Tag Archives: importxml

2 how-tos: researching people and mapping planning applications

Mapping planning applications

Sid Ryan’s planning applications map

Sid Ryan wanted to see if planning applications near planning committee members were more or less likely to be accepted. In two guest posts on Help Me Investigate he shows how to research people online (in this case the councillors), and how to map planning applications to identify potential relationships.

The posts take in a range of techniques including:

  • Scraping using Scraperwiki and the Google Drive spreadsheet function importXML
  • Mapping in Google Fusion Tables
  • Registers of interests
  • Using advanced search techniques
  • Using Land Registry enquiries
  • Using Companies House and Duedil
  • Other ways to find information on individuals, such as Hansard, LinkedIn, 192.com, Lexis Nexis, whois and FriendsReunited

If you find it useful, please let me know – and if you can add anything… please do.

Scraping data from a list of webpages using Google Docs

Quite often when you’re looking for data as part of a story, that data will not be on a single page, but on a series of pages. To manually copy the data from each one – or even scrape the data individually – would take time. Here I explain a way to use Google Docs to grab the data for you.

Some basic principles

Although Google Docs is a pretty clumsy tool to use to scrape webpages, the method used is much the same as if you were writing a scraper in a programming language like Python or Ruby. For that reason, I think this is a good quick way to introduce the basics of certain types of scrapers.

Here’s how it works:

Firstly, you need a list of links to the pages containing data.

Quite often that list might be on a webpage which links to them all, but if not you should look at whether the links have any common structure, for example “http://www.country.com/data/australia” or “http://www.country.com/data/country2″. If it does, then you can generate a list by filling in the part of the URL that changes each time (in this case, the country name or number), assuming you have a list to fill it from (i.e. a list of countries, codes or simple addition).

Second, you need the destination pages to have some consistent structure to them. In other words, they should look the same (although looking the same doesn’t mean they have the same structure – more on this below).

The scraper then cycles through each link in your list, grabs particular bits of data from each linked page (because it is always in the same place), and saves them all in one place.

Scraping with Google Docs using =importXML – a case study

If you’ve not used =importXML before it’s worth catching up on my previous 2 posts How to scrape webpages and ask questions with Google Docs and =importXML and Asking questions of a webpage – and finding out when those answers change.

This takes things a little bit further.

In this case I’m going to scrape some data for a story about local history – the data for which is helpfully published by the Durham Mining Museum. Their homepage has a list of local mining disasters, with the date and cause of the disaster, the name and county of the colliery, the number of deaths, and links to the names and to a page about each colliery.

However, there is not enough geographical information here to map the data. That, instead, is provided on each colliery’s individual page.

So we need to go through this list of webpages, grab the location information, and pull it all together into a single list.

Finding the structure in the HTML

To do this we need to isolate which part of the homepage contains the list. If you right-click on the page to ‘view source’ and search for ‘Haig’ (the first colliery listed) we can see it’s in a table that has a beginning tag like so: <table border=0 align=center style=”font-size:10pt”>

We can use =importXML to grab the contents of the table like so:

=Importxml(“http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htm”, ”//table[starts-with(@style, 'font-size:10pt')]“)

But we only want the links, so how do we grab just those instead of the whole table contents?

The answer is to add more detail to our request. If we look at the HTML that contains the link, it looks like this:

<td valign=top><a href=”http://www.dmm.org.uk/colliery/h029.htm“>Haig&nbsp;Pit</a></td>

So it’s within a <td> tag – but all the data in this table is, not surprisingly, contained within <td> tags. The key is to identify which <td> tag we want – and in this case, it’s always the fourth one in each row.

So we can add “//td[4]” (‘look for the fourth <td> tag’) to our function like so:

=Importxml(“http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htm”, ”//table[starts-with(@style, 'font-size:10pt')]//td[4]“)

Now we should have a list of the collieries – but we want the actual URL of the page that is linked to with that text. That is contained within the value of the href attribute – or, put in plain language: it comes after the bit that says href=”.

