What is Fuzzy Matching?

Fuzzy Matching (also called Approximate String Matching) is a technique that helps identify two elements of text, strings, or entries that are approximately similar but are not exactly the same.

For example, let’s take the case of hotels listing in New York as shown by Expedia and Priceline in the graphic below.

We can see that Expedia and Priceline describe the same listing in slightly different ways. With the help of Fuzzy Matching that identifies two pieces of text that are approximately similar, we’re able to match the same hotel listing from each of those sites though their descriptions aren’t exactly the same.

How does Fuzzy Matching help in real-world scenarios?

There are many situations where Fuzzy Matching techniques can come in handy. Let’s look at some real-world examples of using Fuzzy Matching.

1) Creating a Single Customer View (SCV): A single customer view (SCV) refers to gathering all the data about customers and merging it into a single record.

For example: Assume that you manage a restaurant. You might have the following  data sources/tables. Table1 contains information regarding your customers’ order history and Table2 contains information about their surfing patterns on the restaurant’s website.

Fig1. 

A large organization is bound to have a multitude of such tables which they could join to obtain a single customer view. This often requires fuzzy string matching (in our scenario Tables 1 and 2 have to be joined using the Customer Name attribute).

The restaurant could leverage the SCV information as follows:
When a regular patron calls to place an order, the restaurant could suggest a new dish based on his/her order history and the recipes that he/she has surfed. The restaurant could also send customized content (new exciting recipes) to their customers using the SCV information.

2) Data Accuracy:

According to a recent study, over 60% of companies have implemented solutions based on Machine Learning. As companies rely on artificial intelligence and machine learning, data accuracy becomes extremely crucial.

Groundbreaking research is often carried out on improving the accuracy of neural networks and Machine learning technologies, however, little is being done to ensure that good quality data is fed to these models. A great machine learning algorithm without accurate data is analogous to launching a rocket to mars using compressed natural gas.

Fuzzy string matching can help improve data quality and accuracy by data deduplication, identification of false-positives etc.

3) Fraud Detection:

A good fuzzy string matching algorithm can help in detecting fraud within an organization. Later in this post, we’ll see how the FAA used fuzzy string matching to single out several pilots for exhibiting fraudulent behaviour.


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Interesting Fuzzy Matching Use Cases

1) Spelling Corrector (Source: http://norvig.com/spell-correct.html)

Nowadays, most of us don’t even bother to find out the correct spelling while writing an email, such is the trust we place in modern spelling correctors.

In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to describe the basic plumbing of a simple spelling checker.

The following equation is used to find the most probable correction:

Fig2. Equation used to find the most probable Candidates


Here P(c) indicates how often the word ‘c’ is used in the English language. It can be computed by counting the number of times a word appears in a large corpus of text. P(w|c) is the probability that the author typed in the wrong word ‘w’ instead of the correct word ‘c’. P(w|c) depends on our error model.

The following steps are used to find out a corrected spelling:

i) The fuzzy step: Find all the possible valid words having edit distances(Minimum number of single character substitutions, insertions or deletions required to transform one string into the other)  of 1 and 2 with respect to the given word.

(ii) The error model: Assume that the words at an edit distance of 1 are more probable than words at an edit distance of 2(Normally, something more sophisticated should be used for the error model).

Since we have P(c) and P(w|c) we can find the most probable correction. Running through the algorithm, we can see that it simply combines fuzzy string matching with probability theory to construct a simple but efficient spelling corrector.

2. Classification of Genome Data ( Source: http://www.ipcsit.com/vol30/019-ICNCS2012-G1021.pdf)

In this work, the authors investigate the problem of trying to determine the group of an unseen genome sequence. The authors solve the problem of group identification by making use of a large database of genome sequences.

They try to match the query sequence(the unknown sequence) with potential candidates in the database.

Exact matching isn't very useful, since the query sequence rarely matches the genome sequences in the database exactly. To tackle this problem, the authors carry out fuzzy matching between the query sequence and the genome database.

The matches are then fed as inputs to a classifier(SVM, backpropagation etc) which determines the group of the genome.

Hopefully, you are convinced that fuzzy name matching is an important topic and is worth your time.

How does Fuzzy Matching or Fuzzy Logic actually work?


