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Coping With a Spreadsheet Database

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Coping With a Spreadsheet Database

Do you have to deal with a spreadsheet for a database? Let's take a look at how to deal with this in a semi-sane fashion.

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A common way to save persistent, important data is a spreadsheet. It provides a handy, potentially normalized store that's readily accessible with minimal tooling. It has a UI usable by people with a spectrum of skills.

Sadly, there's a core conflict:

  • The advantages of spreadsheets-as-database are numerous.
  • The disadvantage is the lack of any strict, formal control over the schema.

At the very best, the steward of the data has some discipline and they include column headers and assure they're used throughout the rows of data.

It goes downhill rapidly from that ideal.

Let's look at some scenarios and how to cope.

Outliers, Special Cases, Anomalies, and Other Irregularities

The whole point of a "normalized" view of the data is to identify a pattern, assign the lofty title of "Schema" to the pattern, and assure all of the data fits the schema. In rare cases, all of the data fits a simple schema. These cases are so rare they only exist in examples of SQL code in tutorials.

A far more common case is to have several subtypes that are so similar that optional attributes (or "nullable columns" in SQL parlance) allow one schema description to encompass all of the cases. If you're a JSON Schema person, this is the "OneOf" or "AnyOf" type definition.

Some folks will try to argue that optional attributes don't always mean that there are several subtypes. They'll ramble on for a while and eventually land on "state change" as a reason for optional attributes. The distinct states are distinct subtypes. Read up on the State design pattern for OO programming. Optional attributes is the definition of subtype.

The hoped-for simple case is a superclass extended by subclasses used to add new attributes. In this case, they're all polymorphic with respect to the superclass. In a spreadsheet page, the column names reflect the union of all of the various attributes. There are two minor variants in the way people use this:

  • An attribute value is a discriminator among the subtypes. We like this in SQL processing because it's fast. It also allows for some validation of the discriminator value and the pattern of attributes present vs. attributes omitted. Of course, the pattern of empty cells may disagree with the discriminator value provided.
  • The pattern of attributes provided and omitted is used to identify the subtype. This is a more reliable way to detect subtypes. There can, of course, be problems here with values provided accidentally, or omitted accidentally.

The less desirable case disjoint classes with a few common attributes. Worse, the common attributes are not part of the problem domain but are thinks that feel "databasey," like made-up surrogate keys. There's an "ID" in column A or some other such implementation detail. Some of the rows use column A and columns B to G. The other rows use column A and columns H to L. The only common attributes are the surrogate keys, perhaps mixed with foreign key references to rows in other spreadsheet tables or pages.)

This is a collection of disjoint types, slapped together for no good reason. SQL folks like to call multiple master-detail relationships. The master record has children of multiple types. In some cases, the only thing the children have in common is the foreign key relationship with the parent. If you want a concrete example, think of customer contact information: multiple email addresses, multiple phone numbers. The two contacts have nothing in common except belonging to one customer.

These don't belong in a single spreadsheet table, but here they are. Our code must disentangle the subtypes.


A lot of spreadsheet data is a two-dimensional grid. Budgets, for example, might have categories down the page and months across the page.

This is handy for visualization, but it's not the right way to process the data at all.

This extends, of course, to higher orders. Each tab of a spreadsheet may be a dimension of visualization. There may be groups of tabs with a complex naming convention to include multiple dimensions into tab names. Rows may have multiple-part names or use bullets and indentation to show a hierarchy.

All of these techniques are ways to provide a number of dimensions around a fact that's crammed into a cell. The budget amount is the fact. The category and the month information are the two dimensions of that cell. In many cases, Star-Schema techniques are helpful for understanding the underlying data, separate from the visualization as a spreadsheet.

Our code must disentangle the dimensions of the meaningful facts.


There are tiers of normalization. The normalization described above is part of First Normal Form (1NF): all rows are the same and all data items are atomic. Pragmatically, it's rare that all spreadsheet rows are the same because it's common to bundle multiple subtypes into a single table.

Sidebar Rant. Yes, the presence of nullable columns in a SQL table *is* a normalization error. There, I said it. Error. We can always partition the rows of a table into a number of separate tables; in each of those tables, all columns are required. We can rebuild the original table (with optional fields) via a union of the various decompositions (none of which have optional fields). The SQL folks prefer nullable columns and 1NF violations over unions and 1NF absolutism. I'm a fan of 1NF absolutism to understand each and every nullable attribute because casual abuse of nulls is a common design error.

The other part of 1NF is each value is atomic: there's no internal structure to the value. In manually-prepared spreadsheet data, this is difficult to insist on. Stuff gets combined into a single cell because, well, it seemed helpful to the people entering it. They put all the lines of an address into a single cell because they like to see it that way.

Third Normal Form (3NF) forbids derived data (and transitive dependencies). In a spreadsheet, we might have a row-level computation. It helps the person confirm the data is correct. It's not "essential." It breaks the 3NF rule because the computed attribute depends on other field values; a change to one attribute will also change the derived attribute.

