Best Practices for Sharing Your Clean Data - Megan Squire (2015)

Megan Squire (2015)

Chapter 8. Best Practices for Sharing Your Clean Data

So far in this book, we have learned many different ways to clean and organize our datasets. Perhaps now it is time to consider letting our cleaned data be used by others. The goal of this chapter is to present a few best practices for inviting some friends into your data science kitchen. Sharing your data could mean providing it to other people, other teams, or even just some future version of yourself. What is the best way to package your data for consumption by others? How should you tell people about the cleaned data you have? How can you ensure that all your hard work is attributed to you?

In this chapter, we will learn:

· How to present and package your cleaned data

· How to provide clear documentation for what is included in your data

· How to protect and extend your hard work by licensing your cleaned data

· How to find and evaluate the options for publicizing your cleaned data

One thing we should state clearly before we begin this chapter is that we should only clean and share data that we have the right to share. Perhaps that seems obvious, but it is worth repeating. This entire chapter assumes that you are only cleaning, and subsequently sharing, data that you actually have the right to work with in this way. If you are wondering about this, read the Setting terms and licenses for your data section of this chapter, and make sure you follow the same guidelines that you would ask your users to follow.

Preparing a clean data package

In this section, we delve into the many important questions that need to be answered before you can release a data package for general consumption.

How do you want people to access your data? If it is in a database, do you want users to be able to log in and run SQL commands on it? Or do you want to create downloadable flat text files for them to use? Do you need to create an API for the data? How much data do you have anyway, and do you want different levels of access for different parts of the data?

The technical aspects of how you want to share your clean data are extremely important. In general, it is probably a good idea to start with the simple things and move to a more sophisticated distribution plan when and if you need to. The following are some options for distributing data, in the order of the least complicated to the most complicated. Of course, with greater sophistication comes greater benefits:

· Compressed plain text – This is a very low-stakes distribution method. As we learned in Chapter 2, Fundamentals – Formats, Types, and Encodings, plain text can be compressed down to create very small file sizes. A simple CSV or JSON file is universally useful and can be converted to many other formats easily. Some considerations include:

o How will you let users download the files? An open link on a web page is extremely easy and convenient, but it does not allow you to require credentials such as usernames and passwords to access the files. If that is important to you, then you will have to consider other methods to distribute files; for example, by using an FTP server with a username and password or by using the access controls on your web server.

o How big are your files? How much traffic are you expecting? How much traffic will your hosting provider allow before they start charging extra?

· Compressed SQL files – Distributing SQL files allows your users to recreate your database structure and data on their own system. Some considerations include:

o Your user might be running a different database system than you are, so they will have to clean the data anyway. It may be more efficient just to give them plain text.

o Your database system might have different server settings to theirs, so you will have to clarify these custom settings in advance.

o You will also need to plan in advance for whether your datasets are designed to grow over time, for example, by deciding whether you will provide only UPDATE statements, or whether you will always provide enough CREATE and INSERT statements to recreate the entire database.

· Live database access – Providing your users with direct access into your database is a very nice way to let them interact with your data at a low level. Some considerations include:

o Providing live access does require that you set up an individual username and password for each user, which means keeping track of the users.

o Because you have identifiable users, you will need to provide a way to correspond with them about support issues, including lost credentials and how to use the system.

o It is probably not a good idea to allow generic usernames and passwords unless you have also built a secure frontend onto the database and taken basic precautions like limiting the number of queries a user can execute and limiting the length of time a query can take. An ill-formed OUTER JOIN on a table of half a dozen terabytes will likely bring your database to a halt and affect the rest of the users.

o Do you want your users to be able to build programs that access your data, for example, through the ODBC or JDBC middleware layer? If so, you will need to take this into account when planning access permissions and when configuring the server.

· API — Designing an Application Programming Interface (API) to your data will allow your end users to write their own programs that can access your data and receive result sets in a predictable way. The advantages of an API are that it will provide access over the Internet to your data in a known, limited way and your users do not have to parse data files or wrestle with translating data from one format to another. Some considerations include:

o Building a good API is more expensive up front than the other choices listed here; however, if you have a lot of needy users and a very limited support staff, then building an API might actually save you money in the long run.

o Using an API requires more technical knowledge on the part of your users than some of the other methods listed. You should be prepared to have plenty of documentation ready, with examples.

o You will need a credentialing and security plan in place to keep track of who is allowed to access your data and what they can do with it. If you are planning multiple levels of access, for example, to monetize different layers of your data, things like users transitioning from one layer to another need to be clearly planned out in advance.

o Just like with regular database access, overuse or misuse of the API by users is always a possibility. You will need to plan ahead and take precautions to spot and remove malicious or inattentive users who may—through willful or unintentional misuse—make the service inaccessible to everyone.