Traditional logic is binary in nature i.e a statement is either true or false. In the previous example, a record in Table1 either exactly matched a record in Table2 or didn’t.

On the contrary, fuzzy logic indicates the degree to which a statement is true. For example, fuzzy rules can indicate that the listings under Expedia potentially correspond to the same listing under Priceline.

Fig3. Source:https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.guru99.com%2Fwhat-is-fuzzy-logic.html&psig=AOvVaw1eEqM2uYjQd3hjjuE56wIf&ust=1615962708773000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCMiQsbqYtO8CFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD)

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Understanding Fuzzy Matching with a Real World Example

Let’s try to understand the concept of fuzzy Matching by considering a real-world example. Fig4 shows the database schema of a small organization.

Fig 4.

If you were given the task of joining multiple tables within this schema to create a single view for customer or product data, how would you proceed?

In theory, if all the data was perfectly clean(no duplicates, no misspelled words etc) we could perform the join operation using appropriate primary and secondary keys. However, real-world data is often very flawed, messy, and inaccurate.

A survey conducted by Gartner points out that “Poor data quality is a primary reason for 40% of all business initiatives failing to achieve their targeted benefits”(https://www.data.com/export/sites/data/common/assets/pdf/DS_Gartner.pdf).

Given that real-world data is bound to be messy, how would we proceed to join individual tables? Consider the example shown in Fig 5.

Fig 5. Sample Tables


Let’s say that we want to join the ‘Customers’ and ‘Orders’ tables based on the customer_name attribute. We could use a deterministic rule which is based on strict correspondences between records in table1 and table2.

For instance, a customer name “John Chambers” in table1 is matched with all occurrences of the same customer name(“John Chambers”) in table2.

Although this approach is theoretically sound, it rarely works in practice. For example, if the name “John Chambers” is misspelled as “Jon Chamber” in table2, the resulting join would be inconsistent. How would we solve such a problem?  

Fuzzy matching can be useful in such scenarios.

How does Fuzzy Name Matching Work?

One of the most important use cases of fuzzy matching arises when we want to join tables using the name field.

To understand the problem of fuzzy name matching, let us consider the following problem.

Let’s say that a marketing company sends out a questionnaire to many people. Some people take the time to fill out the questionnaire while the rest of them don’t bother. Now the same company sends out a different questionnaire after 6 months to the same set of people.

The company stores the responses to the first and second questionnaires in two separate tables. To merge the collected information, the company would want to join tables 1 and 2 using the ‘name’ attribute as a primary key.

However, there is no guarantee that a person will fill out exactly the same name in the first and second questionnaires. For example, a person whose official name is “Dr. Jack Murphy” might fill in “Jack” in the first questionnaire and “Dr Jack” in the second questionnaire. Matching these requires a set of rules that can handle slight variations in the name field. These sets of rules are called fuzzy rules and we call this process as Fuzzy Name Matching.

Let’s formalize the problem. We have a database with ‘n’ tables which we want to join using the name attribute. Using a strict rule where we enforce that each character of a name in table1 should exactly match each character of a name in table2 is impractical as is clear from the above example.

For example, the set of rules that we formulate should be able to match the name ‘Mike Daniel’ in table1 with ‘Mike D’, ‘Dr. Mike’, ‘MikeDaniel’ etc.


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Is Fuzzy Name Matching Really Useful? A Case Study about Using Fuzzy Name Matching to Detect Fraud

(Source : https://content.dataladder.com/How-Best-In-Class-Fuzzy-Matching-Solutions-Work-Combining-Established-and-Proprietary-Algorithms-FWP.pdf)

When a database consisting of 40,000 airplane pilots was matched to a database consisting of individuals receiving disability payments from Social Security, the records of forty pilots turned up on both databases.

This meant that the individuals were either lying about their illnesses to receive disability payments or they were flying with these illnesses, both of which are punishable offenses.

Fuzzy logic lies at the heart of this operation as the names of the pilots had to be matched across multiple tables.

How to Perform Fuzzy Name Matching?

There are many popular algorithms that can be used in performing Fuzzy Name Matching. The following section talks about some of those popular Fuzzy Name Matching algorithms.

