Archive for December, 2004

Web scraping with python (part 1 : crawling)

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

Example One : I am looking for my next job. So I subscribe to many job sites in order to receive notifications by email of new job ads (example = Monster…). But I’d rather check these in my RSS aggregator instead of my mailbox. Or in some sort of aggregating Web platform. Thus, I would be able to do many filtering/sorting/ranking/comparison operations in order to navigate through these numerous job ads.

Example Two : I want to buy a digital camcorder. So I want to compare the available models. Such a comparison implies that I rank the most common models according to their characteristics. Unfortunately, the many sites providing reviews or comparisons of camcorders are not often comprehensive and they don’t offer me the capability of comparing them with respect to my way of ranking and weighting the camcorder features (example = dvspot). So I would prefer pumping all the technical stuff from these sites and manipulate this data locally on my computer. Unfortunately, this data is merged within HTML. And it may be complex to extract it automatically from all the presentation code.

These are common situations : interesting data spread all over the web and merged in HTML presentation code. How to consolidate this data so that you can analyze and process it with your own tools ? In some near future, I expect this data will be published so that it is directly processable by computers (this is what the Semantic Web is intending to do). For now, I was used to do it with Excel (importing Web data, then cleaning it and the like) and I must admit that Excel is fairly good at it. But I’d like some more automation for this process. I’d like some more scripting for this operation so that I don’t end with inventing complex Excel macros or formulas just to automate Web site crawling, HTML extraction and data cleaning. With such an itch to scratch, I tried to address this problem with python.

This series of messages introduces my current hacks that automate web sites crawling and data extraction from HTML pages. The current output of these scripts is a bunch of CSV files that can be further processed … in Excel. I wish I would output RDF instead of CSV. So there remains much room for further improvement (see RDF Web Scraper for a similar but approach). Anyway… Here is part One : how to crawl complex web sites with Python ?. The next part will deal with data extraction from the retrieved web pages, involving much HTML cleansing and parsing.

My crawlers are fully based on the John L. Lee’s mechanize framework for python. There are other tools available in Python. And several other approaches are available when you want to deal with automating the crawling of web sites. Note that you can also try to scrape the screens of legacy terminal-based applications with the help of python (this is called “screen scraping”). Some approaches of web crawling automation rely on recording the behaviour of a user equipped with a web browser and then reproduce this same behaviour in an automated session. That is an attractive and futuristic approach. But this implies that you find a way to guess what the intended automatic crawling behaviour will be from a simple example. In other words, with this approach, you have either to ask the user to click on every web link (all the job postings…) and this gives no value to the automation of the task. Or your system “guesses” what automatic behaviour is expected just by recording a sample of what a human agent would do. Too complex… So I preferred a more down-to-earth solution implying that you write simple crawling scripts “by hand”. (You may still be interested in automatically record user sessions in order to be more productive when producing your crawling scripts.) As a summary : my approach is fully based on mechanize so you may consider the following code as example of uses of mechanize in “real-world” situations.

For purpose of clarity, let’s first focus on the code part that is specific to your crawling session (to the site you want to crawl) . Let’s take the example of the dvspot.com site which you may try to crawl in order to download detailed description of camcorders :

    # Go to home page
    #
    b.open("http://www.dvspot.com/reviews/cameraList.php?listall=1&start=0")
    #
    # Navigate through the paginated list of cameras
    #
    next_page = 0
    while next_page == 0:
     #
     # Display and save details of every listed item
     #
     url = b.response.url
     next_element = 0
     while next_element >= 0:
      try:
       b.follow_link(url_regex=re.compile(r"cameraDetail"), nr=next_element)
       next_element = next_element + 1
       print save_response(b,"dvspot_camera_"+str(next_element))
       # go back to home page
       b.open(url)
       # if you crawled too many items, stop crawling
       if next_element*next_page > MAX_NR_OF_ITEMS_PER_SESSION:
          next_element = -1
          next_page = -1
      except LinkNotFoundError:
       # You certainly reached the last item in this page
       next_element = -1
    #
     try:
      b.open(url)
      b.follow_link(text_regex=re.compile(r"Next Page"), nr=0)
      print "processing Next Page"
     except LinkNotFoundError:
      # You reached the last page of the listing of items
      next_page = -1

