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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Brain-Damaged Data

We process a fair amount of externally-prepared datasets.  40,000 rows of econometric data that we purchased from a third-party.  Mostly, the data is in a usable format: .CSV or .XSLX.

Once in a while, we get CSV with | (pipe).  A few times, we got fixed-format COBOL-style records.

Recently, we got a CSV-with-pipe that included 2 records with embedded \n sequences in the middle of a CSV row of data.  Really.

Painful Elimination

There are two ways to "eliminate" this problem. 
  • Subclass our input processing to handle this special CSV-with-pipe case.
  • Actually read and parse the source file creating a clean intermediate file that we can simply process with an existing CSV-with-pipe configuration.
I elected to do the first.  The second is (to my mind) an auditing nightmare because we touched the file.  We have to prove that we didn't disturb any other fields.  While not impossible, it becomes a very strange special case for this one-and-only file.

CSV Simplicity

The CSV module's epic simplicity makes it easy to work around this kind of goofy data.  Our subclass for this case had the following extra foolishness put in

def make_reader( self ):
        def filter_damage( aFile ):
            file_iter= iter(aFile)
            for row in file_iter:
                if row.rfind('"') >= len(row)-3:
                    logger.error( "Damaged Line: %r", row )
                    rest= next(file_iter)
                    line= row[:row.rfind('"')] + rest[3:]
                    logger.warning( "Repaired Line: %r", line )
                    yield line
                    yield row
        tweaked_file= filter_damage( self.sourceFile )
        return csv.reader( tweaked_file, delimiter='|', doublequote=False, escapechar='"' )

That's it.  Since the Python CSV reader merely wants an iterator over lines, we can (with a simple generator function) provide the necessary "iterator-over-lines". 



The murky-looking row.rfind('"') >= len(row)-3 condition is one of those consequences of trying to find just a few irregular line endings in an otherwise regular file.  For CSV processing, files often have to be opened in "rb" mode because they originate (or will be used with) MS-Excel.  This makes the damaged line-ending either '"\n' or maybe '"\r\n'.  Rather than spend too much time negotiating with Python's universal newline and "rb" mode, it's slightly easier to look for a '"' near the end. 

We're hoping this is a one-time-only subclass that we can safely ignore in the future.  If hope is dashed, it's a distinct subclass, so it's easily reused and didn't break anything else.