Henare here from the OpenAustralia Foundation – Australia’s open data, open government and civic hacking charity. You might have heard that we were planning to have a hackfest here in Sydney last weekend. We decided to focus on writing new scrapers to add councils to our PlanningAlerts project that allows you to find out what is being built or knocked down in your local community. During the two afternoons over the weekend seven of us were able to write nineteen new scrapers, which covers an additional 1,823,124 Australians – a huge result.
There are a number of reasons why we chose to work on new scrapers for PlanningAlerts. ScraperWiki lowers the barrier of entry for new contributors by allowing them to get up and running quickly with no setup – just visit a web page. New scrapers are also relatively quick to write which is perfect for a hackfest over the weekend. And finally, because we have a number of working examples and ScraperWiki’s documentation, it’s conceivable that someone with no programming experience can come along and get started.
It’s also easy to support people writing scrapers in different programming languages using ScraperWiki. PlanningAlerts has always allowed people to write scrapers in whatever language they choose by using an intermediate XML format. With ScraperWiki this is even simpler because as far as our application is concerned it’s just a ScraperWiki scraper – it doesn’t even know what language the original scraper was written in.
Once someone has written a new scraper and formatted the data according to our needs, it’s a simple process for us to add it to our site. All they need to do is let us know, we add it to our list of planning authorities and then we automatically start to ask for the data daily using the ScraperWiki API.
Another issue is maintenance of these scrapers after the hackfest is over. Lots of volunteers only have the time to write a single scraper, maybe to support their local community. What happens when there’s an issue with that scraper but they’ve moved on? With ScraperWiki anyone can now pick up where they left off and fix the scraper – all without us ever having to get involved.
It was a really fun weekend and hopefully we’ll be doing this again some time. If you’ve got friends or family in Australia, don’t forget to tell them to sign up for PlanningAlerts.
OpenAustralia Foundation volunteer