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Text mining tools take on unstructured data

Companies are increasingly using text mining tools to harness the information in their unstructured data.

By Drew Robb
June 21, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Unstructured data, most of it in the form of text files, typically accounts for 85% of an organization's knowledge stores, but it's not always easy to find, access, analyze or use.

"We are drowning in information but are starving for knowledge," says Mani Shabrang, technical leader in research and development at Dow Chemical Co.'s business intelligence (BI) center in Midland, Mich. "Information is only useful when it can be located and synthesized into knowledge."

But a new generation of text mining tools allows companies to extract key elements from large unstructured data sets, discover relationships and summarize the information. Many organizations are deploying or considering such software to deal with their mountains of text, despite the need for specialized skills to make implementations work.

For example, since 2000 Dow's research staff has been using ClearResearch software from ClearForest Corp. in New York to extract data from a century's worth of chemical patent abstracts, published research papers and the company's own files.

"By managing the information better and eliminating the irrelevant, we've been able to reduce the time it takes for [researchers] to find what they need to read," says Shabrang.

Text mining tools take a variety of approaches. ClearResearch uses a proprietary pattern-matching methodology to search for information, categorize it and graphically show its relationship to other data.

"The software can see, discover and extract concepts, not just words," says Shabrang. "It gives us a pictorial representation of the text in the documents in an easy-to-understand chart."

Adoption Roadblocks
The text mining software available now doesn't yet match the accuracy of data mining tools, but vendors are improving their products' ability to understand context, which is key to making text mining tools effective.

"Understanding linguistics and overcoming its challenges is a horizon that has not been dealt with well," says William McKnight, president of McKnight Associates Inc., a data warehousing consulting firm in Plano, Texas. "Basic text mining is possible, but the performance needs to be improved and the tools don't scale well."

Because of these limitations, text mining tools are still niche products generally restricted to specific parts of an organization. But they are starting to catch on.

"Over the last 12 to 18 months, I have seen a lot of interest in using these tools for regulatory compliance," says Brian Babineau, a research analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Mass. "But once that seems to be under control, people will retrofit these applications for other purposes, like data warehousing and CRM."

While there are software systems that analyze both structured and unstructured data, many companies use traditional BI software on their structured data and then turn to separate tools to analyze text-based data. Electronic Data Systems Corp., for example, has all of its 130,000 employees fill out an online questionnaire about their jobs once a year. Another three times a year, 20,000 employees answer an additional survey.

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