So we just need to add one more bit to our function: “//@href”:

=Importxml(“http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htm”, ”//table[starts-with(@style, 'font-size:10pt')]//td[4]//@href”)

So, reading from the far right inwards, this is what it says: “Grab the value of href, within the fourth <td> tag on every row, of the table that has a style value of font-size:10pt

Note: if there was only one link in every row, we wouldn’t need to include //td[4] to specify the link we needed.

Scraping data from each link in a list

Now we have a list – but we still need to scrape some information from each link in that list

Firstly, we need to identify the location of information that we need on the linked pages. Taking the first page, view source and search for ‘Sheet 89′, which are the first two words of the ‘Map Ref’ line.

The HTML code around that information looks like this:

<td valign=top>(Sheet 89) NX965176, 54° 32' 35" N, 3° 36' 0" W</td>

Looking a little further up, the table that contains this cell uses HTML like this:

<table border=0 width=”95%”>

So if we needed to scrape this information, we would write a function like this:

=importXML(“http://www.dmm.org.uk/colliery/h029.htm”, “//table[starts-with(@width, '95%')]//tr[2]//td[2]“)

…And we’d have to write it for every URL.

But because we have a list of URLs, we can do this much quicker by using cell references instead of the full URL.

So. Let’s assume that your formula was in cell C2 (as it is in this example), and the results have formed a column of links going from C2 down to C11. Now we can write a formula that looks at each URL in turn and performs a scrape on it.

In D2 then, we type the following:

=importXML(C2, “//table[starts-with(@width, '95%')]//tr[2]//td[2]“)

If you copy the cell all the way down the column, it will change the function so that it is performed on each neighbouring cell.

In fact, we could simplify things even further by putting the second part of the function in cell D1 – without the quotation marks – like so:

//table[starts-with(@width, '95%')]//tr[2]//td[2]

And then in D2 change the formula to this:

=ImportXML(C2,$D$1)

(The dollar signs keep the D1 reference the same even when the formula is copied down, while C2 will change in each cell)

Now it works – we have the data from each of 8 different pages. Almost.

Troubleshooting with =IF

The problem is that the structure of those pages is not as consistent as we thought: the scraper is producing extra cells of data for some, which knocks out the data that should be appearing there from other cells.

So I’ve used an IF formula to clean that up as follows:

In cell E2 I type the following:

=if(D2=””, ImportXML(C2,$D$1), D2)

Which says ‘If D2 is empty, then run the importXML formula again and put the results here, but if it’s not empty then copy the values across

That formula is copied down the column.

But there’s still one empty column even now, so the same formula is used again in column F:

=if(E2=””, ImportXML(C2,$D$1), E2)

A hack, but an instructive one

As I said earlier, this isn’t the best way to write a scraper, but it is a useful way to start to understand how they work, and a quick method if you don’t have huge numbers of pages to scrape. With hundreds of pages, it’s more likely you will miss problems – so watch out for inconsistent structure and data that doesn’t line up.

Scraping data from a list of webpages using Google Docs

Quite often when you’re looking for data as part of a story, that data will not be on a single page, but on a series of pages. To manually copy the data from each one – or even scrape the data individually – would take time. Here I explain a way to use Google Docs to grab the data for you.

Some basic principles

Although Google Docs is a pretty clumsy tool to use to scrape webpages, the method used is much the same as if you were writing a scraper in a programming language like Python or Ruby. For that reason, I think this is a good quick way to introduce the basics of certain types of scrapers.

Here’s how it works:

Firstly, you need a list of links to the pages containing data.

Quite often that list might be on a webpage which links to them all, but if not you should look at whether the links have any common structure, for example “http://www.country.com/data/australia&#8221; or “http://www.country.com/data/country2&#8243;. If it does, then you can generate a list by filling in the part of the URL that changes each time (in this case, the country name or number), assuming you have a list to fill it from (i.e. a list of countries, codes or simple addition).

Second, you need the destination pages to have some consistent structure to them. In other words, they should look the same (although looking the same doesn’t mean they have the same structure – more on this below).

The scraper then cycles through each link in your list, grabs particular bits of data from each linked page (because it is always in the same place), and saves them all in one place.

