This is not my journey

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I spent some of my Christmas break thinking about work styles: what worked last year, what didn’t, and what I could do to improve my own.  I’ve got it down to just two things: “this is not my journey” and “do what the boss asks for”.

People often talk of their jobs (and themselves) as something that they do now, as in at one particular point in time. That’s a little like saying “I’m in seat 29C” instead of “I’m flying from New York to Japan and when I get there I’m going to try out the heated toilet seats” when someone asks you where you are.  We are all on journeys – sometimes literally, but always on journeys through time, careers, relationships.  And if you want to think about your career, a journey is a useful idea.

So last year I got really frustrated because I ended up doing lots of things that needed to be done, leaving little time for the things I loved (and am good at). And at the same time, I watched people around me refusing to do those things, but doing so much better in their careers and the respect they gained for what they did. “This is not my journey” came out of that.  The big thing that I realised was that the people who were doing well were playing by big-company rules, and I was still working as though I was in a startup or community organisation.

Startups are different. Over the years I’ve started companies, helped start companies and communities, been in small companies that grew, worked in government agencies and 90,000-strong multinationals.  And I’ve noticed two transition points: around 5 and 120 people.  With 5 people, you’re completely flat, and to be honest, also flat-out: everyone does what needs to be done without “but I don’t do that”, and although you may have “roles”, you’re generally just working as a team.  That’s often the founding team: once they start hiring, the concept of staff happens, and it takes leadership not to divide into ‘founders’ and ‘others’.  Communities tend to run this way too, with everyone pitching in and helping where they can. Up to about 120 people, companies are “small”, with everyone knowing each other and helping each other out where they can.  But at about 120 people, divisions start: you can remember the names of about 100-120 people, but beyond that new people become faces unless they’re directly working with you.  At this point, people have defined job roles and a limited group of connections in the organisation, and there are just too many things that need to be done to be able to do them informally any more. And at this point (or sooner), big company rules start to apply.  And can be basically summarised as “do what the boss asks for” and “do what’s on your journey”.

“Do what the boss asks for” is obvious when you have a defined boss – in the small flat organisation (no defined “bosses”) it doesn’t make sense, but it’s absolutely the path to happiness under big-company rules (with negotiation about what’s a fair workload etc of course). It’s a simple sorting question for any new task: “is this what the boss asked for?”.

“Do what’s on your journey” covers what you do with the interstitial time: the times when you’ve done what the boss asked for (or just plain need a short break from it) and are filling-in with small jobs, training courses etc. It’s about doing the things that grow you as a person, in the directions that you want to grow and become stronger, but to do this you do need a journey: a knowledge of who you are, what you want to be, what you want to be able to do and be known for.  I spent part of Christmas working on that too. My journey is the same as it was 3, 5, 10 years ago, but now I have a clear description (thank you, social-worker sister-in-laws and “Business Model You”) of where I’m going.  My sorting question for this isn’t “do what’s on your journey” because that’s a terrible way to test anything; instead it’s “this is not my journey” – if I can say that about a non-boss task, then it’s now not on my list.

It’s already a much saner year. Apart from the odd boss-overload, my filters have kept my work down to both manageable and relevant to my career. I seem to have a bit more respect for this: when I mentioned the plan to a Wall Street friend, she said “oh, you’re playing by the blokes’ rules” and explained that nobody respects the person who picks up odd jobs, so perhaps that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.  What has been a surprise is that in remote organisations, the switch from small to big-company rules happens at a much much smaller number of people (around 20, sometimes as low as 12), although again the larger distances, timezones and smaller bandwidths (as in you’re not seeing people across the office floor, and it’s hard to have watercooler conversations with everyone) should make that somewhat less surprising.

Web Scraping, part 1: files and APIs

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Web scraping is extracting information from webpages, usually (but not always) as tables of data that you can save to csv files, json/xml files or databases.

Design it first, then scrape it

When you start on any piece of code, try asking yourself some design questions first; definitely do this if you’re thinking about something as potentially complex as web scraping code.   So you’ve seen a dataset hiding in a website – it might be a table of data that you need, or lists of data, or data spread across multiple pages on the site. Here are some questions for you:

1. Do you need to write scraper code at all?

    • Is the dataset very small – if you’re talking about 10 values that don’t get updated, writing a scraper will take longer than just typing all the numbers into a spreadsheet.
    • Has the site owner made this data available via an API (search for this on the site) or downloadable datafiles, either on this site or connected sites?  APIs are much much faster (and less messy) to use than writing scraper code.
    • Did someone already scrape this dataset and put it online somewhere else?  Check sites like scraperwiki.com and datahub.io.

2. What do you need to scrape?

    • What format is the data currently in?  Is it on html webpages, or in documents attached to the site?  Is it in excel or pdf files?
    • Does the data on this site get updated?  e.g. do you need to scrape this data regularly, or just once?

3. What’s your maintenance plan?

    • Where are you planning to put the data when you’ve scraped it?  How are you going to make it available to other people (this being the good and polite thing to do when you’ve scraped out some data)? How will you tell people that the data is one-off or regularly updated, and who’s responsible for doing that?
    • Who’s going to maintain your scraper code?  Website owners change their sites all the time, often breaking scraper code – who’s going to be around in a year, two years etc to fix this?

