Journalists Need To Read This

You’ve tried everything else, and you haven’t managed to get your hands on the data you want. You’ve found the data on the web, but, alas — no download options are available and copy-paste has failed you. Fear not, there may still be a way to get the data out. For example you can:

Get data from web-based APIs, such as interfaces provided by online databases and many modern web applications (including Twitter, Facebook and many others). This is a fantastic way to access government or commercial data, as well as data from social media sites.

Extract data from PDFs. This is very difficult, as PDF is a language for printers and does not retain much information on the structure of the data that is displayed within a document. Extracting information from PDFs is beyond the scope of this book, but there are some tools and tutorials that may help you do it.

Screen scrape web sites. During screen scraping, you’re extracting structured content from a normal web page with the help of a scraping utility or by writing a small piece of code. While this method is very powerful and can be used in many places, it requires a bit of understanding about how the web works.

With all those great technical options, don’t forget the simple options: often it is worth to spend some time searching for a file with machine-readable data or to call the institution which is holding the data you want.

In this chapter we walk through a very basic example of scraping data from an HTML web page.

What is machine-readable data?

The goal for most of these methods is to get access to machine-readable data. Machine readable data is created for processing by a computer, instead of the presentation to a human user. The structure of such data relates to contained information, and not the way it is displayed eventually. Examples of easily machine-readable formats include CSV, XML, JSON and Excel files, while formats like Word documents, HTML pages and PDF files are more concerned with the visual layout of the information. PDF for example is a language which talks directly to your printer, it’s concerned with position of lines and dots on a page, rather than distinguishable characters.

Scraping web sites: what for?

Everyone has done this: you go to a web site, see an interesting table and try to copy it over to Excel so you can add some numbers up or store it for later. Yet this often does not really work, or the information you want is spread across a large number of web sites. Copying by hand can quickly become very tedious, so it makes sense to use a bit of code to do it.

The advantage of scraping is that you can do it with virtually any web site — from weather forecasts to government spending, even if that site does not have an API for raw data access.

What you can and cannot scrape

There are, of course, limits to what can be scraped. Some factors that make it harder to scrape a site include:

Badly formatted HTML code with little or no structural information e.g. older government websites.

Authentication systems that are supposed to prevent automatic access e.g. CAPTCHA codes and paywalls.

Session-based systems that use browser cookies to keep track of what the user has been doing.

A lack of complete item listings and possibilities for wildcard search.

Blocking of bulk access by the server administrators.

Another set of limitations are legal barriers: some countries recognize database rights, which may limit your right to re-use information that has been published online. Sometimes, you can choose to ignore the license and do it anyway — depending on your jurisdiction, you may have special rights as a journalist. Scraping freely available Government data should be fine, but you may wish to double check before you publish. Commercial organizations — and certain NGOs — react with less tolerance and may try to claim that you’re “sabotaging” their systems. Other information may infringe the privacy of individuals and thereby violate data privacy laws or professional ethics.

How can Diggernaut help?

Just follow the 4 simple steps and start getting the data you need

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