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    Structured vs. Unstructured Data: A Complete Comparison Guide

    Understanding the fundamentals of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science requires a deeper understanding of the data types that fuel these sectors. The amount of data available to businesses is ever-growing. In addition, not all data are the same. The data generated from social media platforms differ from the data generated by supply chain systems. This data can be classified into different categories such as nominal, ordinal, discrete, continuous, and more. This article will give you insights into the structured and unstructured categories of data. Before we settle the structured vs. unstructured data debate, let’s understand a bit about each category. 

    What Is Structured Data?

    Structured data is a more straightforward form of data. You can find structured data everywhere on a daily basis. This means that this type of data is organized and formatted in a way that makes it easy to search, analyze, and process by humans and computers. Also, it is quantitative data that you may find in spreadsheets and relational databases that are visually present in tables with rows and columns. Relational databases are database structures that use tables to store data where relationships between tables are predefined. 

    Structured Data

    Structured data often comes in numbers, dates, and strings and it encompasses around 20% of all enterprise data, according to Gartner. So, the characteristics of structured data include:

    • Well-defined Format: Structured data fits a well-defined format such as database tables, spreadsheets, or a specific data model such as JSON or XML. 
    • Organized: Structured data is organized into categories, each with a specific data type. 
    • Consistent: Structured data should be consistent in their format. For example, a ‘date field’ should follow the same format for all date entries. 
    • Subject to Query: Structured data is easily searched and queried using a database search query (SQL). 

    Example

    So, to better understand what structured data is and how it differs from unstructured data, here are several structured data examples:

    • Dates and times
    • Cell phone numbers
    • Social security numbers
    • Product prices
    • Serial numbers

    You can easily categorize these data into a database. Consider the example below as a visualization of structured data in databases. 

    Structured Database

    Advantages

    Advantages-of-Structured-Data

    • Organized: Structured data is organized into predefined formats, which makes it easy to categorize and manage information efficiently. 
    • Efficient: Structured data can be quickly searched using database query language which enables fast data retrieval and analysis. 
    • Consistent: Data consistency is maintained through predefined data types and formats, reducing the likelihood of errors and ensuring data quality.
    • Secure: Access controls and encryption can be applied easily to structured data, enhancing data security.

    Disadvantages

    Disadvantages-of-Unstructured-Data

    • Rigid: Structured data is less flexible than unstructured data or semi-structured data, making it hard to adjust to changes in data structures. 
    • Redundant: Structured data can sometimes lead to data supplication across tables. 
    • Limited Representation: Not all data types fit into structured formats like tables, which can lead to loss of information. 
    • Complex: Designing and maintaining structured databases can be complex and time-consuming, especially for large datasets.

    What Is Unstructured Data?

    Unlike structured data, unstructured data does not have a predefined structure or format. It is generally classified as qualitative data since it cannot be analyzed using traditional methodologies. Unstructured data lacks a clear organization that doesn’t necessarily fit in predefined data models or schema. However, structured data has an internal structure (bits and bytes). However, traditional methods cannot analyze and process unstructured data. So, one way to analyze unstructured data is to use non-relational databases (NoSQL). Examples of unstructured data include text files, emails, media files, mobile data like geolocation, and more. 

    Unstructured Data

    Considering the variety of forms that unstructured data comes in, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it makes up more than 80% of all enterprise data. So, the characteristics of unstructured data include: 

    • Not Organized: Unstructured data does not follow a specific format or structure. It includes text, audio, images, video, and other types of data. 
    • Flexible: Unstructured data can take various forms such as free-form text, natural language, social media posts, and more. 
    • Difficult to Process: Unstructured data is not easily processed by traditional database management systems or structured data analysis tools. It often requires more advanced techniques such as natural language processing (NLP), image recognition, or machine learning to extract meaningful insights.
    • Subjective: Unstructured data can be subjective and context-dependent. For example, a sentiment analysis would require understanding the context and tone of the text. 

    Example

    To better understand what unstructured data is and how it differs from structured data, here are several unstructured data examples:

    • Text-only files
    • Email messages
    • Audio and video files
    • Images and digital photographs
    • Books and PDFs

    You cannot easily categorize these data into a database. Consider the example below as a visualization of unstructured data.

    Unstructured data Image

    Advantages

    Advantages-of-Unstructured-Data

    • Rich with Information: Unstructured data is rich with information including nuanced language, emotions, and context that cannot be obtained by structured data. 
    • Relevant: Unstructured data often reflects real-world situations and natural human communication.
    • Insightful: Unstructured data provide insights into a wide range of topics. 
    • Provides Context: Contextual Understanding: Unstructured data can provide context around structured data, helping organizations gain a deeper understanding of why certain patterns or trends are occurring.

    Disadvantages

    Disadvantages-of-Unstructured-Data

    • Complex: Unstructured data is complex and requires advanced analysis techniques such as natural language processing and machine learning. 
    • Vast Data Volume: Unstructured data is vast in volume, making it difficult to store and manage it effectively. 
    • Not Standardized: Unstructured data lacks standardization in formats, making it challenging to organize and compare information. 
    • Subjective and Contains Noise: Unstructured data can include subjective opinions, noise, and irrelevant information. 

    Structured Data vs. Unstructured Data

    So, here’s the full summary of the structured vs. unstructured data:

    Structured Data

    • Quantitative (numerical)
    • Organized and fact-based.
    • Stored in relational databases and spreadsheets. 
    • Easy to search using tools like SQL. 
    • Encompasses 20% of all data. 
    • Examples: Databases, spreadsheets, and product catalogs.

    Unstructured Data

    • Qualitative (non-numerical)
    • Unorganized and subjective.
    • Stored in data lakes and non-relational databases. 
    • Difficult to search.
    • Encompasses 80% of all data.
    • Examples: Email content, social media posts, images, videos.  

    Structured and Unstructured Data

    Other Forms of Data

    Although structured and unstructured data encompassed a wide range of data, developers and data analysts still felt limited. Consequently, other types of data have emerged to simplify the process. 

    Semi-Structured Data

    Semi-structured data has the best of both worlds where it falls between structured and unstructured data. It possesses some level of structure but does not conform to rigid database schemas. Instead, it often uses a flexible format, such as JSON, XML, or markup languages. Semi-structured data allows for variations in data representation while still providing some organization, making it more versatile than unstructured data. This format is common in documents with varying fields, such as invoices, emails, and NoSQL databases.

    Semi-Structured Data

    Examples of semi-structured data: 

    • JSON files
    • XML data
    • Log files
    • Emails
    • CSV files

    Role of AI in Analysing Unstructured Data

    Since we cannot use traditional methods to analyze unstructured data for their complexity, artificial intelligence, and machine learning algorithms play a major role in processing these data. AI and ML help identify data points from millions of unformulated data formats. AI techniques such as natural language processing (NLP) and computer vision enable machines to understand, interpret, and process unstructured data. In addition, it helps businesses to automate tasks such as sentiment analysis, content categorization, image recognition, and speech-to-text transcription. 

    Simply, AI helps analyze unstructured data by:

    • Text understanding
    • Image and Video Analysis
    • Speech recognition
    • Sentiment analysis
    • Content categorization
    • Personalization
    • Automation

    Structured Vs. Unstructured Data: Final Thoughts

    To conclude the structured vs. unstructured data comparison, we have to first remember that the use of vs. here does not mean that one is better than the other. It just means that they are different. Structured data is suitable for scenarios where data management and analysis are critical. On the other hand, unstructured data is valuable for extracting rich insights from real-world sources like social media and customer feedback, but it requires advanced techniques for analysis.

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