February 23, 2024

Unstructured Data Classification: Strategies and Tools

Understanding Unstructured Data

The world is awash with unstructured data - vast amounts of information that doesn’t fit neatly into traditional row-and-column databases. Unstructured data is text-heavy and includes data types like emails, word documents, videos, social media posts, audio files, satellite images and more. This kind of data isn’t pre-organized and doesn't abide by a pre-defined model, making its interpretation and analysis more challenging.

Unstructured data makes up the lion's share of all digital data. Its share is anticipated to reach 80-90% of all the data created worldwide, according to IDC. It underlines the mammoth task organizations face when trying to harness and obtain insights from their information pile.

In a business context, unstructured data holds great potential. With the right tools and strategies, businesses can mine meaningful insights from this data - predicting business trends, understanding audience sentiments, detecting fraud, enhancing customer experiences, and making informed strategic decisions. In healthcare, for example, analyzing unstructured data could mean detecting patterns in patient symptoms reported across various sources and aiding in early disease outbreak detection.

Yet, unstructured data presents a host of challenges. As the volume of data continues to grow, organizations are finding it challenging to store, search, and analyze this data, let alone glean meaningful insights. The two primary hurdles lie in its inherent complexities and lack of clearly defined structure.

Need for Unstructured Data Classification

The power of unstructured data lies in its use and application. To tap into this potential, organizations must first classify their unstructured data, a process of categorizing data based on its type, sources, and various other attributes.

Unstructured data classification is foundational - it is the crucial step that bridges the gap between accessing unstructured data and harnessing its insight potential. By placing unstructured data in well-understood categories, organisations can add structure to the unstructured, simplifying subsequent management processes including storage, security, search, analysis, and more.

For instance, classification can help identify sensitive information (like personal, financial or confidential data) within unstructured data repositories, enabling organizations to protect and manage this data in accordance with regulatory requirements (such as GDPR or HIPAA).

Also, it helps organizations organize large amounts of data without losing track of what information they have and where it's coming from. For instance, in an email management scenario, a company could use classification techniques to automatically route emails to the relevant department or identifying spam.

Moreover, right classification helps in improving search and retrieval, providing faster and accurate data access. This can greatly enhance productivity by eliminating the time wasted in manual search of data.

By making the hidden patterns within unstructured data visible, unstructured data classification paves the way for powerful analytics, paving the way for accurate decision-making and strategic foresights. The ability of an organization to categorize its data, therefore, would often dictate its potential to harness unstructured data effectively.

Strategies for Unstructured Data Classification

There are numerous strategies for unstructured data classification that organizations can employ, primarily divided into two sections: AI-based and Human-led classification strategies.

AI and Machine Learning applications are at the cutting edge of data classification strategies. Entities can leverage AI algorithms to analyze, interpret and categorize unstructured data based on specific criteria.

One powerful AI technique utilized in unstructured data classification is Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP is a branch of AI that helps machines understand, interpret, and emulate human language. This makes it hugely useful in classifying text-based unstructured data like social media posts, customer feedback, and more. NLP algorithms can categorize text, ascertain sentiment, and even identify language subtleties, such as sarcasm or irony.

Image recognition is another AI-induced methodology aiding in classifying visuals such as photos or video content. Machine Learning models can classify images into predefined categories, recognize objects within images, or even identify facial features. This methodology is typically utilized by organizations with vast visual data such as surveillance systems, social media companies, or healthcare organizations dealing with medical imaging diagnostics.

Of course, not all classification techniques are machine-led. Manual or human-led classification techniques still hold relevance, particularly in domains where human judgement and understanding surpass machine comprehension. One such strategy is crowdsourcing, where a large number of humans (the “crowd”) help categorize data. This strategy can sometimes outperform machine learning methods, especially when dealing with complex, ambiguous scenarios that require deep understanding or broad world knowledge.

Another human-led approach includes manual tagging where individuals review and categorize data. While not viable for larger volumes, this approach can provide great accuracy in critical processes where the errors inherent to AI applications could be expensive or damaging.

Tools for Unstructured Data Classification

A variety of tools are available for unstructured data classification, with both open source and proprietary options.

