Representing Named Entity Mention in Postgres for Fast Queries
Saturday 31 December 2022

#sql #ruby

For the past 3 years I have been working on a side project called Who is popular today, it’s specialized in collecting news and analyzing it to find public figures mentions and build analytics on it, in that article I’ll walk through the evolution of representing the relation between the entities (people figures) and the news (tweets, fb posts, YouTube videos and rss articles).

Technology stack

I’m a backend developer so most of the solution is heavy on the backend and lighter on the frontend, but as we’ll talk now about the “mentions” implementation I’ll talk only about the backend part, the tools I used were:

  1. Postgres
  2. Ruby on Rails
  3. Docker
  4. Go

How did it start

In most of my side project I tend to build stuff on my own, it gives me more knowledge, that using ready made solutions, so for my first implementation I had everything implemented in one Ruby on rails project connecting to the database, and some background jobs using clockwork gem to get news and analyze them.

The solution looks good until I felt the code-base is getting bigger than it should be, so I split them to a crawler and website, 2 projects now, one of them had a read-only access to the database, serves the pages and keeps it simple, does most of the stuff on the server side, and uses foundation for styling, G2 for charts ( it used to use D3 but I found that Alipay G2 is faster).

Now lets talk about the crawler part, it used to do a lot of stuff:

  1. syncing people profiles with Wikipedia
  2. getting news from twitter, Facebook, rss feeds, YouTube
  3. crawling websites for open graph images for people without images on Wikipedia
  4. analyzing news text and linking them with people names

The linking part

So it’s a simple idea, to see if someone is mentioned in a news article you can do the following:

  1. get people names, all of them in a list
  2. get the article you want to link with
  3. iterate over all names and see if the text contains that name, if so create mention (more is coming later on that part)

That can be represented in that database with the following:

  1. auto increment ID
  2. person id
  3. news id

But keep in mind that you need to account for the future, just a little so you don’t lock yourself, and not too much so you don’t fall into the premature optimization hell, so lets assume we’ll have places along with people in the future, and maybe also organizations, so instead of person id lets use a polymorphic relation, so the structure become like that:

  1. ID
  2. entity ID
  3. entity type
  4. news id

There is another problem here, that news are not one type, we have 4 types (YouTube videos, rss articles, tweets, Facebook posts), so news id should also be polymorphic relation

  1. ID
  2. entity ID
  3. entity type
  4. source ID
  5. source type

With that structure you can know what are the entities mentioned in a source, or if you have a person you can get sources that mention him.

Here is a problem, how do you get number of news per day in that case for a person (entity)? joining with the source can’t be done in an easy way now, you’ll have to marge 4 tables together and then merge it with that table on source id and source type to get that information, that will get extremely expensive with more data.

there is a simple solution here, whenever you’re creating a mention add the source creation time to it so your table would look like this:

  1. ID
  2. entity ID
  3. entity type
  4. source ID
  5. source type
  6. created_at

In that case you can get number of news for a person per day, a simple query on one table.

The problem you’ll face in that case is that this query needs to be faster, over a big data set any query will be slower unless you put some indices in the right place and the right order in some cases, in our case here you’ll need to add an index for the entity id + entity type as a composite key, so filter down with an entity id and name (that’s always the case, you never query with the entity ID alone).

The problem here is that an index over entity type will still be slow, indices over string columns perform slower that on numerical columns, but in our case we’re lucky enough, as entity_type will have a small set of values, the classes names of the entities (Person, Place, Organization), converting that table into an enum will make it much faster, also while you’re at it do the same thing to the source ID and source type.

With that structure you’ll be able to do queries over time period, grouping by day/minute/second/months/years…etc.

Now lets look at the big picture:

  1. We have many countries
  2. Every country has many Newspapers
  3. Every Newspaper has many News sources (twitter accounts, Facebook pages…etc)
  4. Every News source publishes many News Items
  5. Every News Item mentions many Entities

Now lets think of some elaborate queries and how we can do that with our mentions table.

Top newspapers publishing about a person in the last month scoped by a country

Here is the problem, with the mentions table now you can’t even filter down mentions by country, you have to join on the sources tables then join that with sources accounts tables (Facebook pages, twitter accounts ..etc) then join them with newspapers table and finally you get the country id from the newspapers table, that’s a lot of work, sooooo what if we just added the newspaper_id and the country_id to the mentions table? wouldn’t that make it easier? now we can filter down mentions by country or by newspaper or both.

