Working with OpenRefine


Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 20 min
  • How can we bring our data into OpenRefine?

  • How can we sort and summarize our data?

  • How can we find and correct errors in our raw data?

  • Create a new OpenRefine project from a CSV file.

  • Recall what facets are and how they are used to sort and summarize data.

  • Recall what clustering is and how it is applied to group and edit typos.

  • Manipulate data using previous steps with undo/redo.

  • Employ drop-downs to split values from one column into multiple columns.

  • Employ drop-downs to remove white spaces from cells.


Creating a Project

Start the program. (Double-click on the openrefine.exe file (or google-refine.exe if using an older version). Java services will start on your machine, and OpenRefine will open in your browser).

Launch OpenRefine (see Getting Started with OpenRefine).

OpenRefine can import a variety of file types, including tab separated (tsv), comma separated (csv), Excel (xls, xlsx), JSON, XML, RDF as XML, Google Spreadsheets. See the OpenRefine Importers page for more information.

In this first step, we’ll browse our computer to the sample data file for this lesson. In this case, we modified the Portal_rodents CSV file, adding several columns: scientificName, locality, county, state, country and generating several more columns in the lesson itself (JSON, decimalLatitude, decimalLongitude). Data in locality, county, country, JSON, decimalLatitude and decimalLongitude are contrived and are in no way related to the original dataset.

If you haven’t already, download the data from:

Once OpenRefine is launched in your browser, the left margin has options to Create Project, Open Project, or Import Project.

Here we will create a new project:

  1. Click Create Project and select Get data from This Computer.

    OpenRefine starting screen

  2. Click Browse and select the file Portal_rodents_19772002_scinameUUIDs.csv. Click Open or double-click on the filename.
  3. Click Next>> under the browse button to upload the data into OpenRefine.
  4. OpenRefine gives you a preview - a chance to show you it understood the file.

    OpenRefine import preview

    If, for example, your file was really tab-delimited, the preview might look strange, in which case you would choose the correct separator under “Columns are separated by” (bottom left) and click Update Preview (bottom right). If this is the wrong file, click <<Start Over (upper left).

  5. From OpenRefine 3.4 onwards there is an option to Trim leading & trailing whitespace from strings when importing separator-based files. Keeping this checked will ensure that values like English and English , which differ by a single trailing space, are not treated as different values after the import.
  6. If all looks well, click Create Project>> (upper right).

Note that at step 1, you could upload data in a standard form from a web address by selecting Get data from Web Addresses (URLs). However, this won’t work for all URLs.


Exploring data by applying multiple filters

Facets are one of the most useful features of OpenRefine and can help both get an overview of the data in a project as well as helping you bring more consistency to the data. OpenRefine supports faceted browsing as a mechanism for

A facet groups all the like values that appear in a column, and allows you to filter the data by those values. It also allows you to edit values across many records at the same time.

One type of facet is called a ‘Text facet’. This groups all the identical text values in a column and lists each value with the number of records it appears in. The facet information always appears in the left hand panel in the OpenRefine interface.

Here we will use faceting to look for potential errors in data entry in the scientificName column.

  1. Scroll over to the scientificName column.
  2. Click the down arrow and choose Facet > Text facet.

    OpenRefine Facet menu

  3. In the left panel, you’ll now see a box containing every unique value in the scientificName column along with a number representing how many times that value occurs in the column.

    Faceting results on scientificName column

  4. Try sorting this facet by name and by count. Do you notice any problems with the data? What are they?
  5. Hover the mouse over one of the names in the facet list. You should see that you have an edit function available.
  6. You could use this to fix an error immediately, and OpenRefine will ask whether you want to make the same correction to every value it finds like that one. But OpenRefine offers even better ways to find and fix these errors, which we’ll use instead. We’ll learn about these when we talk about clustering.


There will be several near-identical entries in scientificName. For example, there is one entry for Ammospermophilis harrisi and one entry for Ammospermophilus harrisii. These are both misspellings of Ammospermophilus harrisi. We will see how to correct these misspelled and mistyped entries in a later exercise.

More on Facets

OpenRefine Wiki: Faceting

As well as ‘Text facets’ OpenRefine also supports a range of other types of facet. These include:

  • Numeric facets
  • Timeline facets (for dates)
  • Custom facets
  • Scatterplot facets

Numeric and Scatterplot facets display graphs instead of lists of values. The numeric facet graph includes ‘drag and drop’ controls you can use to set a start and end range to filter the data displayed. These facets are explored further in Examining Numbers in OpenRefine

Custom facets are a range of different types of facets. Some of the default custom facets are:

  • Word facet - this breaks down text into words and counts the number of records each word appears in
  • Duplicates facet - this results in a binary facet of ‘true’ or ‘false’. Rows appear in the ‘true’ facet if the value in the selected column is an exact match for a value in the same column in another row
  • Text length facet - creates a numeric facet based on the length (number of characters) of the text in each row for the selected column. This can be useful for spotting incorrect or unusual data in a field where specific lengths are expected (e.g. if the values are expected to be years, any row with a text length more than 4 for that column is likely to be incorrect)
  • Facet by blank - a binary facet of ‘true’ or ‘false’. Rows appear in the ‘true’ facet if they have no data present in that column. This is useful when looking for rows missing key data.

