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May 05 2011

10:06

ScraperWiki: A story about two boys, web scraping and a worm

Spectrum game

“It’s like a buddy movie.” she said.

Not quite the kind of story lead I’m used to. But what do you expect if you employ journalists in a tech startup?

“Tell them about that computer game of his that you bought with your pocket money.”

She means the one with the risqué name.

I think I’d rather tell you about screen scraping, and why it is fundamental to the nature of data.

About how Julian spent almost a decade scraping himself to death until deciding to step back out and build a tool to make it easier.

I’ll give one example.

Two boys

In 2003, Julian wanted to know how his MP had voted on the Iraq war.

The lists of votes were there, on the www.parliament.uk website. But buried behind dozens of mouse clicks.

Julian and I wrote some software to read the pages for us, and created what eventually became TheyWorkForYou.

We could slice and dice the votes, mix them with some knowledge from political anaroks, and create simple sentences. Mini computer generated stories.

“Louise Ellman voted very strongly for the Iraq war.”

You can see it, and other stories, there now. Try the postcode of the ScraperWiki office, L3 5RF.

I remember the first lobbiest I showed it to. She couldn’t believe it. Decades of work done in an instant by a computer. An encyclopedia of data there in a moment.

Web Scraping

It might seem like a trick at first, as if it was special to Parliament. But actually, everyone does this kind of thing.

Google search is just a giant screen scraper, with one secret sauce algorithm guessing its ranking data.

Facebook uses scraping as a core part of its viral growth to let users easily import their email address book.

There’s lots of messy data in the world. Talk to a geek or a tech company, and you’ll find a screen scraper somewhere.

Why is this?

It’s Tautology

On the surface, screen scrapers look just like devices to work round incomplete IT systems.

Parliament used to publish quite rough HTML, and certainly had no database of MP voting records. So yes, scrapers are partly a clever trick to get round that.

But even if Parliament had published it in a structured format, their publishing would never have been quite right for what we wanted to do.

We still would have had to write a data loader (search for ‘ETL’ to see what a big industry that is). We still would have had to refine the data, linking to other datasets we used about MPs. We still would have had to validate it, like when we found the dead MP who voted.

It would have needed quite a bit of programming, that would have looked very much like a screen scraper.

And then, of course, we still would have had to build the application, connecting the data to the code that delivered the tool that millions of wonks and citizens use every year.

Core to it all is this: When you’re reusing data for a new purpose, a purpose the original creator didn’t intend, you have to work at it.

Put like that, it’s a tautology.

A journalist doesn’t just want to know what the person who created the data wanted them to know.

Scrape Through

So when Julian asked me to be CEO of ScraperWiki, that’s what went through my head.

Secrets buried everywhere.

The same kind of benefits we found for politics in TheyWorkForYou, but scattered across a hundred countries of public data, buried in a thousand corporate intranets.

If only there was a tool for that.

A Worm

And what about my pocket money?

Nicola was talking about Fat Worm Blows a Sparky.

Julian’s boss’s wife gave it its risqué name while blowing bubbles in the bath. It was 1986. Computers were new. He was 17.

Fat Worm cost me £9.95. I was 12.

[Loading screen]

I was on at most £1 a week, so that was ten weeks of savings.

Luckily, the 3D graphics were incomprehensibly good for the mid 1980s. Wonder who the genius programmer is.

I hadn’t met him yet, but it was the start of this story.

February 25 2011

15:06

Read all about it read all about it: “ScraperWiki gets on the Guardian front page…”

A data driven story by investigative journalist James Ball on lobbyist influence in the UK Parliament has made it on to the front page of the Guardian. What is exciting for us is that James Ball’s story is helped and supported by a ScraperWiki script that took data from registers across parliament that is located on different servers and aggregates them into one source table that can be viewed in a spreadsheet or document.  This is now a living source of data that can be automatically updated.  http://scraperwiki.com/scrapers/all_party_groups/

For the past year the team at ScraperWiki has been running media events around the country. Our next one is in Cardiff and fully subscribed; we also have an event at BBC Scotland in Glasgow on 25 March.   Throughout the programme we have had the opportunity to meet great journalists and bloggers from national and local press so we always thought we would make it to the front page -  we just didn’t know when or by whom.

The story demonstrates the potential power of ScraperWiki to help journalists and researchers join the dots efficiently by collaboratively working with data specialists and software systems. Journalists can put down markers that run and update automatically and they can monitor the data over time with the objective of holding ‘power and money’ to account. The added value  of this technique is that in one step the data is represented in a uniform structure and linked to the source thus ensuring its provenance.  The software code that collects the data can be inspected by others in a peer review process to ensure the fidelity of the data.

In addition and because of the collaborative and social nature of the platform there is also the potential to involve others in the wider technical and data community to continue to improve the data.  Since the data is delivered using a scheduled script that runs daily  - journalists and interested parties can now subscribe to the data set for future changes and amendments.  So, for example, a journalist interested in any influence by a company, such as Virgin, can now have a specific email alert for donations or other actions by the conglomerate.

We know and understand that data in the media sector needs to be kept embargoed until the story breaks.  Next month we will be launching an opportunity for data consumers to request and subscribe to specific data feeds.

There is a tsunami of data being published and its increasingly hard for investigative journalists to find the time to sift through the masses of information and to make sense of it.  We believe that ScraperWiki helps to solve some of the ‘hard’ data issues that people in the media face on a daily basis.

Congratulations to James on his front page story and to the fantastic team at the Guardian who do fabulous work on open data and data driven journalism – long may it continue!

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