For our query we can filter down by country ID and a person ID + type and by a creation time the group it by the newspapers and count the records

1SELECT count(*) AS frequency
2FROM mentions
3WHERE entity_id = ?
4AND entity_type = ?
5AND created_at BETWEEN ? AND ?
6AND country_id = ?
7GROUP BY newspaper_id
8ORDER BY frequency DESC

A simple query done on one table, now look at the where clause in that query and
see what indices we need :D country_id and created_at.

now that query can work fast on that one table, notice also that all the values we use in that table now are numerical but only one column is a timestamp created_at which is in some sense also numerical with special properties to it, that makes the size and processing of that table very fast, and as our operation to that table is 99% additions it rarely collects garbage and doesn’t need vacuuming.

Number of news per day for a specific person for the past month

you get the idea, it’s even simpler, the following snippet of ruby may give you an idea how to do it:

 1inner_query = entity
 2  .mentions
 3  .select("DATE(mentions.created_at + interval '#{timezone} seconds') AS day, count(*) AS frequency")
 4  .where(created_at: date_range, country: country)
 5  .group('day')
 6  .to_sql
 8connection = Mention.connection
 9result = connection.execute(%{
10SELECT DATE(date) as date, coalesce(frequency,0) AS frequency
11FROM generate_series(
14'1 day') AS date
15LEFT OUTER JOIN (#{inner_query}) results
16ON (date =
17ORDER BY date

the problem that snippet solves is the days without news or where the person wasn’t mentioned at all, then suddenly the newspapers mentions him, so I get the stats for the days he’s mentioned in first then join it with another query that generate days in the required period.

That can be done partially by the database engine then augmented with a ruby code that generate the days array and merge with the result, but I found delegating all the work to the database engine is way faster so I ended up with that nested query here, but still works on one table though.

Also a side note here that I found using 2 where clauses for limiting the created_at value is faster that the BETWEEN statement, no idea why it’s just how it is.

Caching everywhere

Ruby is known to be slow, so caching has to go everywhere, in some cases I case a hash of newspapers_id -> newspaper_name that’s useful when I have to render a news article and I have the newspaper ID but I don’t want every time to get the newspaper record from the database, so I had to pull all the records from the database and cache them in memory, that allowed me to resolve newspapers ID to names in constant time without and IO blocking.

Other caching had to be done for the previous queries, as even if the query is slow, a hammering of visits can destroy the server, so a 3ms query done by potentially 100 visitors per second and you have 300ms query, if you doing 30 or them per page you’ll be facing a 9000ms latency at worst, that’s a 9 seconds.

So the solution is always cache stuff between requests mostly:

  1. database results
  2. partial views

The current state of the Mentions after 3 years in production

That table now holds around 5.1 Million records, queries are performing well without any noticeable latency over time, the data belongs to 22 countries, 1 type of entities and 4 types of news.

The state of the crawler

Over time I realized that the crawler application should be split into smaller pieces, so I extracted the news analyzer into a Golang service I call it the tagger as it tags the news with people names, all it does is to poll the database for new news and create mentions for people mentioned in these news.

Also tried to create a service that has a cache of some analytics of the mentions table, like number of news per day for a specific country, it polls the database news tables for new records, keeping an index of country news count separated by news type, that gives me the number of tweets for the day for that country, and number of fb posts, also number of RSS items…etc, you get the idea, also useful to get total number of posts for that country per day over a period of time, Go has proved to be really fast and easy to maintain, I basically wrote it once and didn’t touch it for couple months now.


That system is kinda my experiment, I sink my free time in it and I proved myself couple point by it so far:

  1. You don’t have to use fancy ETL tools to process data
  2. The simpler the system the easier to maintain
  3. Less dependencies works way better (I have a check while I’m deploying to force me to update dependencies if it’s outdated)
  4. Ruby is slow but it’s my friend when I need to write something in a short amount of time, and if it’s small enough I can rewrite it in Go if it survived.
  5. You don’t have to hire an army of developers to get a system like that working and evolving


See Also