Reading files

Okay. Questions over. Let’s get down to business, working from easy to less-easy, starting with “you got to the website, there’s a file waiting for you to download and you only need to do this once”.

You’ve got the data, and it’s a CSV file

Lucky you: pretty much any visualization package and language out there can read CSV files.  You’ll still have to check (e.g. look for things like messed-up text, be suspicious if all the biggest files the same size, etc) and clean the data (e.g. check that your date columns all contain formatted dates, you have the right number of codes for gender – and no, its not always two  – etc) but as far as scraping goes, you’re done here.

You’ve got the data, and it’s a file with loads of brackets in it

Also, the file extension (the part after the last “.” in a filename) is probably “json”.  This is a json file  – not all data packages will read in this format, so you might have to convert it to CSV (and it might not quite fit the rows-by-columns format so you’ll have to do some work there too), but again, no scraping needed.

You’ve got the data, and it’s a file with loads of <>s in it

Either you’ve got html files (look for obvious things like HTMl tabs: <html>, <head>, <p>, <h1>, etc and text outside the opening <name> and closing <\name> brackets) or you’ve got an xml file.  Another big hint is if the file extension is “.xml”.  Like json, xml is read in by many but not all data visualization packages, and might need converting to csv files; a few quirks make this a little harder than converting json, but there’s a lot of help out there on this online.

You’ve got the data and it’s a PDF file

Ah, the joys of scraping PDF files. PDF files are difficult because even though they *look* like text files on your screen, they’re not nearly as tidy as that behind the scenes.  You need a PDF converter: these take PDF files and (usually) convert them into machine-readable formats (CSV, Excel etc). This means that the 800-page PDF of data tables someone sent you isn’t necessarily the end of your plan to use that data.

First, check that your PDF can be scraped.  Open it, and try to select some of the text in it (as though you were about to cut and paste).  If you can select the text, that’s a good sign – you can probably scrape this pdf file. Try one of these:

  • If you’ve got a small, one-off PDF table, either type it in yourself or use Acrobat’s “save as tables” function
  • If you’ve got just one large PDF to scrape, try a tool like pdftables  or cometdocs
  • If you want to use open source code – and especially if you want to contribute to an open-source project for scraping PDF data, use Tabula.

If you can’t select the text, that’s bad: the PDF has probably been created as an image of the text – your best hope at this point is using OCR software to try to read it in.

Using APIs

An Application Programming Interface (API) is a piece of software that allows websites and programs to communicate with each other.

So how do you check if a site or group has an API?  Usually a Google search for their name plus “API” will do, but you might also want to try  http://api.theirsitename.com/ and http://theirsitename.com/api (APIs are often in these places on a website).  If you still can’t find an API, try contacting the group and asking them if they have one.

Using APIs without coding

APIs are often used to output datasets requested using a RESTful interface, where the dataset request is contained in the address (URL) used to ask for it.   For example, http://api.worldbank.org/countries/all/indicators/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS?date=2000:2015 is a RESTful call to the World Bank API that gives you the rural population (as a percentage) of all countries for the years 2000 to 2015 (try it!).  If you’ve entered in the RESTful URL and you’ve got a page with all the data that you need, you don’t have to code: just save the page to a file and use that. Note that you could also get the information on rural populations from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS but you won’t be able to use that directly in your program (although most good data pages like this will also have a “download” button someone too).

APIs with code

Using code to access an API means you can read data straight into a program and either process it there or combine and use it with other datasets (as a “mashup”). I’ll use Python here, but more other modern languages (PHP, Ruby etc) have functions that do the same things.  So, in Python, we’re going to use the requests library (here’s why).

import requests
worldbank_url = “http://api.worldbank.org/countries/all/indicators/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS?date=2000:2015”
r = requests.get(github_url)

Erm. That was it.  The variable r contains several things: information about whether your request to the API was successful or not, error codes if it isn’t, the data you requested if it is. You can quickly check for success by seeing if r.ok is equal to True; if it is, your data is in r.text; if it isn’t, then look at r.status_code and r.text, take a big deep breath and start working out why (you’ll probably see 200, 400 and 500 status codes: here’s a list to get you started).

Many APIs will offer a choice of formats for their output data. The World Bank API outputs its data in XML format unless you ask for either json (add “&format=json” to the end of worldbank_url) or CSV (add “&format=csv”), and it’s always worth checking for these if you don’t want to handle a site’s default format.

Sometimes you’ll need to give a website a password before you can get data from its API.  Here, you add a second parameter to requests.get, “authenticating” that it’s you using the API:

import requests
r = requests.get('https://api.github.com/user', auth=('yourgithubname', ‘yourgithubpassword'))
dataset = r.text

That’s enough to get you started. The second half of this post is on scraping websites when you don’t have an API. In the meantime, please use the above to get yourself some more data.  Places you could start at include HDX and datahub.io (these are both CKAN APIs).