The Sound of Soundex

The probably oldest and most used error tolerant algorithm in searching and data matching is a phonetic algorithm called Soundex. If you are not familiar with Soundex: Wikipedia to the rescue here.

In the LinkedIn group Data Matching we seem to have an ongoing discussion about the usefulness of Soundex. Link to the discussion here – if you are not already a member: Please join, spammers are dealt with, though it is OK to brag about your data matching superiority.

To sum up the discussion on Soundex I think we at this stage may conclude:

  • Soundex is of course very poor compared to the more advanced algorithms, but it may be better than nothing (which will be exact searching and matching)
  • Soundex (or a variant of Soundex) may be used for indexing in order to select candidates to be scored with better algorithms.

Let’s say you are going to match 100 rows with names and addresses against a table with 100 million rows with names and addresses and let’s say that the real world individual behind the 100 rows is in fact represented among the 100 million, but not necessary spelled the same.

Your results may be as this:

  • If you use exact automated matching you may find 40 matching rows (40 %).
  • If you use automated matching with (a variant of) Soundex you may find 95 matching rows, but only 70 rows (70 %) are correct matches (true positives) as 25 rows (25 %) are incorrect matches (false positives).
  • If you use automated matching with (a variant of) Soundex indexing and advanced algorithm for scoring you may find 75 matching rows where 70 rows (70 %) are correct matches (true positives) and 5 rows (5 %) are incorrect matches (false positives).
  • By tuning the advanced algorithm you may find 67 matching rows where 65 rows (65 %) are correct matches (true positives) and 2 rows (2 %) are incorrect matches (false positives).

So when using Soundex you will find more matching rows but you will also find more manual work in verifying the results. Adding an advanced algorithm may reduce the manual work or eliminate manual work at the cost of some not found matches (false negatives) and the risk of a few wrong matches (false positives).

PS: I have a page about other Match Techniques including standardization, synonyms and probabilistic learning.

PPS: When googling for if the title of this blog has been used before I found this article from a fellow countryman.

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