You noticed that the structure of this code (conditional loops) depends on the organization of the site you are crawling (paginated results, …). You also have to specify the rule that will trigger “clicks” from your crawler. In the above example, your script first follows every link containing “cameraDetail” in its URL (url_regex). Then it follows every link containing “Next Page” in the hyperlink text (text_regex).

This kind of script is usually easy to design and write but it can become complex when the web site is improperly designed. There are two sources of difficulties. The first one is bad HTML. Bad HTML may crash the mechanize framework. This is the reason why you often have to pre-process the HTML either with the help of a HTML tidying library or with simple but string substitutions when your tidy library breaks the HTML too much (this may be the case when the web designer improperly decided to used nested HTML forms). Designing the proper HTML pre-processor for the Web site you want to crawl can be tricky since you may have to dive into the faulty HTML and the mechanize error tracebacks in order to identify the HTML mistakes and workaround them. I hope that future versions of mechanize would implement more robust HTML parsing capabilities. The ideal solution would be to integrate the Mozilla HTML parsing component but I guess this will be some hard work to do. Let’s cross our fingers.

Here are useful examples of pre-processors (as introduced by some other mechanize users and developpers) :

class TidyProcessor(BaseProcessor):
      def http_response(self, request, response):
          options = dict(output_xhtml=1,
                   add_xml_decl=1,
                   indent=1,
                   output_encoding='utf8',
                   input_encoding='latin1',
                   force_output=1
                   )
          r = tidy.parseString(response.read(), **options)
          return FakeResponse(response, str(r))
      https_response = http_response
#
class MyProcessor(BaseProcessor):
      def http_response(self, request, response):
          r = response.read()
          r = r.replace('"image""','"image"')
          r = r.replace('"','"')
          return FakeResponse(response, r)
      https_response = http_response
#
# Open a browser and optionally choose a customized HTML pre-processor
b = Browser()
b.add_handler(MyProcessor())

The second source of difficulties comes from non-RESTful sites. As an example the APEC site (a French Monster-like job site) is based on a proprietary web framework that implies that you cannot rely on links URLs to automate your browsing session. It took me some time to understand that, once loggin in, every time you click on a link, you are presented with a new frameset referring to the URLs that contain the interesting data you are looking for. And these URLs seem to be dependent on your session. No permalink, if you prefer. This makes the crawling process even more tricky. In order to deal with this source of difficulty when you write your crawling script, you have to open both your favorite text editor (to write the script) and your favorite web browser (Firefox of course !). One key knowledge is to know mechanize “find_link” capabilities. These capabilities are documented in _mechanize.py source code, in the find_link method doc strings. They are the arguments you will provide to b.follow_link in order to automate your crawler “clicks”. For more convenience, let me reproduce them here :

  • text: link text between link tags: <a href=”blah”>this bit</a> (as
    returned by pullparser.get_compressed_text(), ie. without tags but
    with opening tags “textified” as per the pullparser docs) must compare
    equal to this argument, if supplied
  • text_regex: link text between tag (as defined above) must match the
    regular expression object passed as this argument, if supplied
    name, name_regex: as for text and text_regex, but matched against the
    name HTML attribute of the link tag
  • url, url_regex: as for text and text_regex, but matched against the
    URL of the link tag (note this matches against Link.url, which is a
    relative or absolute URL according to how it was written in the HTML)
  • tag: element name of opening tag, eg. “a”
    predicate: a function taking a Link object as its single argument,
    returning a boolean result, indicating whether the links
  • nr: matches the nth link that matches all other criteria (default 0)

Links include anchors (a), image maps (area), and frames (frame,iframe).

