Category Archives: Web Development

Getting Rid of XML markup with Regular Expressions

After I had found that the croudsourced xml markup was not very helpful and even made over 10% of my 850 letters not parse with the lxml library, I experimented with regular expressions. I find the Python re library fairly easy to use and very hand. When it comes to regular expression and Python there are many, many tutorials online. The documentation on the Python website is (like always) a good starting point, because it gives an overview over modules functions and how to use them. I found also the Google Developers Tutorial a good read. For a longer introduction with case studies and also critical remarks on when not to use regular expressions, and performance issues see Dive into Python.

For my purposes the following code worked quite well:

pat = "<[/\w\d\s\"\'=]+>|<!--[/\w\d\s\"\'=.,-]+-->"
expr = re.compile(pat)
for letter in letters:

XML Encoding of Letters

The Letters of 1916 project is a crowdsourcing Digital Scholarly Editing project, and the transcribers are encouraged to mark up the letter transcriptions with TEI/XML tags. The TEI markup should eventually be used to identify features such as line breaks, titles and headers, but also names of people, organisations and places. Because it is assumed that most of the transcribers do not have previous experience with TEI or XML an editor with a toolbar is part of the transcription interface to guide the transcriber to use the correct TEI elements.
One of my first tasks was to have a look at the crowdsourced transcriptions and find out to what extend they were transcribed. It was interesting to find that there was a lot of markup in place. My replacement function counted 7395 start-tags, end-tags, and XML comments. If this is however related to the 166149 word tokens of the letters, the amount of encoded text does not seem so much anymore. The numbers can not be directly related, but if we assume that at least every 10 words there could be a line-break we get a quote of about 45% markup. Again this is highly speculative, because close investigation of individual letters shows that some are very detailed encoded (using the TEI del-element, add-element, line-break element, hi element and others), while other contain no tags at all.
The next step was to test if the transcriptions were well-formed XML and could be parsed with one of pythons libraries. I used the lxml library for this task, and found that over 40% of the letters would through a XMLSyntaxError. In most cases this was due to the use of ‘&’ instead of the entity ‘&’. After I had dealt with this problem by replacing all ‘&’ before trying to parse the transcription strings to xml, I still counted about 100 XMLSyntaxError out of 850 letters. In most of the cases this was due to not well-formed XML, opening-tags without closing-tags or (less common) overlapping elements.

XML Processing with Python

As the Letters of 1916 is a crowdsourced project the transcriptions of the letters contain irregular xml markup and in some cases not well-formed xml. At first I thought that I might be able to use the xml markup for my analysis, but the inconsistent quality of encoding makes this a useless attempt (see also my previous post).

Python has a number of libraries for XML-processing (a list including also libraries that are not par of the standard library is available here). The most popular ones are xml.etree, xml.dom, and xml.sax, which are all part of the Python standard library. I decided to use the lxml library, which has a similar API as xml.etree and was therefore easy enough to use. The library is pretty quick thanks to the underlying C libraries libxml2 and libxslt and it has limited support for XPath 1.0 and XSLT 1.0.

Because of the XPath support to get all the text out of a XML encoded document is as easy as:

for letter in letters:
    root = etree.fromstring(letter) 
    text_lst = root.xpath(".//text()") 
# The result is a list of text nodes that can be combined with " ".join() 

The problem however was that a good deal of what was supposed to be xml or plain text was in reality not well-formed xml (I discussed this in another post). To find out how many of the letters would not parse, I made the following changes:

for letter in letters:
    syntaxErr = 0
        root = etree.fromstring(letter)
        text_lst = root.xpath(".//text()")    
    except etree.XMLSyntaxError:
        syntaxErr += 1

To remove xml markup from the letter transcriptions was because of the numerous syntax errors in the transcriptions not possible. I found eventually regular expressions the best solution for this task.

lxml and shelve

As described in a previous post I use shelve a pickle based python module to serialize my letter objects so they do not have to stay in memory and can be cashed to increase performance. The problem that I encountered is that pickle does not like lxml objects. The problem is also described by other people here:

So, the easiest for me was to switch back to strings and instead to pickle lxml objects, I pickle an xml string and an object method on my custumn letter object that transforms the string into an lxml _Element object.

Technology behind The Letters of 1916 project

The Letters of 1916 project is a crowd-sourcing project and follows a very similar approach as the famous UCL Transcribe Bentham. The website is a based on a number of different technologies. A WordPress blog is used for the homepage, description and project detail pages. For the letter upload, display and transcription functionality Omeka is used with Scripto plugin and MediaWiki at the back-end. The Transcription interface is based on the DIYHistory project of the University of Iowa and uses the Transcription Toolbar from the Transcribe Bentham project. The website was developed and maintained by the team of Trinity College Dublin High Performance Computing, especially Juliusz Filipowski, Paddy Doyle and Dermot Frost, and designed by Karolina Badzmierowska, PhD candidate in the Digital Arts and Humanities at Trinity College Dublin.