Aggregating data with Portia

Itsy, Bitsy Spider

Article from Issue 169/2014

Are you interested in retrieving stock quotes in machine-readable form off the Internet? No problem: After a few mouse clicks, Portia weaves a command line and wraps the data in JSON format.

The Internet is a treasure trove of useful information, often residing on colorful HTML pages that are not easily extracted and processed. If you want to automate processing of current stock quotes or aggregate news, for example, you need to dismantle the HTML code of news portals such as CNN or Slashdot. This can be pretty ugly work.

Portia, a tool written in Python [1], promises a remedy; its name also refers to a genus of spiders, which would seem to make sense on the World Wide Web. The tool consists of a web application that, with a simple click, allows a user to select stock quotes, messages, and any other desired content. Portia then extracts this data and outputs it in JSON format.

Supported by a supplied web crawler, Portia can also ransack complete websites. As an example, if you need the headings from all Wikipedia articles, you show Portia exactly once where the headline resides on a Wikipedia page. The crawler then traverses the entire website and returns all matching headings in JSON format (see the "Warning" box for more information).


Data on third-party websites is typically copyright-protected. Developers should thus first obtain approval to add the information and text to their own projects.

Querying the data also generates a continuous load: The more subpages a website contains, the longer Portia will draw on the external web server. Its owner is likely to be anything but pleased about this and may turn to countermeasures in the worst case.

Spider's Web

Portia requires Python version 2.7, a C compiler, Git, the package with virtualenv, and the developer packages for libffi, libxml2, libxslt, libssl, and Python. On Ubuntu, the following command-line monster installs everything you need:

sudo apt-get install python-virtualenv python-dev \
  libffi-dev libxml2-dev libxslt1-dev libssl-dev git

Users can now retrieve the source code from GitHub:

git clone

Portia consists of several individual parts: Slyd provides the web application itself. Its partner in crime, Slybot, is a crawler, which loops through the selected web pages and harvests the desired information. To do so, Slybot draws on the services of Scrapy [2]. Slyd in turn delivers its pages via Twisted [3].

The commands in Listing 1 install all the components. The first line creates a virtual Python environment, and the second enables it. In this way, the Python components retroactively installed in the last line do not mix with those from your distribution.

Listing 1

Installing Required Python Components


If the installation completes without error, you can then launch Slyd:

twistd -n slyd

The command is spelled correctly  – twistd is the Twisted daemon.

In the Vise

If you now go to http://localhost:9001/static/main.html in your browser, the page shown in Figure 1 appears. Portia currently only supports Chrome and Firefox; the developers recommend Chrome.

Figure 1: The web application is quite clear-cut when first accessed.

Start by typing the URL of the page you want to tap in the search box at the top. After clicking on Start, Portia loads the page and displays it in the larger panel below. This may take a few seconds and may not work with some websites: For example, Portia refused to load the Linux Magazine site in our lab. If the desired page appears, Portia restricts your navigation options. On Wikipedia, for example, the web application disables the search function, but the links still work.

Next, you need to select the desired information. To do so, click on Annotate this page at the top. Portia now changes to selection mode: When you hover over an element on the page that can be cut out, Portia highlights it in blue. The HTML code appears in the black box at the top left.

The window shown in Figure 2 appears after clicking on the blue area. In the left drop-down list, you set the HTML attribute whose content you want to grab later on. For example, Content would provide the content of the HTML element; thus, you would choose Heading for the heading.

Figure 2: If you want to assign content to a field, you need a steady hand: Once the mouse leaves the black box, Portia immediately hides the box.


Next, select Create new below To Field. This opens another window, in which you can define the field's name and data type later on in the JSON data. The available options are the usual suspects: numbers and text, for example. Then, click on the green check mark to return to the previous screen. Follow the same steps to select all the other required data. Select Continue browsing to switch back to normal mode. Show items tells Portia to show you all the previously extracted data once again.

Starting with the currently loaded page, Slybot now follows all the links, cuts out the selected information, and delivers it back to you. As the master over the crawler, you can configure this behavior in the settings that are revealed by clicking on the gray triangle at the right edge of the page.

The Initialize slider lets you add more Internet sites to your project. To do this, simply type the URL in the empty box and then click the plus sign; a click on the URL opens the corresponding page in the main panel. When you get there, you can then select more areas to grab. If one of the sites uses password protection, just check the Perform login box and then type in the login data.

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