Two projects for civic-minded student programmers

One of the key findings of the elmcity project, so far, is that there’s a lot of calendar information online, but very little in machine-readable form. Transforming this implicit data about public events into explicit data is an important challenge. I’ve been invited to define the problem, for students who may want to tackle it as a school project. Here are the two major aspects I’ve identified.

A general scraper for calendar-like web pages

There are zillions of calendar-like web pages, like this one for Harlow’s Pub in Peterborough, NH. These ideally ought to be maintained using calendar programs that publish machine-readable iCalendar feeds which are also transformed and styled to create human-readable web pages. But that doesn’t (yet) commonly happen.

These web pages are, however, often amenable to scraping. And for a while, elmcity curators were making very effective use of FuseCal (1, 2, 3) to transform these kinds of pages into iCalendar feeds.

When that service shut down, I retained a list of the pages that elmcity curators were successfully transforming into iCalendar feeds using FuseCal. These are test cases for an HTML-to-iCalendar service. Anyone who’s handy with scraping libraries like Beautiful Soup can solve these individually. The challenge here is to create, by abstraction and generalization, an engine that can handle a significant swath of these cases.

A hybrid system for finding implicit recurring events and making them explicit

Lots of implicit calendar data online doesn’t even pretend to be calendar-like, and cannot be harvested using a scraper. Finding one-off events in this category is out of scope for my project. But finding recurring events seems promising. The singular effort required to publish one of these will pay ongoing dividends.

It’s helpful that the language people use to describe these events — “every Tuesday”, “third Saturday of every month” — is distinctive. To being exploring this domain, I wrote a specialized search robot that looks for these patterns, in conjunction with names of places. Its output is available for all the cities and towns participating in the elmcity project. For example, this page is the output for Keene, NH. It includes more than 2000 links to web pages — or, quite often, PDF files — some fraction of which represent recurring events.

In Finding and connecting social capital I showed a couple of cases where the pages found this way did, in fact, represent recurring events that could be added to an iCalendar feed.

To a computer scientist this looks like a problem that you might solve using a natural language parser. And I think it is partly that, but only partly. Let’s look at another example:

At first glance, this looks hopeful:

First Monday of each month: Dads Group, 105 Castle Street, Keene NH

But the real world is almost always messier than that. For starters, that image comes from the Monadnock Men’s Resource Center’s Fall 2004 newsletter. So before I add this to a calendar, I’ll want to confirm the information. The newsletter is hosted at the MMRC site. Investigation yields these observations:

  • The most recent issue of the newsletter was Winter ’06

  • The last-modified date of the MMRC home page is September 2008

  • As of that date, the Dads Group still seems to have been active, under a slightly different name: Parent Outreach Project, DadTime Program, 355-3082

  • There’s no email address, only a phone number.

So I called the number, left a message, and will soon know the current status.

What kind of software-based system can help us scale this gnarly process? There is an algorithmic solution, surely, but it will need to operate in a hybrid environment. The initial search-driven discovery of candidate events can be done by an automated parser tuned for this domain. But the verification of candidates will need to be done by human volunteers, assisted by software that helps them:

  • Divide long lists of candidates into smaller batches

  • Work in parallel on those batches

  • Evaluate the age and provenance of candidates

  • Verify or disqualify candidates based on discoverable evidence, if possible

  • Otherwise, find appropriate email addresses (preferably) or phone numbers, and manage the back-and-forth communication required to verify or disqualify a candidate

  • Refer event sponsors to a calendar publishing how-to, and invite them to create data feeds that can reliably syndicate

Students endowed with the geek gene are likely to gravitate toward the first problem because it’s cleaner. But I hope I can also attract interest in the second problem. We really need people who can hack that kind of real-world messiness.

5 thoughts on “Two projects for civic-minded student programmers

  1. Pingback: More Information on ElmCity « Canada Undergraduate Capstone Projects

  2. Mike Caulfield

    I’m going to send this to our new Experiential Learning Director when they arrive, and see if we can get this on a slate of projects to pitch to faculty. I think calendaring in general could make an interesting course for a group of students — from what you’ve detailed in this space (and from my own personal experience) there is a semester’s worth of material/projects one could do.

  3. Pingback: Elmcity: Reviewing the first meeting « Sarah Strong

  4. Pingback: TransGlobe: Taking Part in Civic Life | 201 Street

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