Scraping with Google Docs using =importXML – a case study

If you’ve not used =importXML before it’s worth catching up on my previous 2 posts How to scrape webpages and ask questions with Google Docs and =importXML and Asking questions of a webpage – and finding out when those answers change.

This takes things a little bit further.

In this case I’m going to scrape some data for a story about local history – the data for which is helpfully published by the Durham Mining Museum. Their homepage has a list of local mining disasters, with the date and cause of the disaster, the name and county of the colliery, the number of deaths, and links to the names and to a page about each colliery.

However, there is not enough geographical information here to map the data. That, instead, is provided on each colliery’s individual page.

So we need to go through this list of webpages, grab the location information, and pull it all together into a single list.

Finding the structure in the HTML

To do this we need to isolate which part of the homepage contains the list. If you right-click on the page to ‘view source’ and search for ‘Haig’ (the first colliery listed) we can see it’s in a table that has a beginning tag like so: <table border=0 align=center style=”font-size:10pt”>

We can use =importXML to grab the contents of the table like so:

=Importxml(“http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htm&#8221;, “//table[starts-with(@style, 'font-size:10pt')]“)

But we only want the links, so how do we grab just those instead of the whole table contents?

The answer is to add more detail to our request. If we look at the HTML that contains the link, it looks like this:

<td valign=top><a href=”http://www.dmm.org.uk/colliery/h029.htm“>Haig&nbsp;Pit</a></td>

So it’s within a <td> tag – but all the data in this table is, not surprisingly, contained within <td> tags. The key is to identify which <td> tag we want – and in this case, it’s always the fourth one in each row.

So we can add “//td[4]” (‘look for the fourth <td> tag’) to our function like so:

=Importxml(“http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htm&#8221;, “//table[starts-with(@style, 'font-size:10pt')]//td[4]“)

Now we should have a list of the collieries – but we want the actual URL of the page that is linked to with that text. That is contained within the value of the href attribute – or, put in plain language: it comes after the bit that says href=”.

So we just need to add one more bit to our function: “//@href”:

=Importxml(“http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htm&#8221;, “//table[starts-with(@style, 'font-size:10pt')]//td[4]//@href”)

So, reading from the far right inwards, this is what it says: “Grab the value of href, within the fourth <td> tag on every row, of the table that has a style value of font-size:10pt

Note: if there was only one link in every row, we wouldn’t need to include //td[4] to specify the link we needed.

Scraping data from each link in a list

Now we have a list – but we still need to scrape some information from each link in that list

Firstly, we need to identify the location of information that we need on the linked pages. Taking the first page, view source and search for ‘Sheet 89′, which are the first two words of the ‘Map Ref’ line.

The HTML code around that information looks like this:

<td valign=top>(Sheet 89) NX965176, 54° 32' 35" N, 3° 36' 0" W</td>

Looking a little further up, the table that contains this cell uses HTML like this:

<table border=0 width=”95%”>

So if we needed to scrape this information, we would write a function like this:

=importXML(“http://www.dmm.org.uk/colliery/h029.htm&#8221;, “//table[starts-with(@width, '95%')]//tr[2]//td[2]“)

…And we’d have to write it for every URL.

But because we have a list of URLs, we can do this much quicker by using cell references instead of the full URL.

So. Let’s assume that your formula was in cell C2 (as it is in this example), and the results have formed a column of links going from C2 down to C11. Now we can write a formula that looks at each URL in turn and performs a scrape on it.

In D2 then, we type the following:

=importXML(C2, “//table[starts-with(@width, '95%')]//tr[2]//td[2]“)

If you copy the cell all the way down the column, it will change the function so that it is performed on each neighbouring cell.

In fact, we could simplify things even further by putting the second part of the function in cell D1 – without the quotation marks – like so:

//table[starts-with(@width, '95%')]//tr[2]//td[2]

And then in D2 change the formula to this:

=ImportXML(C2,$D$1)

(The dollar signs keep the D1 reference the same even when the formula is copied down, while C2 will change in each cell)

Now it works – we have the data from each of 8 different pages. Almost.

