Artificial Informer - Issue One

Rethinking Web Scraping with AutoScrape

By Brandon Roberts

In 2011, living in a city with more dented cars than I'd ever seen in my life, I wanted traffic data for a story I was working on, so I wrote my first real web scraper. I still remember it pretty well: it was written in PHP (barf), ran every five minutes, grabbed the current collisions police were responding to across the city and dumped them into a database. Immediately after writing a story based on the data, I threw the scraper on GitHub and never touched it again (RIP). It got me wondering how many journalists had rewritten and shared scrapers for the exact same sites and never maintained them. I pictured a mountain of useless, time consuming code floating around in cyberspace. Journalists write too many scrapers and we're generally terrible at maintaining them.

There are plenty of reasons why we don't maintain our scrapers. In 2013 I built a web tool to help journalists do background research on political candidates. By entering a name into a search form, the tool would scrape up to fifteen local government sites containing public information. It didn't take long to figure out maintaining this tool was a full time job. The tiniest change on one of the sites would break the whole thing. Fixing it was a tedious process that went something like this: read the logs to get an idea of which website broke the system, visit the website in my web browser, manually test the scrape process, fix the broken code and re-deploy the web application.

Typical scraper development process

A flowchart of the typical web scraper development process. Development starts at the top left and continues with manual steps: analyzing the website, reading the source code, extracting XPaths and pasting them into code. The single automated step consists of running the scraper. Because scrapers built this way are prone to breaking or extracting subtly incorrect data, the output needs to be checked after every scrape. This increases the overall maintenance requirements of operating a web scraper.

Leap forward to 2018—I was running recurring, scheduled scrapes on open government sites for several media organizations—and I was still building my scrapers the old fashioned way. The fundamental problem with these scrapers was the way they identified web page elements to interact with or extract from: XPath selectors.

To understand XPath, you need to understand that browsers "see" webpages as a hierarchical tree of elements, known as the Document Object Model (DOM)[3], starting from the topmost element. Here's an example:

    Example webpage DOM
      |             |
     head          body
      |             |
  --------     ----------
  |      |     |   |    |
title  style  h1  div footer

XPath is a language for identifying parts of a webpage by tracing the path from the top of the DOM to the specified elements. For example, to identify the button in our example DOM above, we'd start at the top html tag and work down to the button, which gives us the following XPath selector:


As you can see, the XPath selector leading to the button depends on the elements above it. So, if a web developer decides to change the layout and switches the div to something else, then our XPath—and our scraper—is broken.

I wanted a tool that would let me describe a scrape using a set of standardized options. After partnering with a few journalism organizations, I came up with three common investigative scrape patterns:

  1. Crawl a site and download documents (e.g., download all PDFs on a site).
  2. Query and grab a single result page (e.g., enter a package tracking number and get a page saying where it is).
  3. Query and save all result pages (e.g., a Google search with many results pages).

The result of this work is AutoScrape, a resilient web scraper that can perform these kinds of scrapes and survive a variety of site changes. Using a set of basic configuration options, most common journalistic scraping problems can be solved. It operates on three main principles in order to reduce the amount of maintenance required when running scrapes:

Navigate like people do.

When people use websites they look for visual cues. These are generally standardized and rarely change. For example, search forms typically have a "Search" or "Submit" button. AutoScrape takes advantage of this. Instead of collecting DOM element selectors, users only need to provide the text of pages, buttons and forms to interact with while crawling a site.

Extraction as a separate step.

Web scrapers spend most of their time interacting with sites, submitting forms and following links. Piling data extraction onto that process increases the risk of having the scraper break. For this reason, AutoScrape separates site navigation and data extraction into two separate tasks. While AutoScrape is crawling and querying a site, it saves the rendered HTML for each page visited.

Protect extraction from page changes as much as possible.

Extracting data from HTML pages typically involves taking XPaths, extracting data into columns, converting these columns of data into record rows and exporting them. In AutoScrape, we avoid this entirely by using an existing domain-specific template language for extracting JSON from HTML called Hext. Hext templates, as they're called, look a lot like HTML but include syntax for data extraction. To ease the construction of these templates, the AutoScrape system includes a Hext template builder. Users load one of the scraped pages containing data and, for a single record, click on and label each of the values in it. Once this is done, the annotated HTML of the selected record can be converted into a Hext template. JSON data extraction is then a matter of bulk processing the scraped pages with the Hext tool and template.

Hext Extraction Template Example

An example extraction of structured data from a source HTML document (left), using a simple Hext template (center) and the resulting JSON (right). If the HTML source document contained more records in place of the comment, the Hext template would have extracted them as additional JSON objects.

Hext templates are superior to the traditional XPath method of data extraction on pages that contain few class names or IDs, as is common on primitive government sites. While an XPath to an element can be broken by changes made to ancestor elements, breaking a Hext template requires changing the actual chunk of HTML that contains data.

