of the write and update tools, which in this case are reserved for curators or admins. Recall that structWSF has a comprehensive user access and permissions layer.
Exporting in Alternative Formats
Of course, one of the real advantages of the irON and structWSF designs is to enable different formats to be interchanged and to interoperate. Upon submission, the commON format and its datasets can then be exported in these alternate formats and serializations :
As should be obvious, one of the real benefits of the irON notation — in addition to easy dataset authoring — is the ability to more-or-less treat RDF, CSV, XML and JSON as interoperable data formats.
The Formal Case Study
The formal Sweet Tools case study based on commON, with sample download files and PDF, is available from Annex: A commON Case Study using Sweet Tools, Supplementary Documentation .
Attribute-values can also be presented as pairs in a form of an associative array, where the first item listed is the attribute, often followed by a separator such as the colon, and then the value. JSON and many simple data struct notations follow this format. This format may also be called attribute-value pairs, key-value pairs, name-value pairs, alists or others. In these cases the “object” is implied, or is introduced as the name of the array..