Troubleshooting with =IF

The problem is that the structure of those pages is not as consistent as we thought: the scraper is producing extra cells of data for some, which knocks out the data that should be appearing there from other cells.

So I’ve used an IF formula to clean that up as follows:

In cell E2 I type the following:

=if(D2=””, ImportXML(C2,$D$1), D2)

Which says ‘If D2 is empty, then run the importXML formula again and put the results here, but if it’s not empty then copy the values across

That formula is copied down the column.

But there’s still one empty column even now, so the same formula is used again in column F:

=if(E2=””, ImportXML(C2,$D$1), E2)

A hack, but an instructive one

As I said earlier, this isn’t the best way to write a scraper, but it is a useful way to start to understand how they work, and a quick method if you don’t have huge numbers of pages to scrape. With hundreds of pages, it’s more likely you will miss problems – so watch out for inconsistent structure and data that doesn’t line up.

SFTW: Asking questions of a webpage – and finding out when those answers change

Previously I wrote on how to use the =importXML formula in Google Docs to pull information from an XML page into a conventional spreadsheet. In this Something For The Weekend post I’ll show how to take that formula further to grab information from webpages – and get updates when that information changes.

Animation from Digital Inspiration
Animation from Digital Inspiration

Asking questions of a webpage – or find out when the answer changes

Despite its name, the =importXML formula can be used to grab information from HTML pages as well. This post on SEO Gadget, for example, gives a series of examples ranging from grabbing information on Twitter users to price information and web analytics (it also has some further guidance on using these techniques, and is well worth a read for that).

Asking questions of webpages typically requires more advanced use of XPath than I outlined previously – and more trial and error.

This is because, while XML is a language designed to provide structure around data, HTML – used as it is for a much wider range of purposes – isn’t quite so tidy.

Finding the structure

To illustrate how you can use =importXML to grab data from a webpage, I’m going to grab data from Gorkana, a job ads site.

If you look at their journalists jobs page, you’ll see all sorts of information, from navigation and ads to feeds and policies. This is how you could grab a specific piece of data from a page, and put it into a table structure, to answer any questions you might have:

Make a note of the first word or phrase in the section you want (e.g. “Senior account executive”) then right-click on the page and select View Source or whatever option allows you to see the HTML code behind the page.

You could scroll through this to try to find the bit you want, but it’s easier to use your search facility to find that key phrase you noted earlier (e.g. “Senior account executive”)

Searching within HTML

What you’re hoping to find is some sort of div class tag just above that key phrase – and in this case there’s one called div class=”jobWrap”

This means that the creator of the webpage has added some structure to it, wrapping all their job ads in that div.

We just need to write a formula that is equally specific.

Writing the formula

Open up a spreadsheet in Google Docs and write the following formula in cell B1:

=importXML(“http://www.gorkanajobs.co.uk/jobs/journalist/”, “//div[starts-with(@class, 'jobWrap')]“)

When you press Enter you should see 3 columns filled with values from that particular part of the webpage: the job title; the package; and a brief description. Now that you have this data in a structured format you could, for example, work out average wages of job ads, or the most common job titles.

But how did that formula work? As I’ve explained most of =importXML in the previous post, I’ll just explain the query part here. So:

//div

is looking for a tag that begins

[starts-with

is specifying that the this div must begin in a particular way, and it does so by grabbing one thing, and looking for another thing within it:

(@class, 'jobWrap')

is saying that the div class should contain 'jobWrap' (bonus points: the @ sign indicates an attribute; class is an attribute of the div; 'jobWrap' is the value of the attribute)

]

…finishes off that test.

Even if you don’t understand the code itself, you can adapt it to your own purposes as long as you can find the right div class tag and replace ‘jobWrap’ with whatever the value is in your case.

It doesn’t even have to be a div class – you could replace //div with other tags such as //p for each paragraph fitting a particular criteria.

You can also replace @class with another attribute, such as @id or @title. It depends on the HTML of the page you’re trying to grab information from.

Where’s the structure come from?