Using AutoScrape

Here are a few examples of what various scrape configurations look like using AutoScrape. In all of these cases, we're just going to use the command line version of the tool:

Let's say you want to crawl an entire website, saving all HTML and style sheets (no screenshots):

./ \
  --maxdepth -1 \
  --output crawled_site \

In the above case, we've set the scraper to crawl infinitely deep into the site. But if you want to only archive a single webpage, grabbing both the code and a full length screenshot (PNG) for future reference, you could do this:

./ \
  --full-page-screenshots \
  --load-images \
  --maxdepth 0 \
  --save-screenshots \
  --driver Firefox \
  --output archived_webpage \

Finally, we have the real magic: interactively querying web search portals. In this example, we want AutoScrape to do a few things: load a webpage, look for a search form containing the text "SEARCH HERE", select a date (January 20, 1992) from a date picker, enter "Brandon" into an input box and then click "NEXT ->" buttons on the result pages. Such a scrape is described like this:

./ \
  --output search_query_data \
  --form-match "SEARCH HERE" \
  --input "i:0:Brandon,d:1:1992-01-20" \
  --next-match "Next ->" \

All of these commands create a folder that contains the HTML pages encountered during the scrape. The pages are categorized by the general type of page they are: pages viewed when crawling, search form pages, search result pages and downloads.

 ├── crawl_pages/
 ├── data_pages/
 ├── downloads/
 └── search_pages/

Extracting data from these HTML pages is a matter of building a Hext template and then running the extraction tool. Hext templates can either be written from scratch or by using the Hext builder web tool included with AutoScrape. This is best illustrated in the quickstart video.

Currently, I'm working with the Computational Journalism Workbench team to integrate AutoScrape into their web platform so that you won't need to use the command line at all. Until that happens, you can go to the GitHub repo to learn how to set up a graphical version of AutoScrape.

Fully Automated Scrapers and the Future

In addition to building a simple, straightforward tool for scraping websites, I had a secondary, more lofty motive for creating AutoScrape: using it as a testbed for fully automated scrapers.

Ultimately, I want to be able to hand AutoScrape a URL and have it automatically figure out what to do. Search forms contain clues about how to use them in both their source code and displayed text. This information can likely be used to by a machine learning[10] model to figure out how to search a form, opening up the possibility for fully-automated scrapers.

If you're interested in improving web scraping, or just want to chat, feel free to reach out. I'm in this for the long haul. So stay tuned.

AutoScrape Logo


Glossary of Terminology

1. Dataset A collection of machine readable records, typically from a single source. A dataset can be a single file (Excel or CSV), a database table, or a collection of documents. In machine learning, a dataset is commonly called a corpus. When the dataset is being used to train[18] a machine learning model[12], it can be called a training dataset (a.k.a. a training set). Datasets need to be transformed into a matrix[11] before they can be used by a machine learning model.

Further reading: Training, Validation and Test Sets - Wikipedia

2. Distance Function, Distance Metric A method for quantifying how dissimilar, or far apart, two records are. Euclidean distance, the simplest distance metric used, is attributed to the Ancient Greek mathematician Euclid. This distance metric finds the length of a straight line between two points, as if using a ruler. Cosine distance is another popular metric which measures the angle between two points using trigonometry.

3. Document Object Model, DOM A representation of a HTML page using a hierarchical tree. This is the way that browsers "see" web pages. As an example, we have a simple HTML page and its corresponding DOM tree:

              HTML                             DOM
<html>                           |            html
  <head>                         |              |
    <title>Example DOM</title>   |       ---------------
    <style>*{margin: 0;}</style> |       |             |
  </head>                        |      head          body
  <body>                         |       |             |
    <h1>Example Page!</h1>       |   --------     ----------
    <div>                        |   |      |     |   |    |
      <button>Save</button>      | title  style  h1  div footer
    </div>                       |                    |
    <footer>A footer</footer>    |                  button
  </body>                        |
</html>                          |

4. Feature A column in a dataset representing a specific type of values. A feature is typically represented as a variable in a machine learning model. For example, in a campaign finance dataset, a feature might be "contribution amount" or "candidate name". The number of features in a dataset determines its dimensionality. In many machine learning algorithms, high dimensional data (data with lots of features) is notoriously difficult to work with.

5. Hash A short label or string of characters identifying a piece of data. Hashes are generated by a hash function. An example of this comes from the most common use case: password hashes. Instead of storing passwords in a database for anyone to read (and steal), password hashes are stored. For example, the password "Thing99" might get turned into something like b3aca92c793ee0e9b1a9b0a5f5fc044e05140df3 by a hash function and saved in a database. When logging in, the website will hash the provided password and check it against the one in the database. A strong cryptographic hash function can't feasibly be reversed and uniquely identifies a record. In other usages, such as in_ LSH_, a hash may identify a group of similar records. Hashes are a fixed length, unlike the input data used to create them.

Further reading: "Hash Function" - Wikipedia, "MinHash for dummies", "An Introduction to Cryptographic Hash Functions" - Dev-HQ

6. k-NN, k-Nearest Neighbors An algorithm for finding the k number of most similar records to a given record, or query point. k-NN can use a variety of distance metrics[2] to measure dissimilarity, or distance_, between points. In k-NN, when _k is equal to 1, the algorithm will return the single most similar record. When k is greater than 1, the algorithm will return multiple records. A common practice is to take the similar records, average them and make educated guesses about the query point.