Enough with explanations. Now comes the full code in order to automatically download camcorders descriptions from dvspot.com. I distribute this code here under the GPL (legally speaking, I don’t own the copyleft of this entire code since it is based on several snippets I gathered from the web and wwwsearch mailing list). Anyway, please copy-paste-taste !

from mechanize import Browser,LinkNotFoundError
from ClientCookie import BaseProcessor
from StringIO import StringIO
# import tidy
#
import sys
import re
from time import gmtime, strftime
#
# The following two line is specific to the site you want to crawl
# it provides some capabilities to your crawler for it to be able
# to understand the meaning of the data it is crawling ;
# as an example for knowing the age of the crawled resource
#
from datetime import date
# from my_parser import parsed_resource
#
"""
 Let's declare some customized pre-processors.
 These are useful when the HTML you are crawling through is not clean enough for mechanize.
 When you crawl through bad HTML, mechanize often raises errors.
 So either you tidy it with a strict tidy module (see TidyProcessor)
 or you tidy some errors you identified "by hand" (see MyProcessor).
 Note that because the tidy module is quite strict on HTML, it may change the whole
 structure of the page you are dealing with. As an example, in bad HTML, you may encounter
 nested forms or forms nested in tables or tables nested in forms. Tidying them may produce
 unintended results such as closing the form too early or making it empty. This is the reason
 you may have to use MyProcessor instead of TidyProcessor.
"""
#
class FakeResponse:
      def __init__(self, resp, nudata):
          self._resp = resp
          self._sio = StringIO(nudata)
#
      def __getattr__(self, name):
          try:
              return getattr(self._sio, name)
          except AttributeError:
              return getattr(self._resp, name)
#
class TidyProcessor(BaseProcessor):
      def http_response(self, request, response):
          options = dict(output_xhtml=1,
                   add_xml_decl=1,
                   indent=1,
                   output_encoding='utf8',
                   input_encoding='latin1',
                   force_output=1
                   )
          r = tidy.parseString(response.read(), **options)
          return FakeResponse(response, str(r))
      https_response = http_response
#
class MyProcessor(BaseProcessor):
      def http_response(self, request, response):
          r = response.read()
          r = r.replace('"image""','"image"')
          r = r.replace('"','"')
          return FakeResponse(response, r)
      https_response = http_response
#
# Open a browser and optionally choose a customized HTML pre-processor
b = Browser()
b.add_handler(MyProcessor())
#
""""
 Let's declare some utility methods that will enhance mechanize browsing capabilities
"""
#
def find(b,searchst):
    b.response.seek(0)
    lr = b.response.read()
    return re.search(searchst, lr, re.I)
#
def save_response(b,kw='file'):
    """Saves last response to timestamped file"""
    name = strftime("%Y%m%d%H%M%S_",gmtime())
    name = name + kw + '.html'
    f = open('./'+name,'w')
    b.response.seek(0)
    f.write(b.response.read())
    f.close
    return "Response saved as %s" % name
#
"""
Hereafter is the only (and somewhat big) script that is specific to the site you want to crawl.
"""
#
def dvspot_crawl():
    """
     Here starts the browsing session.
     For every move, I could have put as a comment an equivalent PBP command line.
     PBP is a nice scripting layer on top of mechanize.
     But it does not allow looping or conditional browsing.
     So I preferred scripting directly with mechanize instead of using PBP
     and then adding an additional layer of scripting on top of it.
    """
#
    MAX_NR_OF_ITEMS_PER_SESSION = 500
    #
    # Go to home page
    #
    b.open("http://www.dvspot.com/reviews/cameraList.php?listall=1&start=0")
    #
    # Navigate through the paginated list of cameras
    #
    next_page = 0
    while next_page == 0:
     #
     # Display and save details of every listed item
     #
     url = b.response.url
     next_element = 0
     while next_element >= 0:
      try:
       b.follow_link(url_regex=re.compile(r"cameraDetail"), nr=next_element)
       next_element = next_element + 1
       print save_response(b,"dvspot_camera_"+str(next_element))
       b.open(url)
       # if you crawled too many items, stop crawling
       if next_element*next_page > MAX_NR_OF_ITEMS_PER_SESSION:
          next_element = -1
          next_page = -1
      except LinkNotFoundError:
       # You reached the last item in this page
       next_element = -1
    #
     try:
      b.open(url)
      b.follow_link(text_regex=re.compile(r"Next Page"), nr=0)
      print "processing Next Page"
     except LinkNotFoundError:
      # You reached the last page of the listing of items
      next_page = -1
    #
    return
#
#
#
if __name__ == '__main__':
#
    """ Note that you may need to specify your proxy first.
    On windows, you do :
    set HTTP_PROXY=http://proxyname.bigcorp.com:8080
    """
    #
    dvspot_crawl()