Fuzzy Name Matching Algorithms

1) Levenshtein Distance:

The Levenshtein distance is a metric used to measure the difference between 2 string sequences.

It gives us a measure of the number of single character insertions, deletions or substitutions required to change one string into another.

Mathematically, we can define the Levenshtein distance as follows :

Fig 6. Mathematical definition of Levenshtein distance (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levenshtein_distance)


Where tail (a) is a string comprising of all the characters in the string a excluding the first character. From the definition, it is clear that the Levenshtein distance performs well with misspelled names.

For example, the Levenshtein distance (the number of single-character insertions, deletions or substitutions) between the strings JOHN (as it is spelled in the US) and JOHAN (as it is spelled in japan, sweden and norway) ’ is 1 as shown in Fig7.

Fig 7 

The most obvious drawback while using the Levenshtein distance is that it only considers the difference in the manner in which we spell words.

For example, The Levenshtein distance between the words “ROBERT” and “BOBBY” is 4. (NOTE: Bobby is a nickname for Robert)

2) The Soundex Algorithm:

Soundex is a phonetic algorithm that is used to search for names that sound similar but are spelled differently.
It is most commonly used for genealogical database searches.

The Soundex algorithm outputs a 4 digit code given a name. (The Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soundex explains the Soundex algorithm well)
For example, the names “Stuart” and “Stewart” produce the same Soundex code S363.

3) The Metaphone and Double Metaphone Algorithms:

The Metaphone algorithm is an improvement over the vanilla Soundex algorithm, while the double Metaphone algorithm builds upon the Metaphone algorithm.
The ‘double’ Metaphone algorithm returns two keys for words that have more than one pronunciation.

Let us consider the following example:
Soundex (“Phillip”) = P410

Soundex (“Fillipe”) = F410

Doublemetaphone (“Phillip”) = FLP

Doublemetaphone (“Fillipe”) = FLP

We can clearly see that the Doublemetaphone algorithm is much more robust when compared to the Soundex algorithm.

Drawbacks:

A failure case that I came across was when I used the name Jesus (pronounced Haysoos in Spanish).

Doublemetaphone (‘Jesus’) = (‘JSS’, ‘ASS’)

Doublemetaphone (‘Haysoos’) = (‘HSS’, ‘ ’)

4) Cosine Similarity:

Cosine Similarity between two non-zero vectors is equal to the cosine of the angle between them.

If we represent each string (name) by a vector, we can compare the strings by measuring the angle between their corresponding vector representations.

If the vectors are parallel (theta=0 and cos(theta)=1) then they are equal to each other, however, if they are orthogonal(theta=90 degrees and cos(theta)=0) they are dissimilar.

Let us understand the various steps involved in computing the cosine similarity between two words with a simple example. Example: Name1 = “Johan”, Name2 = “John”.

i) Split the names into their corresponding “n-gram” representations.

ii) Vectorize each n-gram by using an encoding technique. The most commonly used encoding techniques are Bag-of-words encoding or tf-idf encoding.

iii) Compute the cosine similarity between the vectors.

Fig 8 illustrates all the steps involved in computing the cosine similarity between the vectors.

Fig 8.

Note: I was quite surprised when I typed in “Machine learning resources for fuzzy matching”. For once, I wasn’t flooded by hundreds of papers and their corresponding GitHub repositories.

Those interested can refer to the following link: https://www.cs.utexas.edu/~ml/papers/marlin-dissertation-06.pdf and the corresponding GitHub repository. It explains learnable similarity measures that can be trained to perform accurate record linkage, clustering and blocking.


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Considering Fuzzy Matching for Your Product or Solution? Read This...

This section provides a few pointers as to how you can use fuzzy string matching to improve the existing workflow in your product or solution.

Assume your sales team is finding it tough to roll out personalised content/products for potential customers due to mismanaged data storage.  

Your best bet is to create a unified customer view that would aid your sales team in meeting their objectives. You decide to implement one or a combination of fuzzy string matching algorithms to do the job. Here are a few points that you should keep in mind.

i) Time and resources required:
Generally, it makes sense to invest a decent amount of time and resources in setting up the fuzzy string matching software to suit your specific use case.