When we first encounter spreadsheet data, this isn't always obvious. In some cases, the derived data is computed "off-line" — i.e., manually — and entered into the spreadsheet. Really? People pull up a calculator app (or whip out their phone), compute a value, and type it in. In other cases, they look something up manually and enter it.

These kinds of data entry "weirdnesses" require code to normalize the manually-prepared data. We'll have to decompose non-atomic fields. And we'll have to handle derived data gracefully. (Reject it? Fix it? Warn them about it? Handle it as an exception?)


Let's talk about Second Normal Form (2NF). We really want to have a row in a table represent a single thing. The SQL folks require all of the attributes to be dependent on the row's key. In spreadsheet world, we may have a jumble of attributes with a jumble of dependencies. We may have multiple relationships in a single row. Look at the Second Normal Form page on Wikipedia for examples of multiple relationships mashed together into a single row.

When a spreadsheet has 2NF problems, there will be situations were some collection of attributes is repeated — verbatim — in multiple places. The most common example in US-based data is City-State-ZIP Code. These three *always* form a consistent triple of data and should be repeated as part of an address. In SQL terms, City and State have a functional dependency on the ZIP Code. In an Object-Oriented database, we might have a separate City-State-Zip class definition. In a document datastore, we might combine these items into a sub-document.

In any 2NF problem area, we're forced to write code, which normalizes this internal relationship.

When we do that, we'll find the kinds of problems we find with derived data: The ZIP code 22102 might be McLean or Tysons Corner. One of them is "right" and the other is "wrong," or perhaps there needs to be an exception to handle this, or perhaps a correction applied to coerce the wrong values to be right.

The "Association" Table

There's a SQL design pattern called an association table. This is used to handle a many-to-many relationship between two entities. Consider boats and owners. A boat will have multiple owners. An owner may have multiple boats. In SQL world, this requires a special table with two foreign keys. In the degenerate case, there are no other attributes. In the boat-owner relationship case, however, there's often a range of dates that specifies when an owner was associated with a boat. The range of dates applies to the relationship itself, not to boat nor to the owner.

In a spreadsheet, there are numerous ways to represent this. A list of boat rows after each owner, a list of owner rows after each boat, a number of owner columns for each boat, and a block of text with a list of owner names in a single cell. Creative people will create many creative solutions to this data representation problem.

Note that the association table is a SQL hack. It's an implementation detail, not an essential feature of the problem domain. In Python, for example, we'll need to use weakref objects to handle this cleanly.

When Owner O1 refers to Vessel V1 it's easy to have a list of vessel references under the owner. When the Owner O1 object is no longer needed, it can be removed from memory. This decrements the references count for Vessel V1 to zero, and it will also be removed from memory, too.

When we have mutual references, we have a problem solved by weakrefs.

If Owner O1 refers to Vessel V1 and we also have Vessel V1 referring to Owner O1, we have mutual references. O1 has a list that includes V1. V1 also has a list that includes O1. This means there are two strong references to O1: some variable, owner, and Vessel V1 also refers to O1. When the variable owner is no longer needed, then the reference count to O1 is decremented from two to one. And the object can't be deleted yet.

If V1 has a weak reference to O1, then the strong reference count — based on the variable owner — is only one. The weak reference from V1 doesn't count for memory management purposes. O1 can be removed from memory, references to V1 will be decremented, and it, too, can be removed.

Our code will have to parse and populate the relationships, and we'll need to use weakref to be sure we can cleanly remove objects.

Coping Strategies

As noted above, we have to cope with manually-prepared spreadsheet data. It looks like this:

  1. Figure out what the likely data structure is. This isn't simple. We'll look at Pythonic techniques below. When starting, it helps to draw UML class diagrams (or ER diagrams) over and over again to try and depict the data. I'm a fan of using https://yuml.me to draw the pictures because they have a super-handy text notation for the relationships and attributes.
  2. Leverage the Extract-Transform-Load design pattern.
  • The "extract" reads the source spreadsheet data. A first version will be a trivial use of xlrd or CSV module. Or any of the modules listed here: http://www.python-excel.org.
  • The "transform" should be implemented as a function to transform source to the target model. Pragmatically, this single function will leverage a number of other functions to validate, cleanse, convert, and normalize the data.
  • The "load" may not be anything more than creating instances of the underlying model classes. In some cases, the instances of the model classes may wind up in an in-memory dictionary. In other cases, the "load" might be a simple use of pickle or shelve to persist the useful data.
  • Separate Model, ETL, and "Real Work" from each other. The model should evolve very slowly. It's the essential problem we're solving. The ETL may vary with each major revision to the spreadsheet database. Users add columns, they change meanings, and their understanding evolves. The final work is based on the model — and only the model — ignoring the vagaries of ETL.
  • Plan for change. Each manually-prepared spreadsheet is a unique snowflake, precious and distinct. This leads to an important lesson based on the Open/Closed Principle: Code must be closed to modification and open to extension. Each version of the source data means adding new functions or classes to cope with each bizarre new spreadsheet issue. When the source data changes, don't modify any old code; always be adding. This means planning for multiple versions of functions: validate_1(), validate_2(), validate_3(). It's essential to be able to process *all* old versions of the data and get meaningful, useful results for regression testing.
  • Python To The Rescue

    Data modeling must be done slowly and reluctantly. Don't overfit the model to the first spreadsheet.

