Posts Tagged ‘python’

How we built a search engine for UK MP tweets with Solr, Python & StanfordNLP

Matt Pearce writes:

We recently released UKMP, a search application built on work done on last year’s Enterprise Search hack day. This presents the tweets of UK Members of Parliament with search options including filtering by party, retweet and favourite count, and entities (people, locations and organisations) extracted from the tweet text. This is obviously its first incarnation, so there are still a number of features in development, but I thought I would comment on some of the decisions taken while developing the site.

I started off by deciding which bits of the hack day code would be most useful, from both the Solr set-up side and the web application we were hoping to build. During the hack day, the group had split into a number of smaller teams, with two of them working on a set of data downloaded from Twitter, containing the original set of UK MP tweets. I took the basic Solr setup and indexing code from one group, and the initial web application from the other.

Obviously we couldn’t work with a completely static data set, so I set about putting together a Python script to grab the tweets. This was where I met the first hurdle: I was trying to grab tweets from individual MPs’ feeds, but kept getting blocked by the Twitter API, even though I didn’t think I was over-stepping the limits set on the calls. With 200-plus MPs to track, a different approach would be required to avoid being blocked. Eventually, I took a different approach, and started using the lists compiled by Tweetminster, who track politicians tweets themselves. This worked much better, and I could soon start building a useful data set.

I chose the second group’s web application because it already used the Stanford NLP software to extract entities from the tweet text. The indexer script, also written in Python, calls the web app to extract the entities before indexing the tweets. We spent some time trying to incorporate the Stanford sentiment analysis as well, but found it wasn’t practical – the response time was too slow, and we didn’t have time to train the dataset to provide a more useful analysis of the content (almost all tweets were rated as either “negative” or “neutral”, which didn’t accurately reflect the sentiments in the data).

Since this was an entirely new project, and because it was being done outside the main client workflow, I took the opportunity to try out AngularJS, an MVC-oriented JavaScript front-end framework. This runs on top of, and calls back to, the DropWizard web application, which provides the Model part of the Model-View-Controller system. AngularJS itself provides the Controller, while the Views are all written in fairly standard HTML, with some AngularJS frosting to fill in the content.

AngularJS itself generally made development very easy and fast, and I was pleased by how little JavaScript I had to write to build a working application (there is also a Bootstrap crossover module, providing AngularJS directives to work with the UI layout tools Bootstrap provides). As a small site, there are only two controllers in play: one for each page. AngularJS also makes it very easy to plug in other script modules, such as that used to generate the word cloud on the About page. However, I did come across a few sticking points as I built the app, as one might expect from a first-time user. The principle one was handling the search box at the top of the page, which had to be independent of the view while needing to modify it to display the search results. I am still not sure that I ended up with the best approach – the search form fires an event when submitted, which then percolates up the AngularJS control hierarchy until caught and dealt with: within the search page, the search is handled normally; from other pages, we redirect to the search page and pass in the term. It doesn’t feel as smooth as it should do, which is why I remain unconvinced this is the best solution.

All in all, this was an interesting sideline project, and provided a good excuse to try out some new technology. The code itself, along with some notes on how to get the system up and running, is in our github repository – feel free to try it out, and make suggestions for improvements or better ways to use the code.

Cambridge Search Meetup – a night of crawling and scraping

Last night was the busiest ever Cambridge Search Meetup, with two excellent talks and a lot of discussion and networking. First was Harry Waye of Arachnys, who provide access to data on emerging markets that no-one else has using a variety of custom crawling technology and heavy use of tools such Google Translate. If you want to trawl the Greek corporate registry or find out financial news from Kazakhstan a standard Google search is little help: Harry talked about how Arachnys have experimented with Google Custom Search Engine and the ‘headless browser’ PhantomJS to crawl sites.

Our second talk was from Shane Evans, who I first met when he led software development for our client Mydeco. While there he first worked on the development of an open source Python crawling framework, Scrapy: Shane showed how easy it is to get a Scrapy web spider running in a few lines of code, and how extensible and customisable Scrapy is for a huge variety of crawling and scraping situations. There’s even a fully hosted version at Scrapinghub with graphical tools for setting up web crawling and page scraping. We’re big fans of Scrapy at Flax and we’ve used it in a number of projects, so it was good to see an overview of why Scrapy exists and how it can be used.

Thanks to both our speakers who both travelled from out of town as did several other attendees: we’re pleased to say this was our 15th Meetup and we now have 100 members – we’re already planning further events, one will be on the evening of the first day of the Enterprise Search Europe conference.

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Posted in Technical, events

February 22nd, 2013

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Open source search engines and programming languages

So you’re writing a search-related application in your favourite language, and you’ve decided to choose an open source search engine to power it. So far, so good – but how are the two going to communicate?

Let’s look at two engines, Xapian and Lucene, and compare how this might be done. Lucene is written in Java, Xapian in C/C++ – so if you’re using those languages respectively, everything should be relatively simple – just download the source code and get on with it. However if this isn’t the case, you’re going to have to work out how to interface to the engine.

The Lucene project has been rewritten in several other languages: for C/C++ there’s Lucy (which includes Perl and Ruby bindings), for Python there’s PyLucene, and there’s even a .Net version called, not surprisingly, Lucene.NET. Some of these ‘ports’ of Lucene are ‘looser’ than others (i.e. they may not share the same API or feature set), and they may not be updated as often as Lucene itself. There are also versions in Perl, Ruby, Delphi or even Lisp (scary!) – there’s a full list available. Not all are currently active projects.

