minutes read
May 31, 2024

The Challenges of Data in Machine Learning

In the realm of machine learning (ML), the adage "garbage in, garbage out" holds particularly true...

In the realm of machine learning (ML), the adage "garbage in, garbage out" holds particularly true. The success of any ML model hinges on the quality, management, and interpretation of the data it is trained on. Poor data can significantly undermine the efficacy of machine learning applications, leading to flawed insights and suboptimal decisions. This article delves into the common problems associated with data in machine learning and underscores the critical role of specialists in mitigating these issues.

Common Data Problems in Machine Learning

  1. Data Quality Issues: One of the primary challenges in machine learning is ensuring high data quality. According to an insightful piece on Towards Data Science, data quality issues such as missing values, duplicates, and incorrect data can severely affect model performance. These issues often necessitate extensive preprocessing to clean and normalize the data before it can be effectively used in ML algorithms.

  2. Data Collection Challenges: Data collection may seem like the easiest step in an ML project. After all, the data already exists in one form or another, so it just needs to be gathered and later curated, right? The simplest answer is – no.

    According to a McKinsey survey on the adoption of AI by organizations, it was found that data collection was one of the biggest barriers to implementing AI solutions – 24% of respondents stated that a lack of available data was the biggest barrier, while 20% stated that the limited usefulness of data was.

    From this, we can conclude that 44% of organizations believe they cannot adopt AI solutions because they lack relevant, accurate, high-quality data to use as training data for their algorithms.

    When you delve a little deeper, it’s not that surprising. So let’s explore the basic challenges of text, audio, photo, and video data collection for ML training models.

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    • A Lack of Available or Usable Data: Many ML projects are unique, which also means that the required data that will later be used for training datasets is hard to come by or non-existent. Think of three (simplified) scenarios:some text
      • A company wishes to develop a machine learning model that will conduct predictive weather analyses in a specific region up to three weeks in advance. This type of analysis requires access to historical data and satellite imagery – both of which are generally easily available. In this scenario, data collection is not a big challenge (and is one of the reasons predictive analytics for weather patterns are so common).
      • A healthcare provider wishes to develop a machine learning algorithm that will predict the occupancy of their facilities. This type of predictive model needs to be partially based on historical occupancy data from their facilities. The healthcare provider has this data but in physical format, i.e., ledgers, charts, and other types of documents. In order to utilize that information for ML projects, it first needs to be digitized, then structured and curated. This type of data collection is more of a challenge than in the previous scenario.
      • A large agricultural company wishes to develop a computer vision model that will be used for early disease detection for specific crops, with the purpose of increasing yields. This type of project would require physically collecting large volumes of images and videos of diseased plants because that type of data is either non-existent or unavailable. Later, the images and videos will be annotated and fed into an ML learning model. In this scenario, due to the large volume of data required for high-accuracy disease detection, even data collection is a significant challenge.
  3. And these challenges of data collection are only related to availability. There is another major challenge to consider – usability, i.e., even when relevant data is accessible, it may not be in a format that can be utilized for training datasets. This has to do with the nature of structured and unstructured data.

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    • Structured vs. Unstructured Data: In the simplest of terms, structured data is organized, defined, and formatted, often in the form of tabular data. It is easily searchable, feature selection is straightforward, and it is usable as training data. Unstructured data, on the other hand, is unorganized, non-defined, and non-formatted. It is typically found in its native format, like image, video, and audio files, sensor data, etc. Before it can be used as training data, it needs to be heavily curated and annotated. The issue is that most data, 80% – 90% according to estimates, is unstructured. This is another hurdle that data collection experts need to overcome.
    • Legal Regulations: Another challenge of text, audio, photo, and video data collection for ML training models are the legal regulations relating to the collection of personal data. Any company that wishes to compile personal data must comply with very stringent regulations, both local and international. An example is the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which dictates how information about EU citizens can be collected. A more localized example is the California Consumer Privacy Act. And there are many more local and regional laws that apply to specific situations. In short, any form of data collection comes with additional legal challenges.
  4. Data Management and Integration: Effective data management and integration are crucial for successful ML projects. Deloitte emphasizes that without a solid data management strategy, organizations struggle to consolidate and harmonize data from diverse sources. This can lead to fragmented and siloed data that is difficult to analyze holistically.

  5. Data Governance and Compliance: Ensuring compliance with data governance policies and regulations is another complex issue. Organizations must navigate a maze of legal requirements concerning data privacy and security. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in hefty fines and damage to reputation.

  6. Scalability Issues: As the volume of data grows, so does the complexity of managing and processing it. According to Steven Reece on LinkedIn, scaling data infrastructure to handle large datasets while maintaining performance and reliability is a major challenge. This requires robust data architectures and advanced technologies.

  7. Bias and Fairness: Bias in data can lead to biased ML models, which in turn produce unfair or discriminatory outcomes. Addressing bias requires careful consideration of data sources, collection methods, and ongoing monitoring of model outputs.

The Role of Data Specialists

Given the myriad of challenges associated with data in machine learning, the role of data specialists becomes indispensable. These professionals, including data scientists, data engineers, data analysts, and data annotation and labeling specialists, play a crucial role in ensuring that data is clean, accurate, and suitable for ML applications.

  • Data Scientists: They are responsible for developing and fine-tuning ML models. Their expertise in statistics, mathematics, and domain knowledge helps them to interpret data correctly and derive meaningful insights from it.
  • Data Engineers: They focus on building and maintaining the data infrastructure. This includes developing pipelines for data collection, storage, and processing to ensure that data flows seamlessly and efficiently throughout the organization.
  • Data Analysts: They specialize in examining and interpreting data to help organizations make informed decisions. Their role often involves identifying data trends, patterns, and anomalies.
  • Data Annotation and Labeling Specialists: These professionals are crucial for supervised learning tasks. They meticulously annotate and label data, which serves as the ground truth for training ML models. Accurate labeling is essential for model accuracy and reliability, especially in applications such as image recognition, natural language processing, and autonomous driving.


The success of machine learning initiatives is intrinsically linked to the quality and management of data. Addressing the common problems of data quality, collection, management, governance, scalability, and bias is critical for building effective ML models. The expertise of data specialists is invaluable in navigating these challenges, ensuring that data-driven decisions are accurate, fair, and reliable. In an era where data is the new oil, investing in skilled data professionals is not just beneficial but essential for any organization aiming to leverage the full potential of machine learning.

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