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C'est la Z

Working with texts part 1 - cleaning the data

I run periodic professional development sessions here in New York with my partner in crime JonAlf Dyrland-Weaver. I call them PD for "APCS-A, similar or beyond" and they're designed to fill a professional development gap. We try to run them once a month but it's a little less frequent than that.

The NYCDOE has taken on the monster task of CS for all and since they're trying to get to everyone they have to run a bazillion sessions but all at an introductory level. Beyond that, most PD is tied to a curriculum, program, or product. We decided to run sessions for teachers who are ready for more both pedagogically and content wise while not affiliating with any specific provider. We're just about the CS and the teaching of CS.

Yesterday we had our first session of the year and the content topic was text processing. Along the way, we used it as an opportunity to highlight subgoal labeling as a teaching technique.

There's a lot you can do in both CS0 and CS1 with text and document processing. By the end of yesterday's session we had discussed a bunch of possibilities based on the text processing technique known as a "bag of words" which basically takes a text and just considers all the words it contains. What are the words and how many times does each word occurs. No consideration of order, grammar, or anything else. Just words and counts. We also talked a bit about more advanced possibilities like playing with an inverted index. I'll talk about both of those in a future post.

For today, let's talk about what we have to do before we even begin - preprocessing the data.

We grabbed a bunch of texts from Project Gutenberg. Specifically, "Moby Dick", a translation of my favorite play "Cyrano de Bergerac" and the Book of Psalms from the Bible. I also made a copy of the first chapter of "Moby Dick" so we had a shorter corpus to play with and typed up the first scene of "Macbeth" - all thirteen lines of it.

It's easy enough to read in the data in a language like Python:

f = open("cyrano.txt")
raw_data =

but if you're using a bag of words you've got to do some cleaning.

To start, all Project Gutenberg texts contain a whole bunch of front and back matter with lots of words. If you don't get rid of them you'll get extra words in your bag. I forgot to do this and was a bit surprised to see phrases like "Pay a trademark license" in the Book of Psalms.

It's easy enough to just cut the tops and bottoms of each file off with an editor and that's when we can read our data into our program and the fun begins.

First we had to turn everything into lower case;

lower_data = raw_data.lower()

and then the big part - we want to get rid of all the punctuation. We first tried something like this:

1stuff_to_remove = ".:;'0123456789"
2cleaned_letters = [x for x in lower_data if x not in stuff_to_remove]
3cleaned_string = "".join(cleaned_letters)

The second line is a list comprehension. It iterates through each letter in lower_data and copies it into the resultant list only if the letter is not in our stuff_to_remove list.

For example, if we had lower_data = "abc123def g" we'd get a result of ["a","b","c","d","e","f"," ","g"]. We then use the join in line 3 to turn it back into a string "abcdef g".

This worked pretty well but we found that there were problems. There were characters that we didn't account for like long dashes that connected words and we didn't have an easy way to put them in our removal string.

This led to take 2. Instead of deciding what to throw away, let's decide what to keep;

1stuff_to_keep = "abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz \t\n"
2cleaned_letters = [x for x in lower_data if x in stuff_to_remove]
3cleaned_string = "".join(cleaned_letters)

This worked better (and yes, I know I could have used isalpha() but I didn't remember it at the time) but still had problems. We had words that were formerly separated by punctuation with no spaces that were now combined into new invalid words. We also had things like chapter headings in our text and other stray words that we probably wanted to get rid of.

All of this led to rich conversation among the teachers present and can do the same in class. What do you clean? What do you keep? Is it worth the effort to write all sorts of cleaning code to get rid of a couple of stray bits of bad data or can we get the results we want by leaving it in? There's no universally right answer and that's part of the beauty of doing things like this with a class - it's something that can make them think.

Once we made our final cleaning decisions it's a simple matter to convert the long string of text into a list of words:

1wordlist = cleaned_string.split()

Now we're ready to start building our bag of words but that's a post for another day.

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