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Introduction to PIE algorithms, by Chris Wilson
The Predictable Information Elimination algorithm is a method for extracting data from
a large series of related documents that contain significant typos, recognition errors, and other
mutations that make traditional means document analysis difficult. It was developed to extract
data from the FCC's new database of political ad buys in top-50 broadcast markets. These documents--
about 30,000 PDF files as of mid-October 2012--are not machine-readable and arrive with very little
useful metadata.
Thanks to the work of ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation, all 30K pdfs were uploaded to
Document Cloud and run through OCR software in the process. Since most of the scanned documents present
the ad buy data in tables, the text files that result from the character recognition are
structured chaotically, to put it politely.
--STEP 1--
The PIE algorithm begins by defining "predictable information," data in predictable formats that can
be blocked off to narrow the search for unpredictable information. In this case, this involved dollar amounts,
dates, timestamps, station call letters, certain procedural words common to television bureaucracy, and a
handful of other regular character configurations. Regular expressions are an obvious way to define the
predictable information, but any method is find. Even a very long list of context-specific stop words would
qualify just fine.
--STEP 2--
Define a method of removing the predictable information from consideration. Informally, this could be as
simple as crossing out words we don't want in a methodical way. Deletion is the simplest strategy, but that
prevents us from easily checking that no valuable information was washed away in the process. The only
requirement is that the remaining information by easy to distinguish after the elimination process. For
my purposes, because I wanted to easily visualize all the data I eliminated, I wrapped every type of predictable
information in <span> tags with a corresponding CSS class, which I could then view in a browser. It makes for
somewhat chromatically challenging reading material.
In this case, I could then look for any match of "/span>(.*?)<" to find the leftover information.
The ability of most languages to pass the results of regular expression match to a function for further
evaluation offers a convenient way to add a second evaluation process to the first step.
--STEP 3--
Now that we have reduced the corpus to the smallest possible morsels of data, we apply a filter to extract
all candidates for the information we want. Since my purpose for this project was to extract the names of
television shows, this was a fairly simple match for alphanumeric characters and spaces.
--STEP 4--
Now we have to judge the candidates in some way. There are two strategies here based on the universe of target data.
Since I was looking for a small universe of TV show names, it made sense here to add shows to a list as I noticed them
and iteratively compare every candidate in every document against this list. For larger, less defined families of information,
it will be necessary to tailor the patterns in Steps 1 and 3.
For the list-comparison method with noisy data, it's useful to run a fuzzy match on each candidates against each item in the
list, though this is incredibly slow.
The beauty of this process is that it is highly tolerant of false positives for messy data, so long as it generally
breaks up the corpus into manageable chunks. We might think of this as the shotgun sequencing of natural language
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