Rigorous unit testing is beneficial especially if your use case demands high accuracy. The good news is that once you complete the software setup, most of the workflow can be automated.

Considering the example of generating a unified customer view, the fuzzy matching software simply needs to be run at regular intervals to make sure that your customer view is updated.

ii) Reliability: Assuming that you have spent the required time for setting up the software, how reliable would it be? Almost every fuzzy string matching algorithm is bound to generate some false positives.

This usually means some manual error checking. You have to find the right balance between the number of false positives, the amount of manpower you can afford for error checking, and the effect that the false positives would have on your company.

For example, if false positives result in a customer getting an advertisement of a pasta recipe instead of a pizza recipe, you are on the safe side.

A few Best Practices and Facts to Consider…

a) Fuzzy string matching is a widely researched area and new algorithms/software are periodically released. It pays to keep your eyes and ears open for new developments.

b) Even after rigorous testing, you are bound to end up with a few false positives. Make sure that you don't use fuzzy software to process sensitive data.

c) Fuzzy string matching pays the highest dividends when you have a lot of data that if matched correctly results in a large upside while false positives don't matter that much.


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Implementing Fuzzy Matching in Different Programming Languages

Let’s look at how Fuzzy Matching algorithms can be implemented in various programming languages.

Fig 9. Source: https://www.google.com/search?q=lets+start+coding+memes&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjXvu31np7vAhXizzgGHULDDosQ_AUoAXoECAwQAw&biw=1059&bih=507#imgrc=YFVw1cLBQmiRKM

We will implement fuzzy string matching in various programming languages on the restaurant dataset.

The dataset contains 864 restaurant records from Fodor’s and Zagat’s restaurant guides that contain 112 duplicates.(Source: https://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/ml/riddle/data.html) .

We illustrate an important application of fuzzy string matching namely duplicate detection. For example: Consider Fig 10.

Fig 10. First few records from the restaurant dataset

We can clearly see that the first and the second record correspond to the same restaurant, similarly, the third and the fourth record correspond to the same restaurant. Our aim is to find out all the duplicates in the database using fuzzy string matching.

In the process of implementing duplicate detection using various programming languages, we run through some of the in-built packages that these programming languages provide using which almost all of the complexity is abstracted from the programmer.

To simplify the problem, we will attempt to detect duplicates only using the name field.

Fuzzy String Matching Using Python

Introducing Fuzzywuzzy: Fuzzywuzzy is a python library that is used for fuzzy string matching. The basic comparison metric used by the Fuzzywuzzy library is the Levenshtein distance.

Using this basic metric, Fuzzywuzzy provides various APIs that can be directly used for fuzzy matching. Let us go through the entire pipeline of duplicate detection.

i) Data preprocessing:

Since we are detecting duplicates using only the ‘name’ field, in the preprocessing(data cleaning) stage we convert the entire name to lowercase and remove punctuation from the names. The code snippet in Fig 11. illustrates this process.

Fig 11. Code snippet to convert names to lowercase and remove punctuation

ii) Creating an Index:

A naive way to match records in a table is to compare each record with every other record. However, by using this method, the number of pairs grows quadratically which could slow down the algorithm.

We make use of the Python Record Linkage Toolkit using which several indexing methods such as blocking and sorted neighbourhood indexing can be implemented. (NOTE: For our dataset, we have computed a full index since it contains only 863 records)

The code snippet in Fig 12 illustrates the creation of an index for record comparison.

Fig 12. Code Snippet illustrating the creation of a full index for record comparison


iii) Identifying duplicates using Fuzzywuzzy:

Duplicates were identified using Fuzzywuzzy’s partial_ratio method. Given two strings str1(length n1) and str2(length n2) such that n1 > n2, it computes the Levenshtein distance between str2 and all substrings of length n2 in str1.

Using this method we identified 201 duplicates.

Fuzzy String Matching Using R

First, I must confess that I am an R virgin. However, it turns out that programming in R is extremely easy and intuitive. I performed the same steps namely data preprocessing (converting the names to lowercase and removing punctuation) followed by fuzzy name matching using the Levenshtein distance metric.

The following code snippet illustrates the pipeline used for duplicate detection.