Choosing a distribution method will have a lot to do with your budget, including money and time, as well as the expectations of your users. The best advice I can give you is that I have had good luck following the open source software motto, Release Early and Often. This works for me because I have a small user community, and a limited budget, and not a lot of spare cycles to devote to exotic packaging plans that may or may not work.

A word of caution – Using GitHub to distribute data

GitHub is a cloud-based file repository designed for software developers to collaborate on software and host their code for others to download. It has exploded in popularity and currently hosts well over 16 million project repositories. For this reason, many data scientists I talk to immediately suggest storing their data on GitHub.

Unfortunately, GitHub has some limitations in its ability to store non-code data, and despite its ubiquity among technical people and its ease-of-use, you should be aware of a few policies it has that might affect your data. These policies are covered in the Help guide, available at, but we have summarized the important ones here:

· First, GitHub is a wrapper around the source code control system, Git, and that system is not designed to store SQL. The Help guide says, "Large SQL files do not play well with version control systems such as Git." I am not sure what "play well" means, but I am definitely sure I want to avoid learning that when my users' happiness is at stake.

· Second, GitHub has some serious file size limits. It lists 1GB per project (repository) as a limit and 100MB per file as a limit. Most of the data files I release are, as individuals, smaller than that limit, but since I release many of the time series files multiple times per year, I would have to create multiple repositories for them. Under this scheme, each time I released new files, I would have to assess whether I was bumping up against file size limits. This quickly becomes a big headache.

In short, GitHub itself recommends a web hosting solution to distribute files, especially if they are large or if they are database-oriented. If you do decide to host on GitHub, be very conscious about posting files with user credentials in them. This includes posting your usernames and passwords for database systems, your authentication keys and secrets for Twitter, or any other personal details. Since GitHub is a Git repository at heart, the mistakes are there forever, unless the repository itself is deleted. If you find that you did make a mistake and post personal details to GitHub, you must immediately deauthenticate all current accounts and recreate all keys and passwords.

Documenting your data

Once people have access to the data, and ideally even beforehand, they need to know what it is that they are getting. Documenting the data may feel like an afterthought to you, but it is extremely important for your users, since they are not as familiar with the data or all the things you did to it. In this section, we will review some of the things you can add to your data package to make it easier to understand.

README files

The simple README file has a long history in computing. It is just a text file that is distributed with a software package, or that lives in a directory containing other files, and the idea is that the user should read the README file first, before getting started with the rest of the software package or files. The README file will tell the user important information about the package, such as who wrote it and why, installation instructions, known bugs, and other basic instructions to use the file.

If you are constructing packages of data, for example, zipped files full of text or SQL files, it is quick and easy to add a README file to the file package before zipping it. If you are making a website or online directory for your files, adding a README file in a conspicuous place can be very helpful. The following screenshot shows one of the web directories I use to distribute files for a project I work on, called FLOSSmole. I have added a README directory to include all the files I want the users to read first. I prefaced this directory name with an underscore so that it will always show up at the top of the list, alphabetically:

README files

A directory of files on a website showing the README file at the top.

Inside the README.txt file, I give both general and specific instructions to the user about the files. Here is an example of the README file I give for my data in this directory:

README for directory

What is this place?

This is a repository of flat files or data "dumps", from the FLOSSmole project.

What is FLOSSmole?

Since 2004, FLOSSmole aims to:

--freely provide data about free, libre, and open source software (FLOSS) projects in multiple formats for anyone to download;

--integrate donated data & scripts from other research teams;

--provide a community for researchers to discuss public data about FLOSS development.

FLOSSmole contains: Several terabytes (TB) of data covering the period 2004-now, and growing with data sets from nearly 10,000 web-based collection operations, and growing each month. This includes data for millions of open source projects and their developers.

If you use FLOSSmole data, please cite it accordingly:

Howison, J., Conklin, M., & Crowston, K. (2006). FLOSSmole: A collaborative repository for FLOSS research data and analyses. International Journal of Information Technology and Web Engineering, 1(3), 17–26.

What is included on this site?