Open source software tools are popular due to their cost-effectiveness and the flexibility they provide. For instance, Python libraries like Scikit-Learn provide a suite of machine learning algorithms helpful in data classification tasks. Also, Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) offers tools and libraries for Natural Language Processing. Other open-source tools include the Hadoop ecosystem and Apache tools (such as Apache Tika for content detection and analysis) which offer scalability and robustness in handling large volumes of data.

On the other hand, proprietary software often comes with added support and integrated features making them suitable for businesses seeking an all-in-one solution. For example, IBM Watson uses sophisticated machine learning algorithms and offers language, speech, vision, and data insights API. Google Cloud AI provides pre-trained machine learning models and allows creating custom models for information classification tasks. Microsoft Azure AI, with its robust collection of cloud services, provides high-level APIs and templates for deploying AI models efficiently.

Selecting the right tool or approach often depends on factors like data types, the volume of data, intended use case, budget, and in-house expertise available for tool implementation and data interpretation.

Developing an Unstructured Data Classification Process

The process of unstructured data classification is not a linear one and requires careful planning, preparation and consistent management. Following is a high-level approach organizations can consider:

Organizing and preparing data

Start by organizing and cleaning the data. This may involve deleting redundant or irrelevant data, correcting errors, or consolidating data from multiple sources. Structuring the data at this stage simplifies the pathway to further classification.

Choosing the appropriate tools and strategies

Based on the nature, volume, and complexity of the data, select the most suitable data classification tools and strategies. Evaluate different solutions, considering factors such as cost, scalability, ease-of-use, support, and necessary technical expertise.

Implementing the classification process

Next, implement the chosen method to classify the unstructured data. AI-based tools would require training the model using a part of the data set. On the other hand, human-led approaches involve systematic manual reviewing and tagging.

Regularly updating and maintaining classification accuracy

Regular maintenance is key for ensuring ongoing data classification quality. As unstructured data keeps accumulating, the classification systems should adapt to accommodate the changes and maintain their accuracy.

Use Cases and Real-World Examples

Understanding the application of unstructured data classification in real-world scenarios will provide a clearer picture of its utility. Some sector-specific insights are:

Unstructured Data Classification in Healthcare

Healthcare is an industry rich with unstructured data - patient medical records, clinical trials data, research notes, radiology images, and more. Extracting insights from this data is vital for improving patient care, diagnostics, and treatment methodologies. Classification algorithms can help segregate patient health records based on symptoms, disease type, or treatment progress, enabling healthcare providers with more personalized and efficient patient care.

Unstructured Data Classification in Financial Services

In finance, unstructured data can come from various sources like market news, social media sentiment, economic reports, and transactions logs. Financial firms looking to classify this data can leverage machine learning algorithms for tasks like risk evaluation, fraud detection, or analyzing customer sentiments. For example, a firm might be interested in classifying news articles to predict market trends and adjust their investment strategies accordingly.

Unstructured Data Classification in the Government Sector

Government agencies often handle large volumes of unstructured data - policy documents, citizen feedback, surveys, surveillance videos, and so on. AI algorithms can help classify this data towards various functionalities - identifying potential security threats, gauging citizen sentiment regarding a new policy, or identifying common issues from citizen feedback to improve public services.

Future of Unstructured Data Classification

As unstructured data volume continues to grow, the tools and strategies for classifying such data are evolving simultaneously. Technological advances in machine learning and AI are taking the sophistication of data classification to another level, capable of handling complex and high-volume tasks beyond human capacity.

Such AI innovations are making the data classification techniques more intelligent, automated, and accurate. Deep learning, a subset of machine learning, uses neural networks with many layers (deep architectures) to model and understand complex patterns. When applied to unstructured data, these algorithms can draw connections between data points that would remain unnoticed to humans or traditional algorithms.

Predictions indicate the global data volume to reach 175 Zettabytes by 2025. As organizations continue to understand the intrinsic value and insight potential of unstructured data, the applications and demand for accurate, efficient data classification tools will amplify.

In such an environment, organizations must stay proactive. This involves keeping up-to-date with the latest advancements and offerings in data classification tools, investing in training, and hiring domain experts. Understanding the continually evolving landscape of data classification tools and strategies enables businesses to leverage their data effectively, stay competitive and drive innovation.

If you're interested in exploring how Deasie's data governance platform can help your team improve Data Governance, click here to learn more and request a demo.