Fig 13. R program for duplicate record detection


Punctuation was eliminated by making use of the gsub function. Following this, a matrix was constructed using the Standard Levenshtein distance metric between the name fields.

Finally, the number of duplicates was counted (If the Levenshtein distance between any two records is lesser than 2, they are considered as duplicates).

The algorithm detects 164 duplicate records.
Note: The above implementation isn't optimized.

Fuzzy String Matching Using Java

Things were a little tougher in java as it isn't specifically designed for data science. However, there are a lot of github repositories available that perform fuzzy string matching using java.

The following repository https://github.com/xdrop/fuzzywuzzy contains a java implementation of the Fuzzywuzzy python library. A simple example is shown in  Fig 14.

Fig 14. Java implementation of the Fuzzywuzzy python package

NOTE: The function tokenSortRatio splits the strings into tokens, sorts the individual tokens and computes the Levenshtein distance between them.

The java string similarity package(https://github.com/tdebatty/java-string-similarity) implements a number of algorithms(Levenshtein edit distance, Jaro-Winkler, LCS etc).

Fuzzy Matching Without Using Any Code

Fig 15. Source:https://www.google.com/search?q=I+dont+code&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiynoOpjKrvAhUJwzgGHXMwCd0Q_AUoAXoECAsQAw&biw=525&bih=535#imgrc=xEyKLub5k1s6wM


Fear not, Microsoft Excel and Stata can help you perform fuzzy string matching using the GUI interface.

Fuzzy String Matching Using Microsoft Excel

Excel users might be familiar with the function VLOOKUP that is used for finding exact matches across columns in a table. Excel also provides a Fuzzy Lookup Add-In that is used to perform fuzzy matching between columns on the desktop version.

As I was using a Linux based operating system at the time of writing this blogpost, I wasn’t able to use the Fuzzy Lookup Add-in.

However, the web version of Microsoft Excel provides a similar add-in known as Exis Echo. It has an extremely simple interface, just select the desired number of rows from the columns that you want to match and Exis Echo does the rest.

Fig 16. Input data and highlighted entries are used for detecting duplicates


Fig 17. Shows the result of duplicate identification using the name field.

As shown in Fig17, The restaurants having names “hotel bel-air” and “bel-air hotel” are identified as duplicates(i.e. They are placed in the same group). However, the algorithm doesn’t identify “art’s delicatessen” and “art’s deli” as the same restaurant.

The Add-in does provide several parameters that we can adjust for our specific use-case.


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Quick Comparison of Fuzzy Matching Software

The following is a comparison of the different languages or software that I used to implement fuzzy matching.

I have given a score out of 5, with 5 being the best and 1 being the worst.

Software/Language Used Ease of Use Scalability Speed Total Overall Score
Python 4.0 4.0 3.0 11.0
R 4.0 4.0 2.5 10.5
Java 2.0 3.0 5.0 10.0
Microsoft Excel 5.0 1.5 3.0 9.5


Scaling up Fuzzy Matching Implementation

So far, we have looked at processing a few hundred records using fuzzy string matching. However, in the real world we would deal with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of records.

In this section, we will introduce a few techniques that would help scale our fuzzy string matching algorithm.

To illustrate this, I made use of a dataset containing a large number of company names. Let us run through the code, examine the function of each code snippet and look at the corresponding output.

Fig 18. Cell1

The above cell loads the data into a pandas dataframe. We can see that the dataset contains 1,040,569 entries.

Fig 19. Cell2

Some data preprocessing is carried out in Cell2. The company names are converted into lowercase and all punctuation is removed from them.

We also define a list of common stop words such as “assn”, “inc” etc which we remove from the list of company names.

Fig 20. Cell3

In Cell3, we split the company names into n-grams followed by vectorizing the company names using the Tf-idf function. The next step involves computing the cosine similarity between each pair of vectors in the tf_idf_matrix.

Doing this efficiently is crucial in ensuring that the approach scales well.

Scikit-learn provides an in-built function to compute the cosine similarity between vectors. However, the ING Wholesale Banking Advanced Analytics team has created a custom library called sparse_dot_topn to compute cosine similarity using Cython (https://github.com/ing-bank/sparse_dot_topn).

Their implementation improves speed by around 40%. I borrowed the code in cells4 and 5 from the following website: https://bergvca.github.io/2017/10/14/super-fast-string-matching.html.