Why has this data been put into 3 columns? The answer is in the HTML again. You’ll see that the job title is between h4 tags. The location and package is within ul tags and the description is within p tags, before each div is closed with the tag /div

But if you keep reading that HTML you’ll also see that after that /div there is some more information within a different div tag: div class=”adBody”. This contains the name of the recruiter and a link to a page where you can apply. There’s also a third div with a link to an image of the recruiter.

You could adapt your importXML formula to grab these instead – or add a new formula in D2 to add this extra information alongside the others (watch out for mismatches where one div may be missing for some reason).

Finding and cleaning links

You’ll notice that the formula above grabs text, but not the links within each job ad. To do that we need to adapt the formula as follows. Try typing this in cell D2:

=ImportXML(“http://www.gorkanajobs.co.uk/jobs/journalist/”, “//div[starts-with(@class, 'jobWrap')]//@href”)

This is identical to the previous formula, with one addition at the end:

//@href

What this does is grab the value of any link in the HTML. In other words, the bit after a href=”

You’ll notice that the results are partial URLs, such as /job/3807/senior-account-executive-account-manager/

These are known as relative URLs, because they are relative to the site they are on, but will not work when placed on another site.

This is easily cleaned up. In cell E2 type the following:

=CONCATENATE(“http://www.gorkanajobs.co.uk”,D2)

This creates a new URL beginning with http://www.gorkanajobs.co.uk and ending with the contents of cell D2 – the relative URL. Copy the formula down the column so it works for all cells in column D.

Not always so tidy

Not all websites will be so structured. The more structured the webpage – or the data within it – the better. But you may have to dig into the HTML and/or tweak your formula to find that structure. Or you may have to settle for some rough and ready data that you clean later.

The key advantage of =importXML, however, is how it is able to pull information from HTML into a table that you can then interrogate, with different columns for different parts of that data.

For more help with these processes you can find explanations of how to write expressions in XPath here but be prepared to use trial and error to get the right expression for the question you’re asking. The Vancouver Data Blog offers some specific examples that can be easily adapted.

Getting updates from your spreadsheet

Finally, this can be useful because Google Docs allows you to receive notifications whenever any changes are made, and to publish your spreadsheet as an RSS feed. This is explained in this blog post, which is also the source of the movie above.

And if you want to see all of this in action I’ve published an example spreadsheet demonstrating all the above techniques here.

SFTW: Asking questions of a webpage – and finding out when those answers change

Previously I wrote on how to use the =importXML formula in Google Docs to pull information from an XML page into a conventional spreadsheet. In this Something For The Weekend post I’ll show how to take that formula further to grab information from webpages – and get updates when that information changes.

Animation from Digital Inspiration

Animation from Digital Inspiration

Asking questions of a webpage – or find out when the answer changes

Despite its name, the =importXML formula can be used to grab information from HTML pages as well. This post on SEO Gadget, for example, gives a series of examples ranging from grabbing information on Twitter users to price information and web analytics (it also has some further guidance on using these techniques, and is well worth a read for that).

Asking questions of webpages typically requires more advanced use of XPath than I outlined previously – and more trial and error.

This is because, while XML is a language designed to provide structure around data, HTML – used as it is for a much wider range of purposes – isn’t quite so tidy.

Finding the structure

To illustrate how you can use =importXML to grab data from a webpage, I’m going to grab data from Gorkana, a job ads site.

Continue reading

SFTW: How to scrape webpages and ask questions with Google Docs and =importXML

XML puzzle cube
Image by dullhunk on Flickr

Here’s another Something for the Weekend post. Last week I wrote a post on how to use the =importFeed formula in Google Docs spreadsheets to pull an RSS feed (or part of one) into a spreadsheet, and split it into columns. Another formula which performs a similar function more powerfully is =importXML.

There are at least 2 distinct journalistic uses for =importXML:

  1. You have found information that is only available in XML format and need to put it into a standard spreadsheet to interrogate it or combine it with other data.
  2. You want to extract some information from a webpage – perhaps on a regular basis – and put that in a structured format (a spreadsheet) so you can more easily ask questions of it.