    Here's the place to start:

    from typing import SimpleNamespace
    class Model(SimpleNamespace ):

    This is *enough* modeling to get started. Don't over-engineer the model. We can then do things like this:

    class Owner(Model):

    This defines the class Owner as an instance of some abstract Model class. The SimpleNamespace allows us to have any attributes we think we need.

    owner = Owner(vessel=some_id, name=row['name'])

    We can leverage the SimpleNamespace to build useful objects with minimal code. This can be replaced with a typing.NamedTuple or a @dataclass class definition when the definition is more mature.

    The "extract" code needs to gather row-like objects. Ideally, this is a generator function. Because normalization and dereferencing may require multiple passes through the data, a list can be slightly easier to deal with. We'll come back to normalization and dereferencing below.

    For some background in the classes used here, see https://sourceforge.net/projects/stingrayreader/. (Yes, this is old; I'm thinking of moving it to GitHub and updating it to Python 3.7.)

    def load_live_rows(workbook, sheet_name):
        sheet1 = sheet.EmbeddedSchemaSheet(workbook, sheet_name, schema.loader.HeadingRowSchemaLoader)
        dict_rows = sheet1.schema.rows_as_dict_iter(sheet1)
        clean_data = filter(lambda row:not row['Hull No.'].is_empty(), dict_rows)
        initial_data = take_until(lambda row:row['Hull No.'].to_str() == 'Definitely WB Owners:', clean_data)
        return list(initial_data)
    1. We're working with a sheet that has the schema embedded in it. That means using the heading rows as column information. The HeadingRowSchemaLoader will be grabbing the first few rows from the EmbeddedSchemaSheet. Sometimes, we need more complex loaders to read multiple rows. If the schema is separate from the sheet, then the loader doesn't interact with the source of data.
    2. Each row is modeled as a simple dictionary in this example code.
    3. A filter locates rows that have hull numbers. Other rows are quietly discarded.
    4. The take_until() function reads rows until the matching row is found, then stops. This chops off the bottom of the spreadsheet where manual notes were kept.

    The resulting list of rows can be validated, cleansed, and normalized to create the useful instances of the various Model subclasses.

    Here's the "transform" portion.

    def make_owner_1(row: Dict[str, Cell]) -> Owner:
        return Owner(
            last_name=null_strip(row["Owner's Last Name"].to_str()),
            first_name=null_strip(row["Owner's First Name"].to_str()),
            display_name=null_strip(row["Display Name"].to_str()),

    We've built an instance of the Owner subclass of Model by extracting a number of attributes from the row. There are other columns not extracted; they are part of various normalizations and dereferencing.

    The owner_vessel attribute is a parent-child relationship that can't be trivially populated from the row. The SQL folks would include a foreign key in each child that refers to the parent. The vessel page of the spreadsheet has this information, and it's used to populate the owner's details. This is one of the dereferencing activities that needs to be done as part of "loading."

    The to_str() method is a feature of the Stingray Reader's cell definitions. Conversion methods like this are not typical of idiomatic Python code. If we were only creating built-in str, float, or int, the bunch of conversion methods would be a bad idea. To be useful, we also need to create Decimal objects, and that leads us to embracing a grid of conversion methods for each cell source to the desired resulting objects. We could use decimal(str(cell)), but it seems cleaner to use cell.to_decimal().

    Multiple Passes

    We often touch the source more than once.

    1. There's a "validate and load" pass to get rows that are sensible to process. A generator might make sense here.
    2. There may be a "cleanse and convert" pass to reformat the source data, perhaps parsing complex cells into components or combining multiple source rows into a single entity description. This, too, might involve a generator to restructure the spreadsheet rows into something sensible.
    3. There will be multiple "normalization" passes. Any 2NF relationships need to be extracted to create model objects. Any restructuring of complex dimensions should be handled via restructuring source data from grid to rows, or from multiple sheets to a single, long, sequence of rows with the various dimensions as explicit attributes of each row.
    4. There may be multiple "load" passes to build final objects from the source rows. This will often lead to including the built objects as part of the source data.
    5. There will be some final "dereferencing" passes where foreign key relationships are turned into proper references among the objects. These should be weakref references to permit proper garbage collection.

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    database ,spreadsheet ,python ,code ,sql

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