Paper Review 02 - AutoTables

My thoughts on Auto-Tables: Synthesizing Multi-Step Transformations to Relationalize Tables without Using Examples

Today’s post is about a paper that won VLDB 2023’s best paper award. It’s a really cool idea, and I think it definitely tackles a problem that’s very relevant.

What are relational tables?

Here’s a definition from chatGPT:

A relational table is a two-dimensional structure in a relational database. Rows represent records, each containing a unique set of data, while columns represent attributes shared by all rows. Cells at the intersections hold single data values. Tables organize and store data, with relationships established through keys for data integrity and efficient queries.

A briefer way I might put it is that each row models some object which may have relationships to rows in other tables.

This means that the following table is relational:

  name favorite color age
0 Aneesh Purple 25
n Bneesh Green 26

But this one isn’t


Like the example above many real-world tables have well-defined structures, but are not relational, or possibly not relational in a sense that they cannot easily be queried by SQL-like languages. A very convincing example from the paper is spreadsheets that may look like the following. Consider a spreadsheet that tracks how many miles members of a local running club ran across the years:

  name 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
0 Aneesh 1 20 125 302 12
1 Sonic 1000 1000 1000 1000 1

If I want to query for a member’s total distance ran across all years, or the average or other such queries, it’s hard to express since part of the data (the year), is stored within the column instead of within the table. Even though some queries are expressible, it’s still not ideal since the query would need to change over time, and generating them by hand can be cumbersome. e.g. if this was a pandas dataframe, I may write something like:

# df is the table above

avg_miles = (df[2020] + df[2021] + df[2022] + df[2023] + df[2024]) / 5

# Or if we want to be more clever
start_year = 2020
end_year = 2025
total_years = end_year - start_year
total_miles = sum(df[x] for x in range(start_year, end_year))
avg_miles = total_miles / total_years

If we transform the column names into a row, we get something much nicer:

  name year miles_ran
0 Aneesh 2020 1
1 Aneesh 2021 20
2 Aneesh 2022 125
3 Aneesh 2023 302
4 Aneesh 2023 12

Which we can query in a much more straightforward way:


Transformation between these two tables can be achieved via the pandas.melt operator.

Similarly, the paper has more examples of other tables that are not relational and provides a DSL of operations that can be used to convert non-relational tables to relational tables.

What is the problem that AutoTables solves?

AutoTables aims to synthesize programs that can transform a non-relational table to a relational table without any examples provided by the user. This is done by generating sequences of operations from the DSL that they define which has the added flexibility of allowing their system to work agnostic of the actual table representation (e.g. pandas, traditional databases, or even spreadsheets).

The paper claims that previous systems either require users to provide examples of the transformation they want, which can be a tedious process. To solve this problem, they draw inspiration from computer vision techniques to predict the desired program.

Computer Vision isn’t just for images!

The authors note that the problem of transforming tables is very “visual”. Humans can observe patterns in the data which inform us as to what kinds of transformations we should make to “relationalize” the table. To this end, the authors describe a solution that converts tables into feature tensors by using a vector encoding model across cell contents, and then also including some additional dimensions to encode things like data type. Then, a model similar to those used in CV categorization tasks can be trained to predict the program that is desired. I don’t know too much about the details of how CNNs work, so I can’t comment much on the architecture they went with.

While the paper describes taking in the entire table as input, it seems to be reasonable to assume that for large tables, passing in a subset of the rows shouldn’t affect accuracy too much. However, the biggest challenge the authors faced was in gathering sufficient training data.

Generating training data

To train neural networks, a large amount of training data is required. While it is probably likely that a large amount of non-relational tables can be found in the wild, collecting them and then subsequently labeling them with the correct program to relationalize them is a monumental effort. Instead, the authors observed that every operation in their DSL contained an inverse. By applying sequences of inverse operations against relational tables (which are easy to generate), one can obtain a large corpus of non-relation tables and their labeling programs (the inverse of applying the sequence of inverses). Additionally, to improve the robustness of their implementations, they include a few operations during the generation phase that do not have inverses - e.g. dropping rows/columns (while preserving contiguous chunks of data since contiguity may be required to infer the required relationalizing program).

Refining results

In order to improve the accuracy of their predictions, they include an additional step where they run part of their model over the tables that would be generated by applying the top \(k\) predictions to determine which table would score they highest for being “relational”. Since this re-uses the model they have already trained, they can boost their accuracy without much additional training time.

My thoughts

  • How well does this system handle unstructured data?

One thing that wasn’t clear to me from this paper was how autotables deals with unstructured data. If there is no possible transformation to turn the table into a relational form, does the system just predict programs with very low confidence? An interesting area to explore could be to extend the behavior to try to establish a structured representation losslessly. I think the number of unstructured datasets out there that could benefit from this is very high (e.g. Wikipedia tables/articles usually don’t have a consistent format, but being able to turn them into a more query-able format could enable some new use cases).

  • Why not use queries to guide the required transformations?

I’m unsure how convinced I am that providing examples is prohibitively expensive. The users of this system will need to still write queries against these tables, which means they still need to understand the new table’s schema. However, I can imagine scenarios, like in the context of LLMs, where providing examples might not be possible to do accurately. That being said, I wonder if this system could do better if it used queries that users want to run as hints to determining the desired transformation. I think that could be especially useful in the context of LLM powered applications where queries might be presented as natural language.

  • More details on comparison to other systems?

I’m sure this is probably an answerable question, but I’d like to see some concrete examples of tables where autotables can and can’t predict the correct program, and maybe also look at some cases where some of the systems that were ran for comparison was able to transform their input correctly while autotables couldn’t. Without that info though, I’m not sure how to really interpret the comparison section other than to note that this problem isn’t fully solved, but that autotables provides a pretty significant improvement.

  • For very large tables this method may not scale well (transformation time)

This isn’t related to this paper’s main aim, but the transformation time/cost for some tables could be prohibitively expensive (particularly for tables like the ones the last paper were talking about). To that end, I wonder how well these programs can be represented as views, or if there’s other ways of avoiding or amortizing the cost of transformation. This is something that probably requires going a level deeper and is specific to the backend that’s actually storing the table, but it would be interesting to see what approaches there are for tackling this problem out there.

I really liked this paper! The connection to computer vision was really cool and bringing techniques from neural networks to databases is a really interesting approach.

Written on January 13, 2024