Difference Between Structured And Unstructured Data

by | May 16, 2023 | Data Science, Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing

Unstructured data has become increasingly prevalent in today’s digital age and differs from the more traditional structured data. With the exponential growth of information on the internet, the vast majority of data being generated and stored does not fit neatly into predefined formats or structures. This unstructured data, which includes text, images, audio, video, and more, presents unique challenges and opportunities for organizations seeking to harness its potential.

Unlike structured data, organized in a specific format such as tables or databases, unstructured data lacks a consistent structure or predefined schema. It is often created and generated by humans in various forms, making it difficult to process and analyze using traditional data management techniques. However, within this seemingly chaotic sea of data lies valuable insights, customer sentiments, and untapped potential waiting to be unlocked.

What is the main difference between structured and unstructured data?

Structured data is organised in a specific format, making it easy to search, sort, and analyse. It is typically stored in a relational database, divided into tables, columns, and rows, with a specific schema that defines the relationships between different data elements.

Examples of structured data include customer information, product catalogues, financial transactions, and inventory databases.

On the other hand, unstructured data does not have a specific format or structure. It is often human-generated and can be text, images, audio, video, or social media posts.

Examples of unstructured data include emails, social media posts, video files, audio recordings, and images.

The main difference between structured and unstructured data is that structured data can be easily organised and analysed using computer algorithms. In contrast, unstructured data requires more advanced techniques, such as natural language processing and machine learning, to extract meaningful insights.

Structured data

What is structured data?

Structured data is a type of data that is organized and stored in a specific format. This format can be easily understood and processed by computer programs and can be represented using tables, spreadsheets, or databases. Structured data is highly organized and easily searched, sorted, and analyzed, making it useful for business intelligence and data analytics.

Structured data is characterized by having a predefined schema that describes the data elements and their relationships. Each data element is identified by a unique identifier or a primary key, and the data values are stored in fields that correspond to the columns of the table or spreadsheet.

structured data in a tax document

Structured data has a pre-defined schema like a US tax form

Overall, structured data is a valuable resource for organizations as it provides a reliable and consistent source of information that can be used to make data-driven decisions.

Examples of structured data

  1. Financial data: Financial data is often structured and includes account balances, transactions, and stock prices.
  2. Customer data: Customer data is often stored in a structured format and includes the customer’s name, address, phone number, email, and purchase history.
  3. Inventory data: Inventory data is often structured and includes item description, quantity, and location.
  4. Sales data: Sales data is often stored in a structured format and includes information such as sales volume, revenue, and customer demographics.
  5. Healthcare data: Healthcare data is often structured and includes patient records, medical diagnoses, and treatment history.
  6. Government data: Government data is often structured, including census data, economic statistics, and crime rates.
  7. Logistics data: Logistics data is often structured and includes information such as shipping routes, delivery times, and vehicle tracking.
  8. Education data: Education data is often structured and includes student records, test scores, and enrollment statistics.
  9. Research data: Research data is often structured and includes experimental results, survey responses, and statistical analyses.
  10. Website analytics data: Website analytics data is often structured and includes information such as page views, click-through rates, and conversion rates.

Advantages of structured data

  1. Easy to analyse: Structured data can be easily analysed using various data analysis tools and techniques, which makes it possible to derive insights and make data-driven decisions.
  2. Accurate and consistent: Structured data is often entered into a database with strict rules and standards, which ensures that it is accurate and consistent.
  3. Efficient storage: Structured data can be efficiently stored in a relational database, which makes it easy to manage and retrieve data quickly.
  4. Easy to integrate: Structured data can be easily integrated with other systems and applications, which makes it easy to share data across different departments or organisations.
  5. Easy to maintain: Structured data is easy to maintain because it has a fixed schema that defines the relationships between different data elements.

Disadvantages of structured data

  1. Limited flexibility: Structured data has a fixed schema, which makes it less flexible and less adaptable to changing business needs.
  2. Limited insights: Structured data can only provide insights into predefined metrics and key performance indicators, which may limit the scope of analysis.
  3. Limited context: Structured data may not provide enough context to understand the meaning and significance of the data fully.
  4. Costly to implement: Structured data requires significant upfront investment in databases, hardware, and software, which may be a barrier to entry for small businesses or startups.
  5. Requires technical expertise: Structured data requires technical expertise to design and manage the database schema, which may be challenging for organisations without a dedicated IT team.

Unstructured data

What is unstructured data?

Unstructured data is a type of data that does not have a specific format or structure. It is often characterized by its lack of organization and can include text, images, audio and video files, social media posts, emails, and other data sources. Unstructured data is often created by humans and can be difficult to process and analyze using traditional data analysis tools.

Unlike structured data, organized into a specific format, unstructured data does not have a predetermined schema or data model. This makes it difficult to search, sort, and analyze, as it may contain irrelevant or redundant information, making it harder to derive meaningful insights.

Examples of unstructured data include social media posts, customer feedback, email messages, news articles, and images. These data sets often have varying formats, languages, and contexts, making it challenging to analyze using traditional data analysis tools.

Despite its challenges, unstructured data is a valuable source of information for organizations, as it can provide insights into customer preferences, market trends, and other essential business metrics. Techniques such as natural language processing (NLP), machine learning, and data modelling can extract structured information from unstructured data, making it easier to analyze and derive insights.

