Creating Tables from complex data structures

An introduction to UNNEST and FLATTEN and how they can help you optimize complex data structures for better-looking Tables.

The Create Data Tables option lets you create Data Tables without writing any formulas. However, you might notice that these automatically generated Tables don’t always have the most optimal structure.

Let’s look at an example. Here’s a screenshot of a Data Table created from an query to an external service.

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This is from a service that allows you to search for people’s contact details:

But look at all that duplication! Surely there’s a better way to display the data.

There is indeed a better way. Data Tables these tables are constructed from a few nested functions that you can replicate on your own.

Once you learn how to master these functions, you’ll have much more fine-grained control over how data from external services is displayed in your Tables.

So what are these functions? If you create a standard Data Table and click the top-left cell, you’ll see the formula that's being used to convert the data into a Table.

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The previous screenshot, you can see that the UNNEST and REMOVEARRAYS functions are being used in combination with EXPAND.

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of these functions before, we’ll get to them in a minute. But first, it's important understand why this duplication happens in the first place.

The problem with nested data structures

When you pull data from an external service such as a contact details API, the data is usually provided in the JSON format. This format organizes data into hierarchies which makes it challenging to convert the data into a table. Whichever way you decide to do it, you’ll probably have to make some kind of compromise.

Here’s an example of the raw data before it was converted into the Data Table from the previous screenshot.

nested-data-example

How do you turn this into a table? There are a couple of ways to do it. One way is to use the UNNEST function. In fact, when you create a Data Table, Rows uses the UNNEST function behind the scenes to put the data into rows and columns.

However, the UNNEST function can sometimes result in some duplicated data which we can see in the previous example.

Why UNNEST can cause duplicate rows

To understand why duplicate rows show up in our example, let’s look at the structure of the raw data has changed. As mentioned earlier, Data Tables use the UNNEST function to convert JSON data into a tabular format.

The following illustration shows how the data is structured before and after the UNNEST function is applied.

unnest-before-after

Before UNNEST was applied

There were data categories that had subcategories such as “phonenumber” which contains the subcategories. “type “ and “number”.

  • In total, there are 4 subcategories:
    1) phone number type, 2) email type, 3) phone number 4) email address.

After UNNEST was applied

After UNNEST, all subcategories are removed, and are converted into top-level categories such as phonenumber.number, phonenumber.type — these correspond to columns in a table.

  • There are now 4 columns — one for each of the 4 top-level categories.

  • There are now 6 rows — one for each combination of values such as home phone number and primary email.
    These combinations are calculated by multiplying the variants for each subcategory together:

    • For “number type”, there are 3 variants:
      1) mobile number, 2) home number 3) work number.

    • For “email type”, there are 2 variants:
      1) primary email, 2) secondary email.

    • Therefore: 3 number types * 2 email types = 6 combinations/rows for one contact (which is why "Baltesar de Briho" is repeated 6 times).

So, what can you do about this? You can try to flatten the data by adding more columns instead of rows.

Reducing duplication with FLATTEN

You can solve this problem with a similar function called FLATTEN. This function tries to add more columns instead of adding more rows.

Here’s an example of what the data from our previous example looks like if we use FLATTEN instead of UNNEST.

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Look at that! No more duplicate rows for each contact. But our table is now very wide because instead of 6 rows, we have 6 pairs of columns for each of our data variants (12 columns in total).

As you can see, how you handle duplication depends on the structure of your data and whether you prefer wider tables or taller tables.

  • If your data contains data categories that have many subcategory variants (such as "country": “america” { "state": "alabama"; "state": "alaska"
    • 48 more variants of "state"), you’re probably better off sticking with UNNEST so that the variants are inserted into rows.

  • If your data contains a manageable number of subcategory variants (such as in our previous example), it might be better to put the variants in columns with FLATTEN.