Flat files, date and time-stamped, from various software forges & projects. We have a lot of other data in our database that is not available here in flat files. For example, IRC logs and email from various projects. For those, see the following:

1. Direct database access. Please use this link for direct access to our MySQL database:

2. FLOSSmole web site. Includes updates, visualizations, and examples.

This example README file is for an entire directory of files, but you can have a README file for each file, or for different directories. It is up to you.

File headers

Another effective way to communicate information to your users, especially if you are creating flat files of text or SQL commands, is to place a header at the top of each file explaining its format and usage. A common practice is to preface each line of the header with some type of comment-like character, such as # or //.

Some items that are commonly included in file headers include:

· The name of the file and the name of the package in which it was found

· The name of the person or people who were involved in creating it, and their organization and location

· The date it was released

· Its version number, or where to find earlier versions of the file

· The purpose of the file

· The place where the data originally came from, as well as any changes that were made to the data between now and then

· The format of the file and how it is organized, for example, listing the fields and what they mean

· The terms of use or a license for the file

The following example shows an example header from a TSV file distributed for one of my data projects. In it, I explain what the data is and how to interpret each column in the file. I also explain my policies for how to cite the data, as well as to share the data. We will discuss options to license and share later in this chapter:

# Author: Squire, M. & Gazda, R.

# License: Open Database License 1.0

# This data 2012LTinsultsLKML.tsv.txt is made available under the

# Open Database License:

# odbl/1.0/.


# filename: 2012LTinsultsLKML.tsv.txt

# explanation: This data set is part of a larger group of data

# sets described in the paper below, and hosted on the

# site. Contains insults gleaned from messages sent

# to the LKML mailing list by Linus Torvalds during the year 2012


# explanation of fields:

# date: this is the date the original email was sent

# markmail permalink: this is a permalink to the email on markmail

# (for easy reading)

# type: this is our code for what type of insult this is

# mail excerpt: this is the fragment of the email containing the

# insult(s). Ellipses (...) have been added where necessary.


# Please cite the paper and FLOSSmole as follows:


# Squire, M. & Gazda, R. (2015). FLOSS as a source for profanity

# and insults: Collecting the data. In Proceedings of 48th

# Hawai'i International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-48).

# IEEE. Hawaii, USA. 5290-5298


# Howison, J., Conklin, M., & Crowston, K. (2006). FLOSSmole: A

# collaborative repository for FLOSS research data and analyses.

# International Journal of Information Technology and Web

# Engineering, 1(3), 17–26.

If you anticipate that your users will be regularly collecting your data files, you should be consistent in your use of a comment character for the header. In the preceding example, I used the # character. The reason for this is that your users may write a program to automatically download and parse your data, perhaps loading it in a database or using it in a program. Your consistent use of a comment character will allow the user to skip the headers and not process them.

Data models and diagrams

If you are distributing SQL files to build a database, or if you are providing live access to a database for querying, you might find that a visual diagram, such as an entity-relationship diagram (ERD), will really help your users.

In some of my own projects, I like to provide both a textual description of the tables, such as with the headers and README files previously described, but also a visual diagram of the tables and the relationships between them. Because the databases I distribute are extremely large, I also colorize my diagrams, and I annotate each part of the diagram to indicate what is inside that part of the database.

The following screenshot shows a high-level overview of what one of my large diagrams looks like. It is zoomed out to show the size of the ERD:

Data models and diagrams

Since this ERD is a bit overwhelming and hard to read, even on a large monitor, I have colorized each separate section of the database and I have provided notes where needed. The following is a screenshot of a closer view of the orange section from the upper left of the big figure:

Data models and diagrams

A close-up view of one of the database sections, including notes describing the purpose of the tables.

By reading this diagram, the user gets a nice overview of how the different sections of the database fit together. Importantly, high-level notes are shown directly on the diagram, and when the user wants more detailed information about a particular field, they can refer to the README file or the header inside that particular file.

To create an ERD, you can use any number of RDBMS tools, including MySQL Workbench (this is the one I used to create the colorized version you see here). Other popular tools include Microsoft Visio, Sparx Enterprise Architect, and Many of these tools will allow you to connect to your RDBMS and reverse-engineer a diagram from an existing database, or forward-engineer SQL statements from a drawing. In either case, the ERD will certainly help your users understand the data model better.

Documentation wiki or CMS

Another way to keep all the documentation for a project organized is to publish it to a wiki or to a content management system (CMS). There are hundreds of CMS and wiki software packages available for this purpose, but popular options include MediaWiki, WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal. GitHub also has a wiki service for projects hosted there, as do some of the other software hosting services, such as Sourceforge and Bitbucket.

