Rules Suggestion – What is it and how can it help in the pursuit of improving data quality?  

Written by Daniel Browne, Machine Learning Engineer

Defining data quality rules and collection of rules for data quality projects is often a manual time-consuming process. It often involves a subject matter expert reviewing data sources and designing quality rules to ensure the data complies with integrity, accuracy and / or regulatory standards. As data sources increase in volume and variety with potential functional dependencies, the task of defining data quality rules becomes more difficult. The application of machine learning can aid with this task by identifying dependencies between datasets through to the uncovering patterns related to data quality and suggesting previously applied rules to similar data.   

At Datactics, we recently undertook a Rule Suggestion Project to automate the process of defining data quality rules for datasets through rule suggestions. We use natural language processing techniques to analyse the contents of a dataset and suggest rules in our rule library that best fit each column.  

Problem Area and ML Solution  

Generally, there are several data quality and data cleansing rules that you would typically want to apply to certain fields in a dataset. An example is a consistency check on a phone number column in a dataset such as checking that the number provided is valid and formatted correctly. Unfortunately, it is not usually as simple as searching for the phrase “phone number” in a column header and going from there. A phone number column could be labelled “mobile”, or “contact”, or “tel”, for example. Doing a string match in these cases may not uncover accurate rule suggestions. We need context embedded into this process and this is where machine learning comes in. We’ve been experimenting with building and training machine learning models to be able to categorise data, then return suggestions for useful data quality and data cleansing rules to consider applying to datasets.  

Human in the Loop  

The goal here is not to take away control from the user, the machine learning model isn’t going to run off with your dataset and do what it determines to be right on its own – the aim is to assist the user and to streamline the selection of rules to apply. A user will have full control to accept or reject some or all suggestions that come from the Rule Suggestion model. Users can add new rules not suggested by the model and this information is captured to improve the suggestions by the model. We hope that this will be a useful tool for users to make the process of setting up data quality and data cleansing rules quicker and easier.  

Developers View  

I’ve been involved in the development of this project from the early stages, and it’s been exciting to see it come together and take shape over the course of the project’s development. A lot of my involvement has been around building out the systems and infrastructure to help users interact with the model and to format the model’s outputs into easily understandable and useful pieces of information. This work surrounds allowing the software to take a dataset and process it such that the model can make its predictions on it, and then mapping from the model’s output to the individual rules that will then be presented to the user.  

One of the major focuses we’ve had throughout the development of the project is control. We’ve been sure to build out the project with this in mind, with features such as giving users control over how cautious the model should be in making suggestions by being able to set confidence thresholds for suggestions, meaning the model will only return suggestions that meet or surpass the chosen threshold. We’ve also included the ability to add specific word-to-rule mappings that can help maintain a higher level of consistency and accuracy in results for very specific or rare categories that the model may have little or no prior knowledge of. For example, if there are proprietary fields that may have their own unique label, formatting, patterns or structures, and their own unique rules related to that, it’s possible to define a direct mapping from that to rules so that the Rule Suggestion system can produce accurate suggestions for any instances of that information in a dataset in the future.  

Another focus of the project we hope to develop further upon is the idea of consistently improving results as the project matures. In the future we’re looking to develop a system where the model can continue to adapt based on how the suggested rules are used. Ideally, this will mean that if the model tends to incorrectly predict that a specific rule or rules will be useful for a given dataset column, it will begin to learn to avoid suggesting that rule for that column based on the fact that users tend to disagree with that suggestion. Similarly, if there are rules that the model tends to avoid suggesting for a certain column that users then manually select, the model will learn to suggest these rules in similar cases in the future.  

In the same vein as this, one of the recent developments that I’ve found really interesting and exciting is a system that allows us to analyse the performance of various different machine learning models on a suite of sample data, which allows us to gain detailed insights into what makes an efficient and powerful rule prediction model, and how we can expect models to perform in real-world scenarios. It provides us with a sandbox to experiment with new ways of creating and updating machine learning models and being able to estimate baseline standards for performance, so we can be confident of the level of performance for our system. It’s been really rewarding to be able to analyse the results from this process so far and to be able to compare the different methods of processing the data and building machine learning models and see which areas one model may outperform another and so on.  

Thanks to Daniel for talking to us about rules suggestion. If you would like to discuss further or find out more about rules suggestion at Datactics, reach out to Daniel Browne directly or you can reach out to our Head of AI, Fiona Browne

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