7. Locality Sensitive Hashing, LSH A method, similar in application to k-NN[6], for identifying similar records given a query record. LSH uses some statistical tricks like hashing[5] and projection[9] to do this as a performance optimization. Due to this, it can be used on large amounts of data. The penalty for this is that it's possible for false records to turn up in the results and, inversely, for actual similar records to be missed.

8. Preprocessing A step in data analysis that happens before any actual analysis occurs to transform the data into a specific format or to clean it. A common preprocessing task is lowercasing and stripping symbols. Vectorization[20] is a common preprocessing step found in machine learning and statistics.

9. Projection A mathematical method for taking an input vector[20] and transforming it into another dimension. Typically, this is done by taking high dimensional data (data with a large number of columns) and converting it to a lower dimension. A simple example of this would be taking a 3D coordinate and turning it into a 2D point. This is one of the key concepts behind LSH[7].

Further reading: Random Projection - Wikipedia

10. Machine Learning, ML A field of statistics and computer science focused on building or using algorithms that can perform tasks, without being told specifically how to accomplish them, by learning from data. The type of data required by the machine learning algorithm, labeled or unlabeled, splits the field into two major groups: supervised[17] and unsupervised[19], respectively. Machine learning is a subfield of Artificial Intelligence.

11. Matrix Rectangularly arranged data made up of rows and columns. In the machine learning context, every cell in a matrix is a number. The numbers in a matrix may represent a letter, number or category.

          Example m-by-n matrix (2x3)

      n columns (3)
   m | 11.347271944951725 | 2203 | 2.0 | <- row vector
rows |--------------------+------+-----|
 (2) | 9.411296351528783  | 1867 | 1.0 |
           This is element (2,1)

Each row, which represents a single record, is known as a vector[20]. The process of turning source data into a matrix is known as vectorization.

12. Model, Statistical Model A collection of assumptions that a machine learning algorithm has learned from a dataset. Fundamentally, a model consists of numbers, known as weights, that can be be plugged into a machine learning algorithm. We use models to get data out of machine learning algorithms.

13. Outlier Detection A method for identifying records that are out of place in the context of a dataset. These outlying data points can be thought of as strange, suspicious, fraudulent, rare, unique, etc. Outlier detection is a major subfield of machine learning with applications in fraud detection, quality assurance and alert systems.

14. Regression A statistical method for identifying relationships among the features[4] in a dataset.

15. Scraping, Web Scraping The process of loading a web page, extracting information and collecting it into a specific structure (a database, spreadsheet, etc). Typically web scraping is done automatically with a program, or tool, known as a web scraper.

16. String A piece of data, arranged sequentially, made up of letters, numbers or symbols. Technically speaking, computers represent everything as numbers, but they are converted to letters when needed. Numbers, words, sentences, paragraphs and even entire documents can be represented as strings.

17. Supervised Machine Learning, Supervised Learning A subfield of machine learning where algorithms learn to predict values or categories from human-labeled data. Examples of supervised machine learning problems: (1) predicting the temperature of a future day using a dataset of historical weather readings and (2) classifying emails by whether or not they are spam from a set of categorized emails. The goal of supervised machine learning is to learn from one dataset and then make accurate predictions on new data (this is known as generalization).

18. Training The process of feeding a statistical or machine learning algorithm data for the purpose of learning to predict, identifying structure, or extracting knowledge. As an example, consider a list of legitimate campaign contributions. Once an algorithm has been shown this data, it generates a model[12] representing how these contributions typically look. This model can be used to spot unusual contributions, since the model has learned what normal ones look like. There are many different methods for training models, but most of them are iterative, step-based procedures that slowly improve over time. A common analogy for how models are trained is hill climbing: knowing that a flat area (a good solution) is at the top of a hill, but only being able to see a short distance due to thick fog, the top can be found by following steep paths. Training is also known as model fitting.

19. Unsupervised Machine Learning, Unsupervised Learning A subfield of machine learning where algorithms learn to identify the structure or find patterns within a dataset. Unsupervised algorithms don't require human labeling or organization, and therefore can be used on a wide variety of datasets and in many situations. Examples of unsupervised use cases: (1) discovering natural groups of records in a dataset, (2) finding similar documents in a dataset and (3) identifying the way that events normally occur and using this to detect unusual events (a.k.a. outlier detection and anomaly detection[13]).

20. Vectorization, Vector The process of turning a raw source dataset into a numerical matrix[11]. Each record becomes a row of the matrix, known as a vector.

21. Weight A number that is used to either increase or decrease the importance of a feature[4]. Weights are used in supervised machine learning to quantify how well one variable predicts another; in unsupervised learning, weights are used to emphasize features that segment a dataset into groups.

22. XPath A description of the location of an element on a web page. From the browser's perspective, a web page is represented as a hierarchical tree known as the Document Object Model (DOM)[3]. An XPath selector describes a route through this tree that leads to a specific part of the page.