Examples of unstructured data

  1. Text data: Text data is a common type of unstructured data, including sources such as emails, social media posts, news articles, chat logs, and blog posts.
  2. Audio data: Audio data is another type of unstructured data, including sources such as phone calls, voice memos, podcasts, and songs.
  3. Video data: Video data is unstructured, including sources such as movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, and live streams.
  4. Images: Images are another type of unstructured data, including sources such as photographs, graphics, diagrams, and logos.
  5. Sensor data: Sensor data is unstructured data generated by IoT devices such as smart appliances, wearables, and vehicles.
  6. Social media data: Social media data is a specific type of text data generated by Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn platforms.
  7. Email attachments: Email attachments are unstructured data that include PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and images.
  8. Webpage data: Webpage data is unstructured data that includes sources such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript code.
  9. Voice and speech data: Voice and speech data is another type of unstructured data, including sources such as voicemails, speeches, and lectures.
  10. Handwritten notes: Handwritten notes are unstructured data, including sources such as letters, memos, and meeting notes.
Social media messages is an example of unstructured data

Social media messages is an example of unstructured data

Advantages of unstructured data

  1. Rich in context: Unstructured data often contains much contextual information, which can provide deeper insights into customer behaviour, sentiment, and preferences.
  2. Greater flexibility: Unstructured data is more flexible and adaptable than structured data, making it easier to capture and analyse new data types.
  3. Provides a holistic view: Unstructured data can provide a more holistic view of a business or organisation by capturing data from various sources such as social media, emails, and customer reviews.
  4. Easy to collect: Unstructured data is often generated automatically, which makes it easy and cost-effective to manage.
  5. Provides a competitive edge: Unstructured data analysis can give organisations a competitive advantage by identifying new business opportunities and optimising customer engagement strategies.

Disadvantages of unstructured data

  1. Difficult to analyse: Unstructured data is difficult to interpret because it lacks a fixed structure, making it challenging to organise and categorise.
  2. High volume: Unstructured data is often generated in large volumes, making it difficult to manage and store.
  3. Quality issues: Unstructured data may contain errors or inconsistencies, affecting analysis accuracy.
  4. Privacy and security concerns: Unstructured data often contains sensitive information, posing privacy and security concerns if not handled properly.
  5. Requires specialised skills: Unstructured data analysis requires technical skills, such as natural language processing and machine learning, which may require additional training and investment.

What is semi-structured data? 

Semi-structured data is a type of data that has some structure but does not fit neatly into either the structured or unstructured data categories. This data has some level of organisation but lacks the strict and predefined schema of structured data.

Semi-structured data contains some tags or markers that help identify the structure of the data. Still, the labels are not necessarily used invariably across all data elements. Instead, this data type is typically found in sources such as XML and JSON files containing structured and unstructured data elements.

Examples of semi-structured data

  1. Email messages: Email messages often contain structured metadata such as sender, recipient, and date, but the message content may be unstructured.
  2. Webpage data: Webpage data often contains structured HTML tags, but the web page’s content may be unstructured.
  3. Social media posts: Social media posts may contain structured metadata such as user ID and timestamp, but the post’s content may be unstructured.
  4. Log files: Log files may contain structured data such as timestamps and error codes, but the actual log message may be unstructured.
  5. Sensor data: Sensor data may contain structured metadata such as device ID and timestamp, but the sensor readings may be unstructured.

Semi-structured data can be more challenging than structured data, which may require additional processing to extract the relevant information. However, it can also provide valuable insights when adequately analysed, as it combines the flexibility of unstructured data with some structured data organisation.

How to turn unstructured data into structured data?

Turning unstructured data into structured data can be challenging, but several techniques can be used. Here are some common approaches:

  1. Natural language processing (NLP): NLP is a computer science field focusing on the interaction between computers and human languages. NLP techniques such as part-of-speech tagging, entity recognition, and sentiment analysis can extract structured data from unstructured text data such as emails, social media posts, and webpages.
  2. Machine learning: Machine learning algorithms can be trained to recognise patterns and extract structured data from unstructured data. For example, machine learning algorithms can be trained to identify named entities such as people, organisations, and locations in text data.
  3. Regular expressions: Regular expressions can search for and extract structured data from unstructured text data. For example, regular expressions can remove phone numbers, email addresses, and postal codes from unstructured text data such as resumes or customer reviews.
  4. Data modelling: Data modelling techniques can be used to create a schema for unstructured data and map the unstructured data to the schema to create structured data. This approach requires understanding the data and the domain in which it is used.
  5. Optical character recognition (OCR): OCR is a technology that can convert scanned images of text into structured data. OCR can extract information such as names, addresses, and dates from scanned documents such as invoices, receipts, and forms.

Turning unstructured data into structured data requires combining techniques such as NLP, machine learning, regular expressions, data modelling, and OCR.

If you are looking for an online tool that does this, give our free online extraction tool a go, it extracts text and tables from PDFs and images using OCR and turns your unstructured data into structured data.

Conclusion

Data can be broadly classified into two categories: structured and unstructured. Structured data is organised in a specific format, such as a table or spreadsheet, while unstructured data does not have a particular form or structure. Unstructured data can include text, images, audio, and video files.

Structured data has several advantages, including ease of use, consistency, and scalability, but it can be limiting in terms of the data type that can be analysed. On the other hand, unstructured data is more flexible and can provide a wealth of information, but it can be challenging to process and analyse due to its lack of structure.

Semi-structured data is a type of data that has some structure but not as much as structured data. Examples of semi-structured data include XML files and JSON data.

Organisations can process unstructured data using natural language processing (NLP), machine learning, regular expressions, data modelling, and optical character recognition (OCR). By converting unstructured data into structured data, organisations can derive valuable insights and extract actionable intelligence from this valuable resource.

About the Author

Neri Van Otten

Neri Van Otten

Neri Van Otten is the founder of Spot Intelligence, a machine learning engineer with over 12 years of experience specialising in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and deep learning innovation. Dedicated to making your projects succeed.

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