In order to run this code, you will have to install mechanize 0.0.8a, pullparser 0.0.5b, clientcookie 0.4.19, clientform 0.0.16 and utidylib. I used Python 2.3.3. Latest clientcookie’s version was to be integrated into Python 2.4 I think. In order to install mechanize, pullparser, clientcookie and clientform, you just have to do the usual way :

python setup.py build
python setup.py install
python setup.py test

Last but not least : you should be aware that you may be breaking some terms of service from the website you are trying to crawl. Thanks to dvspot for providing such valuable camcorders data to us !

Next part will deal with processing the downloaded HTML pages and extract useful data from them.

Identity Management et Customer Relationship Management

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

Un nouveau concept vient d’être introduit par le Gartner dans le domaine de la gestion de la relation client : le Customer Interaction Hub désigne l’intégration en une seule plate-forme de toutes les applications liées à la gestion de la relation client.
Selon Phil Windley, la mise en oeuvre de ces concentrateurs de la relation clients suppose des méthodes de travail identiques à celles qui permettent l’intégration des identités électroniques (synchronisation, fédération, provisioning, …).

The three laws of identity

Friday, December 10th, 2004

Microsoft has definetely not been the leader in identity management systems. For sure, MS Active Directory is being widely deployed. But it is an authentication and administration infrastructure, not an identity management solution. Because of MS ADAM (lightweight LDAP directory) and MS IIS (directory synchronization aka metadirectory) lacking features (compared to their competitors), I often thought that Microsoft was lacking some visionary approach of identity management. I was definitely wrong. They’ve got a guy who seems to have perfectly identified the (long term) future of identity management.

RDF vu par un pouet

Thursday, December 9th, 2004

La technologie RDF est la brique de base du web sémantique. Dans une grange, un poète vous rappelle qu’à l’école maternelle, vous saviez déjà faire du RDF avec des ours funambules.

Rapid manufacturing : the dream factory

Thursday, December 2nd, 2004

Histoire de nous faire rêver un peu, Bruce Sterling décrit dans cet article de Wired comment, d’ici quelques années, les machines de prototypage rapide (imprimantes 3D, découpe laser, frittage laser…) deviendront des outils de fabrication express (rapid manufacturing) puis des outils de fabrication de bureau (desktop manufacturing) pour permettre à vous et moi de faire un “sélectionner Freebox / bouton droit / Imprimer…” pour voir une freebox toute neuve et opérationnelle sortir de votre imprimante de bureau. Rêvons un peu…

En attendant, des sociétés (Zcorp, Stratasys, et dans une moindre mesure le français Phenix systems…) vendent déjà des machines de fabrication express, de la taille d’un gros photocopieur, consommant des matériaux à coût raisonnable (moins de 100 dollar par objet) et fabriquant un objet en quelques heures seulement.

Et une école du Ghana s’équipe avec un “fab lab” du MIT.