Facets are intended to group together common values and OpenRefine limits the number of values allowed in a single facet to ensure the software does not perform slowly or run out of memory. If you create a facet where there are many unique values (for example, a facet on a ‘book title’ column in a data set that has one row per book) the facet created will be very large and may either slow down the application, or OpenRefine will not create the facet.


  1. Using faceting, find out how many years are represented in the census.

  2. Which years have the most and least observations?

  3. Is the column formatted as Number, Date, or Text? How does changing the format change the faceting display?


  1. For the column yr do Facet > Text facet. A box will appear in the left panel showing that there are 26 unique entries in this column.
  2. After creating a facet, click Sort by count in the facet box. The year with the most observations is 1997. The least is 1977.
  3. By default, the column yr is formatted as Text. You can change the format by doing Edit cells > Common transforms > To number. Doing Facet > Numeric facet creates a box in the left panel that shows a histogram of the number of entries per year. Notice that the data is shown as a number, not a date. If you instead transform the column to a date, the program will assume all entries are on January 1st of the year.


In OpenRefine, clustering means “finding groups of different values that might be alternative representations of the same thing”. For example, the two strings New York and new york are very likely to refer to the same concept and just have capitalization differences. Likewise, Gödel and Godel probably refer to the same person. Clustering is a very powerful tool for cleaning datasets which contain misspelled or mistyped entries. OpenRefine has several clustering algorithms built in. Experiment with them, and learn more about these algorithms and how they work.

  1. In the scientificName Text facet we created in the step above, click the Cluster button (or select Edit cells > Cluster and edit).
  2. In the resulting pop-up window, you can change the Method and the Keying Function. Try different combinations to see what different mergers of values are suggested.
  3. Select the key collision method and metaphone3 keying function. It should identify two clusters.

    Cluster results on the scientificName column

  4. Click the Merge? box beside each, then click Merge Selected & Re-Cluster to apply the corrections to the dataset.
  5. Try selecting different Methods and Keying Functions again, to see what new merges are suggested. You may find there are still improvements that can be made, but don’t Merge again; just Close when you’re done. We’ll now see other operations that will help us detect and correct the remaining problems, and that have other, more general uses.

Important: If you Merge using a different method or keying function, or more times than described in the instructions above, your solutions for later exercises will not be the same as shown in those exercise solutions.

More on clustering


If data in a column needs to be split into multiple columns, and the parts are separated by a common separator (say a comma, or a space), you can use that separator to divide up the pieces into their own columns.

  1. Let us suppose we want to split the scientificName column into separate columns for genus and for species.
  2. Click the down arrow at the top of the scientificName column. Choose Edit column > Split into several columns...

    OpenRefine Edit Column menu

  3. In the pop-up, in the Separator box, replace the comma with a space.
  4. Uncheck the box that says Remove this column.

    Split Column screen

  5. Click OK. You’ll get some new columns called scientificName 1, scientificName 2, and so on.


Try to change the name of the second new column to “species”. How can you correct the problem you encounter?


On the scientificName 2 column, click the down arrow and then Edit column > Rename this column. Type “species” into the box that appears. A pop-up will appear that says Another column already named species. This is because there is another column where we’ve recorded the species abbreviation. You can choose another name like speciesName for this column or change the other species column name to speciesAbbreviation.

Undo / Redo

It’s common while exploring and cleaning a dataset to discover after you’ve made a change that you really should have done something else first. OpenRefine provides Undo and Redo operations to make this easy.

  1. Click where it says Undo / Redo on the left side of the screen. All the changes you have made so far are listed here.

    Example undo/redo screen

  2. Click on the step that you want to go back to, in this case the previous step. The added columns will disappear.
  3. Notice that you can still click on the last step and make the columns reappear, and toggle back and forth between these states.
  4. Leave the dataset in the state in which the scientificNames were clustered, but not yet split.

Important: Undo the splitting step before moving on to the next lesson. If you skip this step, your solutions for later exercises will not be the same as shown in those exercise solutions.

Key Points

  • Faceting and clustering approaches can identify errors or outliers in data.