We chose it because we deal with huge amounts of data. Besides, it sounds really cool.

– Larry Page, Co-founder of Google

The founders of Google were playing with the mathematical term, “googol”, which is a 1 with 100 zeros after it (a number so big that it is pretty much incomprehensible to people). And Google knew they were working with an incomprehensible amount of data.

But what does all of that data look like? And what does it mean to work with a dataset?

Data can mean a lot of things, but within data science, it typically means a collection of organized observations.

There are two types of organization: methodology and shape.

The methodology is how the data was collected. We will get more into that later in this lesson.

The most common shape for data is a spreadsheet or table. Where the things we are measuring (variables) are in the columns, and the individual instances (observations) are in the rows.

This isn’t the only way to organize data, but it is the most common.

In this lesson, we’re going to cover some basics of working with data. Some of this might be familiar if you’ve been working with data for a while, but some of this might also be new.

These ideas apply to all datasets you will work with. We will use an example of creating a tree census..


Congratulations! You’ve just been hired as a census taker for the North American tree census! This census will be a partnership between Canada and the United States. You’ve agreed to use the Imperial measurements (the American system), so will be collecting the data in feet and miles.

You’ve been assigned to the North Atlantic Region. That includes both the Northeast United States and Eastern Canada. Check out the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory for details about similar projects.

Take a look at the spreadsheet to the right. Pay special attention to the variables and values. You’ll need a deep understanding of how this data is organized to help us understand our future analysis.

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