Fig 21. Cell4

Fig 22. Cell5

The ‘matches’ matrix contains the indices and the similarity scores using which we can identify duplicates. Since this dataset wasn’t specifically designed for duplicate detection or identification of false positives, it was already cleaned up and didn’t contain any duplicates.

Note: I have uploaded the code on my Github repository. https://github.com/Varghese-Kuruvilla/Fuzzy_String_Matching.

I encourage you to use it as a reference for analyzing new datasets and understanding the basics of fuzzy string matching.


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Common Issues/Problems Faced with Fuzzy Matching and the Solution

In this section, I will try and answer some questions that I saw on StackOverflow while reading up for this blog post. I would encourage readers to go through the entire post to get a good overall understanding of fuzzy string matching.

1) How to calculate the score in fuzzy string matching?

One of the most effective ways to calculate scores for a fuzzy string matching algorithm is by using cosine similarity. The cosine similarity between two non-zero vectors is simply the cosine of the angle between these vectors.

Thus, two similar strings would have a higher cosine similarity score when compared to two dissimilar strings. The success of this method hinges on the manner in which strings are converted into their corresponding vector representations.

Two of the most popular methods for doing the same are: The Bag-of-words(BOW) and TF-IDF feature extractors.

A BOW feature extractor computes the vector representation of a string by taking into account the frequency of each word in the document. A major shortcoming of the BOW feature extractor is that words like “the” , “of” etc are given a very high score since they appear very frequently in the document.

TF-IDF tries to overcome this problem by using information about the number of times the word appears in the document.

A handwritten example showing each of the individual steps in computing the cosine similarity is shown in figure8.

2) Fuzzy logic matching (https://stackoverflow.com/questions/37978098/fuzzy-logic-matching)

For your use case of matching lists of company names, I would suggest going through the following points.

a) Unique attribute: Firstly, make sure that you can’t match using any other unique attribute like an address etc. A unique attribute would greatly simplify the problem. Having ensured that you only have the company name attribute for matching you can proceed with the following steps.

b) Data preprocessing: Remove commonly occurring stop words from the text. Some manual processing such as selecting the words which are not relevant to the list of company names from the most frequently occuring words would prove useful.

c) Indexing: Comparing all the records is a computationally expensive task. An indexing method such as blocking or sorted neighbourhood indexing can be used to reduce the number of comparisons which have to be made.

d) Fuzzy Matching: A measure such as the levenshtein distance can be used to calculate the scores between pairs of strings. Several implementations of the Levenshtein distance are covered in the popular python package Fuzzywuzzy.

For this use case, I would recommend using the token_set_ratio or the partial_ratio functions.

3) Fuzzy Search Algorithm(https://stackoverflow.com/questions/32337135/fuzzy-search-algorithm-approximate-string-matching-algorithm):

The problem can be broken down into two parts:

  1. Choosing the correct string metric.
  2. Coming up with a fast implementation of the same.

Choosing the correct metric: The first part is largely dependent on your use case. However, I would suggest using a combination of a distance-based score and a phonetic-based encoding for greater accuracy i.e. initially computing a score based on the Levenshtein distance and later using Metaphone or Double Metaphone to complement the results.

Again, you should base your decision on your use case, if you can do with using just the Metaphone or Double Metaphone algorithms, then you needn't worry much about the computational cost.

Implementation: One way to cap down the computational cost is to cluster your data into several small groups based on your algorithm and load them into a dictionary.

For example, If you can assume that your user enters the first letter of the name correctly, you can store the names based on this invariant in a dictionary.

So, if the user enters the name "National School" you need to compute the metric only for school names starting with the letter "N".

Conclusion

Fig 23

I hope that you had a good time reading about fuzzy logic.

We initially went through the concept of fuzzy logic, their practical applications and use cases, things to consider if you choose to use fuzzy matching, the various algorithms used to implement fuzzy string matching, and their implementation in popular programming languages.

We as humans are often unsure about our decisions i.e. by our very nature we are fuzzy. As long as we stay fuzzy, it only makes sense that the tools that we design should also be fuzzy. On that rather philosophical note, I will see you in the next blog post.

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