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Data Profiling: Types, Techniques and Best Practices

Mariam Anwar

Product Marketer

May 28th, 2024

Clean and accurate data is the foundation of organizations’ decision-making processes and is the reason why they’re heavily investing in data quality solutions. The global Data Quality Tools market was valued at $3.23 billion in 2023, and projections show that it’ll cross the $8 billion mark by 2030. 

Obtaining high-quality data is among the primary objectives of data preparation across different industries and sectors. This is where data profiling comes into play. It provides organizations with a general overview of all their data, which they can then use to detect errors and inconsistencies. These insights enable them to promptly rectify issues, make informed decisions, and enhance operational efficiency. 

Let’s dive into the specifics of data profiling and how it helps in data preparation.

What is Data Profiling? 

Data profiling ensures that the data is in good health and fit for its intended use. It is essentially the first step in the process of managing and using data.   

Data profiling can uncover a range of data quality issues, such as missing data, duplication, and inaccuracies. It also highlights patterns, rules, and trends within the data. This information is crucial as it helps organizations improve data quality, streamline data transformation, and make informed decisions. 

Data profiling in Astera.

Types of Data Profiling

Data profiling can be classified into three primary types: 

Structure Discovery: This process focuses on identifying the organization and metadata of data, such as tables, columns, and data types. This certifies that the data is consistent and formatted properly. For instance, in a healthcare database, structure discovery reveals the presence of tables like “Patients” and “Appointments” with columns such as “PatientID,” “AppointmentDate,” and data types like “integer” and “date.” 

Content Discovery: This involves a deep dive into the actual content of the data. It examines individual data records to identify errors. For example, in a customer database, content discovery reveals that the “Phone Number” column contains numerous missing values, highlighting incomplete contact information for certain customers. 

Relationship Discovery: This process identifies the relationships and dependencies between different data elements. For instance, in a retail database, relationship discovery would analyze the associations between different fields and tables, such as the relationship between the ‘Customers’ table and the ‘Orders’ table, understanding how different data elements are interconnected and how they influence each other. 

Data Profiling Techniques

Profiling data involves a variety of techniques that help analyze, assess, and understand data. Four primary techniques are: 

  1. Column Profiling: This technique analyzes each column in a database. It looks at the type of data in the column, how long the data is, and if there are any empty values. A crucial part of this process is frequency analysis, which counts how often each value appears, helping to spot patterns and unusual values. 
  2. Cross-Column Profiling: Here, the focus is on the relationships between different columns within the same table. It includes key and dependency analysis. Key analysis finds columns where each row has a unique value, while dependency analysis looks at how values in one column depend on values in another column. This can help find connections, overlaps, and inconsistencies between columns. 
  3. Cross-Table Profiling: This method looks at relationships between different tables in a database. It includes foreign key analysis, which finds columns in one table that match up with unique key columns in another table. This helps show how data in one table is related to data in another table and can provide important information about the structure and accuracy of the database. 
  4. Data Validation and Cleansing: This approach involves verifying the accuracy and quality of data against specific criteria or standards. It includes format checks, range checks, and consistency checks to ensure data is clean, correct, and logically consistent. 

Understanding the Difference: Data Profiling vs. Data Mining

Data profiling and data mining are two distinct processes with different objectives and methodologies.

A table listing the differences between data profiling and data mining.

Data profiling is the initial step in data preparation, focusing on understanding the data’s basic characteristics, quality, and structure. It helps identify data issues like missing values or anomalies. This helps ensure that data is clean and reliable for further use.

In contrast, data mining involves exploring the data to discover hidden patterns, trends, and valuable insights using advanced techniques like machine learning. These techniques can help with different tasks including: 

  • Pattern recognition 
  • Classification and prediction 
  • Clustering 
  • Anomaly detection 
  • Association rule mining 
  • Feature selection and dimensionality reduction 
  • Text and image mining 
  • Model evaluation and optimization 

Data Profiling Benefits

Data profiling offers a multitude of specific benefits that can significantly enhance an organization’s data management strategy. Here are some of the distinct advantages of data profiling: 

Informed Decision-Making: Data profiling provides a clear understanding of the available data, its quality, and its structure. This knowledge aids in making informed, data-driven decisions, thereby improving strategic planning and operational efficiency. 

Increased Operational Efficiency: It helps in identifying and eliminating redundant or irrelevant data. This leads to improved efficiency of data processing and analysis, resulting in faster insights, improved productivity, and a better bottom line. 

Risk Mitigation: Data profiling can help businesses identify potential risks and issues in their data, such as compliance violations or security threats. By addressing these issues proactively, businesses can mitigate risks and avoid costly penalties or damage to their reputation. 

Cost Savings: By improving data quality and efficiency, data profiling can lead to significant cost savings. Businesses can avoid the costs associated with poor-quality data, such as inaccurate decisions, wasted resources, and lost opportunities. 

Compliance Assurance: Data profiling can help businesses ensure compliance with industry regulations and standards. By addressing compliance issues, businesses can avoid legal complications and maintain their credibility in the market. 

Data Profiling Challenges 

Understanding the challenges and limitations of data profiling is key to ensuring data profiling methods’ effectiveness. Here are some of the data quality challenges and how to overcome them:  

Scalability 

When datasets grow and become increasingly complex over time, conventional data profiling techniques may prove insufficient for handling the growing data volume. Left unchecked, this can make data profiling tasks more resource-intensive and time-consuming — ultimately delaying data preparation and disrupting timely analysis. 

Organizations can address scalability issues by implementing parallel processing. Parallel processing techniques distribute profiling tasks across multiple nodes or processors. This measure improves efficiency and significantly reduces processing time for larger datasets. 

