Sean Warlick

5 minute read

Introduction {#introduction}

In my recent post Learning Python, I promised an article about using python to gather data from web APIs. I was in the midst of building several functions to gather and clean real estate data from Trulia, when I received an email announcing that they were shutting down the API. While it did bring that project to an end, it did inspire me to resume a project to analyze college swimming meet results that had been long abandoned.

The first step in the project was to gather the meet results in an automated way from a unified source. While there are many sources that have college swimming results, Swimming World, SwimSwam and, to name a few, none of them have a complete list of all results. In addition, the results are often stored as a PDF, making the data difficult to extract. The only complete source of college swimming results is available at USA Swimming.

While USA Swimming has all the college swimming results, they are not easy to access. There is no API available, so I needed to rely on their Top Times Report. Unfortunately this form makes it hard to automate the data collection. You have to fill out a search form each time you want to get results and the results are limited to the top 500 swimming times in each meet event. The default format of the results is a PDF, though you can change it to a CSV after you get the results back.

Selenium {#selenium}

The solution to my problems is a tool called Selenium and it’s R implementation RSelenium. Though designed to do automated web testing, RSelenium can facilitate gathering data from the web. The package allows the programmer to drive a web browser from an R script. It allows the user to send mouse clicks and keyboard input to the website. While it does require the user to look at the underlying html to identify objects on the webpage, RSelenium is fairly straightforward to use.

Starting Selenium Server

For this example, we will be using a Selenium Standalone Server, so we can drive our browser locally. While running a Docker container is the suggested method of running Selenium server, we need to run a local server so that we download and access the data. In this example, I am running Selenium Standalone Server version 2.53.1 (Click Here to Download) and using Firefox version 46.0.1. Not all combinations of Firefox and Selenium Server play nicely together.

To start the Selenium server, we need to utilize the command line. After navigating to the folder where you have saved the Selenium server, to start the server, type the command below. The -port 4400 is optional; by default Selenium listens for connections on port 4444. To keep the server running, we need to leave the console open.

java -jar selenium-standalone-server.2.53.1.jar -port 4440

Firefox Profile

Since Selenium is primarily designed to automate website testing, it does not handle the downloading of files in Firefox automatically. To handle the downloading of the CSV file we will generate from the top times report we need to set up a Firefox profile.

# Library Load

# Set Filepath for download location
downloadPath <- "~/Downloads"

# Build Firefox Profile. 
fprof <- makeFirefoxProfile(list( = 2L,  = FALSE, = downloadPath,
        browser.helperApps.neverAsk.openFile = "application/excel",
        browser.helperApps.neverAsk.saveToDisk = "application/excel",
        browser.helperApps.alwaysAsk.force = FALSE, = FALSE, = TRUE )

Starting A Broswer

Now we are almost ready to start navigating the web from our R script. First we are going to create a Remote Driver. The remote driver will be the key component that we come back to time and time again to navigate the Top Times report form.

# Set Website URL
url <- ""

# Create Remote Driver Object
remDr <- remoteDriver(remoteServerAddr = 'localhost', 
                      port = 4440, 
                      browser = "firefox", 
                      extraCapabilities = fprof)

# Open Browser & Navigate to Webpage.
remDr$open(silent = TRUE)

Interacting With the Report Form

Now that we are on the desired website, we can start sending information to various parts of the search form. To do this, we need to tell the remote driver what elements of the form we want to interact with. We do this by providing the html tag IDs to remDr$findElement(). You can find the correct IDs by using Firefox’s inspector.

# Make Sure Indivual Times are Selected  
time_type <- remDr$findElement(using = "id", value = "ctl82_rbIndividual")

# Turn Off Long Course and Short Course Meter times
lcm <- remDr$findElement(using = "id", value = "ctl82_cblCourses_0")

scm <- remDr$findElement(using = "id", value = "ctl82_cblCourses_1")

# Trun off altitude adjustment
altitude <- remDr$findElement(using = "id", value = "ctl82_cbUseAltitudeAdjTime")

# Submit report search
search <- remDr$findElement(using = "id", value = "ctl82_btnCreateReport")

Downloading the Data

Now the above code made all of our desired selections in the Top Times report and submitted our criteria. By default, the page returns a PDF, but once the report is returned we can select a CSV file. After selecting the CSV, a download dialog will open, but Selenium cannot interact with it, which is why we set up the Firefox profile above. After downloading the CSV, the browser can be closed and the server shutdown.


# Change The Output To CSV & Save!
output_select <- remDr$findElement(using = "id", 
                                value = "ctl82_ucReportViewer_ddViewerType")

output_select$sendKeysToElement(list("E", "E", "E"))
change_output <- remDr$findElement(using = "id", 
                            value = "ctl82_ucReportViewer_lbChangeOutputType" )

Sys.sleep(5) # Need to pause to get the export click to work

Sys.sleep(10) # Give Time for Down Load

Conclusion {#conclusion}

RSelenium is a capable and relatively easy to use tool to facilitate grabbing data from the web. If you would like to watch the code from this article execute in real time you can click the image below. In addition, you can find the example code from this article in a standalone R script at Github. The repository also has the R markdown document used to create this post.