Xapian takes a different approach, with only one core project, but a sheaf of bindings to other languages. Currently these bindings cover C#, Java, Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby and Tcl – but interestingly these are auto-generated using the Simplified Wrapper and Interface Generator or SWIG. This means that every time Xapian’s API changes, the bindings can easily be updated to reflect this (it’s actually not quite that simple, but SWIG copes with the vast majority of code that would otherwise have to be manually edited). SWIG actually supports other languages as well (according to the SWIG website, “Common Lisp (CLISP, Allegro CL, CFFI, UFFI), Lua, Modula-3, OCAML, Octave and R. Also several interpreted and compiled Scheme implementations (Guile, MzScheme, Chicken)”) so in theory bindings to these could also be built relatively easily.

There’s also another way to communicate with both engines, using a search server. SOLR is the search server for Lucene, whereas for Xapian there is Flax Search Service. In this case, any language that supports Web Services (you’d be hard pressed to find a modern language that doesn’t) can communicate with the engine, simply passing data over the HTTP protocol.

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Posted in Technical

September 3rd, 2010

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flax.crawler arrives

We’ve recently uploaded a new crawler framework to the Flax code repository. This is designed for use from Python to build a web crawler for your project. It’s multithreaded and simple to use, here’s a minimal example:

import crawler

crawler.dump = MyContentDumperImplementation()

Note that you can provide your own implementation of various parts of the crawler – and you must at least provide a ‘content dumper’ to store whatever the crawler finds and downloads.

We’ve also included a reference implementation, a working crawler that stores URLs and downloaded content in a SQLite3 database.

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Posted in Technical

August 2nd, 2010

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flax.core 0.1 available

Charlie wrote previously that we try and work with flexible, lightweight frameworks: flax.core is a Python library for conveniently adding functionality to Xapian projects. The current (and first!) version is 0.1, which can be checked out from the flaxcode repository. This version supports named fields for indexing and search (no need to deal with prefixes or value numbers), facets, simplified query construction, and an optional action-oriented indexing framework.

Unlike Xappy, flax.core makes no attempt to abstract or hide the Xapian API, and is therefore aimed at a rather different audience. The reason is our observation that “interesting” search applications often require customisation at the Xapian API level, for example bespoke MatchDeciders, PostingSources or Sorters. Rather than having to dive in and modify the flax.core code, these application-specific modifications can happily co-exist with the unmodified flax.core (at least, this is the intention). It is also intended that flax.core remains minimal enough to easily port to other languages such as PHP or Java.

The primary flax.core class is Fieldmap, which associates a set of named fields with a Xapian database. As an example, the following code sets up a simple structure of one ‘freetext’ and one ‘filter’ field:

    import xapian
    import flax.core

    db = xapian.WritableDatabase('db', xapian.DB_CREATE)
    fm = flax.core.Fieldmap()
    fm.language = 'en'              # stem for English
    fm.setfield('mytext', False)      # freetext field
    fm.setfield('mydate', True)       # filter field

and this code indexes some text and a datetime:

    doc = fm.document()
    doc.index('mytext', "I don't like spam.")
    doc.index('mydate', datetime(2010, 2, 3, 12, 0))
    fm.add_document(db, doc)

Fields can be of type string, int, float or datetime. These are handled automatically, and are not tied to fieldnames (so it would be possible to have field instances of different types, not that this is a good idea).

Indexing can also be performed by the Action framework. In this case, a text file contains a list of:

  • external identifiers (such as XPaths,  SQL column name etc)
  • flax fieldname
  • indexing actions

For example, an actions file for XML might look like this:

        author: filter(facet)
        author2: index(default)

        published: numeric

This means that ‘Author’ metadata elements are indexed as two flax fields: ‘author’ is a filter field which stores facet values, while ‘author2′ is a freetext field which is searchable by default. ‘Year’ metadata elements are indexed as the flax field ‘published’, which is numeric.

The flaxcode repository contains two example flax.core applications here:


One is an XML indexer implemented in less than 100 lines, the other is a minimal web search application in a similar number of lines. Currently there is no documentation other than these examples and the docstrings in flax.core. If anyone needs some, I’ll put some together.

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Posted in Technical

June 24th, 2010

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Packaged solutions and customisability, the Python way

With any large scale software installation, there is going to be some customisation and tweaking necessary, and enterprise search systems are no exception. Whatever features are packaged with a system, some of those you need will be missing and some won’t be used at all. It’s rare to see a situation where the search engine can just be installed straight out of the box.

Our Flax system is based on the Xapian core, which has a set of bindings to various different languages including Perl, Python, PHP, Java, Ruby, C# and even TCL, which makes integration with systems where a particular language is preferred relatively easy. However for the Flax layer itself (comprising file filters, indexers, crawlers, front ends, administration tools etc. – the ‘toolkit’ for building a complete search system) we chose Python, for much the same reasons as the Ultraseek developers did back in 2003.

The flexibility of Python means we can add any missing features very fast, and create complete new systems in a matter of days – for example, often a complete indexer can be created in less than 50 lines of code, by re-using existing components and taking advantage of the many Python modules available (such as XML parsers). Our open source approach also means that solutions we create for one customer can often be repurposed and adapted for another – which again makes for very short development cycles. Python is also available on a wide variety of platforms.

We’re not alone in our preference for Python of course!

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Posted in Technical

June 14th, 2010

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Python and Flax presentation

My colleague Richard Boulton will be presenting at Europython in Birmingham, U.K. next week, specifically at 15.30 on Tuesday 30th June – an abstract is available. He’ll be talking about Xapian, Xappy and Flax, and showing examples of these in action including one using a Django integration layer.

Update: you can now download the slides for Richard’s talk in OpenOffice format.

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Posted in Uncategorized

June 25th, 2009

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