Till Döhmen (CWI), Hannes Mühleisen (CWI), Peter Boncz (CWI)


Comma Separated Value (CSV) files are commonly used to represent data. CSV is a very simple format, yet we show that it gives rise to a surprisingly large amount of ambiguities in its parsing and interpretation. We summarize the state-of-the-art in CSV parsers, which typically make a linear series of parsing and interpretation decisions, such that any wrong decision at an earlier stage can negatively affect all downstream decisions. Since computation time is much less scarce than human time, we propose to turn CSV parsing into a ranking problem. Our quality-oriented multi-hypothesis CSV parsing approach generates several concurrent hypotheses about dialect, table structure, etc. and ranks these hypotheses based on quality features of the resulting table. This approach makes it possible to create an advanced CSV parser that makes many different decisions, yet keeps the overall parser code a simple plug-in infrastructure. The complex interactions between these decisions are taken care of by searching the hypothesis space rather than by having to program these many interactions in code. We show that our approach leads to better parsing results than the state of the art and facilitates the parsing of large corpora of heterogeneous CSV files.