Resource Requirements 

Data profiling can require substantial computational resources such as memory, storage capacity, and processing power. Insufficient resources create performance bottlenecks and slow down profiling processes, impacting productivity and efficiency. 

Organizations can mitigate bottlenecks and boost productivity by optimizing resource allocation in the following ways: 

  • Investing in scalable infrastructure, such as cloud-based solutions, to ensure flexibility. 
  • Implementing dynamic resource allocation based on changing workload requirements. 

Complex Data Structures 

Modern data environments typically feature diverse data formats and structures. They also contain large amounts of semi-structured and unstructured data. Conventional data profiling techniques may not be as useful for analyzing such complex data structures, causing them to generate inaccurate or incomplete profiling results. 

Fortunately, enterprises can resolve this by incorporating advanced profiling techniques such as natural language processing and machine learning algorithms. These modern techniques can identify relationships and patterns within unstructured and semi-structured data and aid in obtaining more accurate profiling results. 

Data Privacy and Security 

Accessing and analyzing sensitive information — such as confidential business data and personally identifiable information — are standard components of data profiling. Maintaining data privacy and security throughout the profiling process is essential, as it helps defend data against data breaches, unauthorized access, and regulatory non-compliance. 

Organizations can resolve data privacy concerns by integrating data anonymization and masking techniques into their profiling methods. Doing so facilitates meaningful analysis while comprehensively protecting sensitive information. 

5 Best Practices of Data Profiling 

An image listing some data profiling best practices.

When performing data profiling, organizations follow some best practices to ensure accurate results and efficient analysis: 

  1. Define Clear Objectives: Clearly define the goals, objectives, and expectations to ensure it’s aligned with business needs and requirements. 
  2. Choose Relevant Data Sources: Select relevant data sources based on their importance, relevance, and potential impact on decision-making processes. 
  3. Establish Data Quality Metrics: Define appropriate metrics and validation rules to assess the quality and accuracy of data based on business requirements and industry standards. 
  4. Document Data Profiling Results: Document and communicate the findings, recommendations, and actions taken during data profiling to facilitate understanding, accountability, and compliance. 
  5. Regularly Monitor Data Quality: Implement regular data quality monitoring processes to ensure data consistency, accuracy, and compliance over time. 

Data Profiling Made Easier with Astera

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Applications of Data Profiling 

Data profiling finds applications in various areas and domains, including: 

Data Integration and Data Warehousing: Data profiling facilitates the integration of multiple datasets into a centralized data warehouse, ensuring data accuracy, consistency, and compatibility between sources. 

Data Migration and System Development: Before migrating data from one system to another or developing new software systems, data profiling helps identify potential data issues, detect data schema and structure, assess data distribution and patterns, and understand data dependencies and relationships. 

Data Analytics and Business Intelligence: By understanding the quality, structure, and relationships within data, data profiling empowers organizations to generate more accurate insights, make data-driven decisions, and enhance overall business intelligence. 

Data Profiling’s Role in Data Governance and Compliance 

Data profiling is vital in supporting organizational data governance and compliance initiatives. Data governance comprises all policies, processes, and controls that ensure data assets’ availability, integrity, and security. In contrast, compliance involves adherence to regulatory requirements and the industry standards governing data handling and usage. 

Here are five ways data profiling contributes to data governance and compliance: 

  1. Data Quality Assessment:

    Data profiling serves as the first step in determining data assets’ quality. Analyzing the structure, content, and relationships within the data reveals any inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and anomalies that can potentially damage data integrity and impact compliance. 

  2. Risk Identification and Mitigation

    Data profiling enables organizations to identify potential risk factors that can compromise data quality, privacy, and security. This can help them proactively deal with issues that can threaten compliance — such as regulatory violations, data breaches, or inaccurate reporting. 

  3. Data Classification and Tagging

    Data profiling allows businesses to classify and tag data based on its regulatory requirements, sensitivity, and criticality. Understanding data attributes’ nature and context simplifies the application of relevant data classification policies and access controls. This helps organizations comply with privacy regulations such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

  4. Monitoring and Auditing 

    Data profiling supports an organization’s ongoing monitoring and auditing protocols to maintain compliance with data governance policies and regulations. Creating baseline profiles of their data assets allows enterprises to observe data quality, integrity, and usage patterns consistently. It also helps them spot deviations that may warrant further investigation or corrective measures.

  5. Documentation and Reporting

    Data profiling results offer meaningful insights into the metadata of data assets by examining their structure and content. These insights are important for documentation and reporting initiatives. Organizations can utilize profiling reports to demonstrate their compliance with regulatory mandates, audit requirements, and internal governance policies. 

Conclusion

As organizations continue to harness the power of data for competitive advantage, data profiling remains critical in ensuring data quality. By systematically examining and evaluating data, organizations can ensure data accuracy, reliability, and compliance, leading to more informed decision-making and better business outcomes.

To ensure that high-quality data is being used for analysis, it’s crucial to invest in advanced data profiling tools.

Astera stands out as a comprehensive solution that offers advanced data profiling, cleansing, and validation capabilities. It provides real-time health checks that continuously monitor your data quality as you work, providing immediate feedback on its overall health.

Astera’s capabilities extend to both global and field-level data analysis, enabling early identification of irregularities, missing values, or anomalies. This proactive approach to data quality allows for timely measures to be taken to rectify any issues.

Astera’s drag-and-drop visual interface empowers business users to examine and evaluate the data, facilitating necessary adjustments as needed. Therefore, Astera simplifies the data profiling process and enhances data accuracy, reliability, and overall quality, enabling improved operational efficiency and better business outcomes.

Want to learn more about data profiling and how Astera streamlines the entire data prep process? Download your free whitepaper now!

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