You can use a CMS or wiki to provide the download links to your files themselves, and you can use the CMS to post documentation and explanations. I have also used a CMS in my own work to host a blog of updates, visualizations showing example graphs, charts built with the data, and also a repository for scripts that my users might find helpful to work with my data.

Here are some common sections that most data-oriented projects included in a documentation CMS or wiki:

· About the project — This tells the users what the purpose of the data project is and how to contact the project leaders. This section may also include ideas for how to get involved, how to join a mailing list or discussion area, or how to contact the project principals.

· Getting the data — This explains the different mechanisms to access the data. Common choices will include direct database access, file downloads, or an API. This section also explains any special signup or login procedures.

· Using the data — This includes starter queries, usage examples, graphics built with the data, and diagrams and ERDs. It provides links to things other people have done with the data. This section also explains, again if necessary, your expectations for the citation of the data and any licensing policies.

In this section, we discussed a variety of ways to document our data, including READMEs, file headers, ERDs, and web-based solutions. Throughout this discussion, we mentioned the concept of licensing the data and explaining your expectations to cite and share the data. In the next section, we delve deeper into the particulars of licensing your datasets.

Setting terms and licenses for your data

An important part of any plan for data distribution is deciding the expectations you have for how your users will cite, share, or remix your data. The list of expectations for how you want users to work with your data is called the data's Terms of Use (ToU). The ToU may also give the users specific rights, such as the ability to make changes or redistribute the data. This collection of rights that you grant to the users is called the data license. Users can choose to use your dataset—or not—based on whether they agree to abide by its ToU. They can also decide to use the data based on whether what they want to do with the data has been allowed by its license.

In this section, we will outline a few choices you can make for how to set expectations for how users should interact with your data. We will also review some of the most common items you may wish to include in the ToU, as well as some of the more common pre-made licenses that can be applied to your datasets.

Common terms of use

Not everyone has the same goals in sharing their data, for example, I am part of a project where the specific goal is to collect, clean, and redistribute data for the scientific community. Because I am a college professor, part of my work responsibility is to publish academic research papers, software, and datasets that are useful to others. Therefore, it is important to me that people cite my papers and published datasets when they are used. However, one of my other friends, who is not an academic, routinely publishes datasets completely anonymously, and with no expectation for citation or notification when that data is used.

Here is a list of common considerations when setting expectations for the use of your data:

· Citations – Do you want people who publish something based on your data to state clearly that they got the data from you? If so, what URL or reference should they use?

· Privacy – Do you have any rules about protecting the privacy of your users or their information? Do you want your users to abide by any particular privacy guidelines or research guidelines? For example, some people ask that users follow similar procedures to those they followed with their own Institutional Research Boards (IRB) or other research ethics groups (for example, the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR)).

· Appropriate uses for the data – Do you suspect that your dataset could be misused in some way? Could the data be taken out of context? Could its contents be combined with other datasets in a harmful way? For some projects, it would be a very good idea to set expectations for your users for how they can use the data you are providing.

· Contact – Do you have a particular way that you want the users of the data to notify you if they are using the data? Do they need to notify you at all? Guidelines for how and why to contact you, as the dataset provider, are helpful if you anticipate users having questions or concerns about the data.

As we discussed earlier in the Documenting your data section of this chapter, the ToU for a dataset can be made available to the potential users inside a README file, inside file headers, or on a website. If you are providing live database access, you may also notify your potential users that, by accepting a username and password for the database system, they are agreeing to abide by your terms. A similar structure can be used for API access as well, where actively using an authentication token or access credentials indicates the user is in agreement with your ToU.

Of course, all of these best practices are subject to the laws and policies of various international states and organizations. It can be very complicated to try to get all of this correct without a little help. To assist data providers in setting expectations for their users, a few generic licensing schemes have emerged over time. We will discuss two of these now:

Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) licenses are prepackaged, generic sets of rules that providers of copyrighted, or copyrightable, materials can apply to their works. These licenses set out what the users of the works are allowed to do. By stating the license up front, the owner of the work can avoid having to grant individual licenses to every single person that wants to change or redistribute a particular work.