The first task is the easiest, so I’ll explain how to do that in this post. I’ll use a separate post to explain the latter.

Converting an XML feed into a table

If you have some information in XML format it helps if you have some understanding of how XML is structured. A backgrounder on how to understand XML is covered in this post explaining XML for journalists.

It also helps if you are using a browser which is good at displaying XML pages: Chrome, for example, not only staggers and indents different pieces of information, but also allows you to expand or collapse parts of that, and colours elements, values and attributes (which we’ll come on to below) differently.

Say, for example, you wanted a spreadsheet of UK council data, including latitude, longitude, CIPFA code, and so on – and you found the data, but it was in XML format at a page like this: http://openlylocal.com/councils/all.xml

To pull that into a neatly structured spreadsheet in Google Docs, type the following into the cell where you want the import to begin (try typing in cell A2, leaving the first row free for you to add column headers):

=ImportXML(“http://openlylocal.com/councils/all.xml”, ”//council”)

The formula (or, more accurately, function) needs two pieces of information, which are contained in the parentheses and separated by a comma: a web address (URL), and a query. Or, put another way:

=importXML(“theURLinQuotationMarks”, “theBitWithinTheURLthatYouWant”)

The URL is relatively easy – it is the address of the XML file you are reading (it should end in .xml). The query needs some further explanation.

The query tells Google Docs which bit of the XML you want to pull out. It uses a language called XPath – but don’t worry, you will only need to note down a few queries for most purposes.

Here’s an example of part of that XML file shown in the Chrome browser:

XML from OpenlyLocal

The indentation and triangles indicate the way the data is structured. So, the <councils> tag contains at least one item called <council> (if you scrolled down, or clicked on the triangle to collapse <council> you would see there are a few hundred).

And each <council> contains an <address>, <authority-type>, and many other pieces of information.

If you wanted to grab every <council> from this XML file, then, you use the query “//council” as shown above. Think of the // as a replacement for the < in a tag – you are saying: ‘grab the contents of every item that begins <council>’.

You’ll notice that in your spreadsheet where you have typed the formula above, it gathers the contents (called a value) of each tag within <council>, each tag’s value going into their own column – giving you dozens of columns.

You can continue this logic to look for tags within tags. For example, if you wanted to grab the <name> value from within each <council> tag, you could use:

=ImportXML(“http://openlylocal.com/councils/all.xml”, ”//council//name”)

You would then only have one column, containing the names of all the councils – if that’s all you wanted. You could of course adapt the formula again in cell B2 to pull another piece of information. However, you may end up with a mismatch of data where that information is missing – so it’s always better to grab all the XML once, then clean it up on a copy.

If the XML is more complex then you can ask more complex questions – which I’ll cover in the second part of this post. You can also put the URL and/or query in other cells to simplify matters, e.g.

=ImportXML(A1, B1)

Where cell A1 contains http://openlylocal.com/councils/all.xml and B1 contains //council (note the lack of quotation marks). You then only need to change the contents of A1 or B1 to change the results, rather than having to edit the formula directly)

If you’ve any other examples, ideas or corrections, let me know. Meanwhile, I’ve published an example spreadsheet demonstrating all the above techniques here.

 

SFTW: How to scrape webpages and ask questions with Google Docs and =importXML

XML puzzle cube

Image by dullhunk on Flickr

Here’s another Something for the Weekend post. Last week I wrote a post on how to use the =importFeed formula in Google Docs spreadsheets to pull an RSS feed (or part of one) into a spreadsheet, and split it into columns. Another formula which performs a similar function more powerfully is =importXML.

There are at least 2 distinct journalistic uses for =importXML:

  1. You have found information that is only available in XML format and need to put it into a standard spreadsheet to interrogate it or combine it with other data.
  2. You want to extract some information from a webpage – perhaps on a regular basis – and put that in a structured format (a spreadsheet) so you can more easily ask questions of it.

The first task is the easiest, so I’ll explain how to do that in this post. I’ll use a separate post to explain the latter. Continue reading