Test Drive: Freebase Gridworks 1.1

Update, 11/10/2010: Since I originally reviewed Freebase Gridworks, it has been acquired by Google. It’s now called Google Refine, and version 2.0 has been released. Original post follows:


Data journalists spend lots of time wrestling dirty data, so when I heard the News Applications team at the Chicago Tribune raving about the data-handling abilities of Freebase Gridworks, my interest was piqued. Anything that can lessen the pain of cleaning data is worth a closer look!

Freebase Gridworks is a Java-based app that runs locally in your web browser. The makers’ pitch describes it best:

… A power tool that allows you to load data, understand it, clean it up, reconcile it internally, augment it with data coming from Freebase, and optionally contribute your data to Freebase for others to use. All in the comfort and privacy of your own computer.

Installation is simple. I chose to load Gridworks on my Windows XP-based work laptop, although you can download Mac and Linux versions from the code page. I was up and running in about five minutes, which included loading a new version of Java. Once running, the opening screen looks like so (click for larger version):

You can open an existing project or create a new one by importing a data file — and Gridworks hints at its utility by providing options to parse delimited or non-delimited files, limit the import to specific rows, etc. For testing, I grabbed the Academic Libraries: 2008 Public Use Data file from the National Center for Education Statistics — a tab-delimited text file of about 4,100 rows.

The danger of thinking like it’s 1985

For a devout music fan weaned on what’s now called classic rock, the ’80s were miserable. Sure, we had U2 — they alone helped ease the pain of hair metal and synthpop. But from an audiophile’s perspective, for someone who thinks sound is as important as structure, the era made for painful listening.

Why? Because most music recorded in the ’80s — for all its supposed ambition and technical innovation — sounds more dated, more processed and more fake today than the music of the ’60s and ’70s, including disco. Line up Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon next to anything by Duran Duran or Human League and the point is made.

What hurt ’80s music most was the rush to digital sounds. Musicians grabbed every gizmo they could find — synthesizers, drum machines, vocal effects, digital guitar processors — and abandoned their lovely analog gear. When Phil Collins’ engineer figured out how to use a noise gate to make his drums sound as big as a 747, everyone copied. Songs now revolved not around good lyrics or melodies but the sounds of these machines. It all had a big wow factor, but it lacked one important quality:

None of it was timeless.

Oh, people thought it was. That’s what it feels like in the midst of every movement. “This will last forever.” Well …