The issue with CC—and this might not be an issue for you at all, depending on what you are doing with it—is that CC licenses are intended to be applied to copyrightable work. Is your database or dataset copyrightable? Are you interested in licensing the contents of the database, or the database itself? To help you answer that question, we will point you to the Creative Commons wiki, which addresses all the considerations for this question in greater detail than we can hope to do here. This page even has a frequently asked questions section specifically about data and databases:

ODbL and Open Data Commons

Another good choice to license data is the Open Database License (ODbL). This is a license that has been generically designed for databases. The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) has created a two-minute guide to deciding how to open your data, which you can find here:

If you want even more choice, the website, also part of the OKF, gives a selection of even more prepackaged licenses that you can apply to your dataset. These range from very open public domain-style licenses, all the way to licenses that require attribution and sharing of derivative works. In addition, they provide an Open Data Handbook, which is extremely helpful at walking you through the process of thinking about the intellectual property in your database or dataset and what you want to do with it. You can download the Open Data Handbook or browse it online here:

Publicizing your data

Once you have a complete data package, it is time to tell the world about it. Publicizing the existence of your data will ensure its use by the most people possible. If you already have a user community in mind for your data, publicizing it may be as simple as sending out a URL on a mailing list or to a specific research group. Sometimes, though, we create a dataset that we think might be interesting to a larger, more amorphous group.

Lists of datasets

There are many lists of data collections available on the Web, most of which are organized around some kind of theme. The publishers of these types of meta-collections (collections of collections) are usually more than happy to list new sources of data that fit into their niche. Meta-collection themes can include:

· Datasets related to the same topic, for example, music data, biological data, or collections of articles on news stories

· Datasets related to solving the same type of problem, for example, datasets that can be used to develop recommender systems or datasets used to train machine learning classifiers

· Datasets related to a particular technical issue, for example, datasets that are designed to benchmark or test a particular software or hardware design

· Datasets designed for use in particular systems, for example, datasets that are optimized for learning a programming language such as R, a data visualization service such as Tableau, or a cloud-based platform such as Amazon Web Services

· Datasets that all have the same type of license, for example, by listing only sets of public domain data or only data that has been cleared for academic research

If you find that your datasets are not well represented on any of these lists, or do not fit the requirements of the existing meta-collections, another option is to start your own data repository.

Open Data on Stack Exchange

The Open Data area on Stack Exchange, found at, is a collection of questions and answers relevant to open datasets. There have been many instances where I have found interesting datasets here, and other times I have been able to show other people how to answer a question using one of my own datasets. This Q&A website is also a great way to learn what kinds of questions people have, and what kind of formats they like for the data they want to use.

Before advertising your data as a solution to someone's problem on Stack Exchange, be sure that your access methods, documentation, and licenses are up to standard using the guidelines we discussed previously in this chapter. This is especially important on Stack Exchange, since both questions and answers can be down-voted by users. The last thing you want to do is try to publicize your data with a bunch of broken links and confusing documentation.


Another fun way to get people involved with your data is to publicize it as a usable dataset for a hackathon. Data hackathons are usually day-long or multiday events where programmers and data scientists come together to practice different techniques on datasets, or to solve a particular class of problem using data.

A simple search engine query for data hackathon will show you what the focus of the current crop of hackathons is. Some of them are sponsored by companies, and some are designed to respond to social problems. Most of them have a wiki or some other method to add your URL and a brief description of the data to the list of datasets that can be used on the day of the hackathon. I hesitate to recommend a particular one, since the very nature of a hackathon is to happen once and then morph and change into something else. They also tend to be held at irregular times and be organized by ad hoc groups.

If your dataset is designed with an academic purpose in mind, for example, if it is a research dataset, you might consider hosting your own hackathon during the workshops or poster sessions of an academic conference. This is an excellent way to get people engaged in manipulating your data, and at the very least, you may get some good feedback from the people at the conference for ways to improve your data, or what datasets they think you should build next.


In this chapter, we looked at a wide variety of possibilities to share our cleaned data. We discussed various solutions and tradeoffs for different ways of packaging and distributing our data. We also reviewed the basics of providing documentation, including the most important things that your users need to know and how to communicate those items in a documentation file. We noticed that licenses and terms of use nearly always appear in documentation, but what do they mean and how should you choose one for your data? We reviewed some common terms of use for data projects, as well as the most common licensing schemes: Creative Commons, and ODbL. Finally, we brainstormed some ways for you to publicize your data, including data meta-collections, the Open Data Stack Exchange site, and data-centric hackathons.

At this point in the book, you have seen a complete beginning-to-end overview of data cleaning. The next two chapters consist of longer, more detailed projects that will give you some more practical exposure to data cleaning tasks using the skills we learned earlier in the book.