Monday, November 02, 2020

Web: Data Tables Can Be More Than Screen-Deep

Web: Data Tables Can Be More Than Screen-Deep

1 Executive Summary

A few years ago, layout tables made speaking Web content difficult; that phase has now morphed into an even more horrifying soup of div and span tags styled by CSS. This also means that now, if you encounter a table element, it likely contains some useful data; also, deeply nested tables are beginning to feel like a thing of the past.

Sadly, this has not made getting data out of HTML tables any easier. A combination of badly created markup, many redundant DOM nodes that exist purely for enabling DOM scripting, and heavy-weight DOM structures that result from code-generation have mostly created a different, but equally appalling situation .

One of the primary reasons to do everything in a rich end-user environment like Emacs is the ability to share data across tasks and being able to manipulate data as data, rather than working with that data's underlying visual representation. Emacs can now render Web documents that are content focused, so the next immediate desire is to be able to extract data in a useful form from EWW rendered pages. This article describes one simple approach that lets me turn HTML tables found in the wild into a coherent tabular data structure that I can access meaningfully via emacspeak to obtain multiple spoken views of the data.

2 Initial Approach That Failed

I first tried to see if I could make EWW annotate the rendered table data with text properties — sadly that proved impossible to do in the current implementation. Note however that Emacspeak does use text properties to provide access to other aspects of HTML document structure such as section headers, and moving through the rendered tables in an EWW buffer.

3 Ensuring That EWW Rendered Tables Are More than Screen-Deep

I implemented the approach described below a couple of weeks ago and it appears to work well barring a few known limitations.

  1. I advice EWW to store a pointer to the Table DOM in the EWW buffer.
  2. I defined a function that converts the DOM nodes from the table-dom into a two-dimensional vector.
  3. I then pass this structure to Emacspeak's Table-UI module to obtain a browsable two-dimensional structure.
  4. Module emacspeak-table-ui enables the user to obtain multiple spoken views of the tabular data.

See the following sections for details on each of these steps.

3.1 Storing A Pointer To The Table-DOM

(defadvice shr-tag-table-1 (around emacspeak pre act comp) 
  "Cache pointer to table dom as a text property"
  (let ((table-dom (ad-get-arg 0))
        (start (point)))
    (unless (get-text-property start 'table-dom)
      (put-text-property start (point)
                         'table-dom table-dom))

This advice stores a pointer to the DOM of the table being rendered over the region containing the rendering.

3.2 Generate A Tabular Structure From The Dom

Function emacspeak-eww-table-table generates a two-dimensional vector that encaspulates the tabular data.

(defun emacspeak-eww-table-table ()
  "Return table cells as a table, a 2d structure."
  (let* ((data nil)
         (table (get-text-property (point) 'table-dom))
         (head (dom-by-tag table 'th)))
    (cl-assert table t "No table here.")
    (setq data
           for r in (dom-by-tag table 'tr) collect
            for c in
             (dom-by-tag r 'th)
             (dom-by-tag r 'td))
            (string-trim (dom-node-as-text c)))))
    ;;; handle head case differently:
    (if head
        (apply #'vector (mapcar #'vconcat  (cdr data)))
      (apply #'vector (mapcar #'vconcat  data)))))

The above code handles the case where there are header (i.e., th) cells specially to avoid a bug where we get two copies of the data. The nested loops generates a list of lists, and the final call turns this into a two-dimensional vector.

3.3 Browsing Tables As Data

Interactive command emacspeak-eww-table-data (bound to C-t) takes the table at point, i.e. when point is anywhere within a table rendering, and creates a browsable table buffer as implemented by module emacspeak-table-ui.

(defun emacspeak-eww-table-data ()
  "View  table at point as a data table using Emacspeak Table UI."
  (let ((data (emacspeak-eww-table-table))
        (data-table nil)
        (inhibit-read-only  t)
          (format  "Table: %s" (emacspeak-eww-current-title)))))
    (setq data-table (emacspeak-table-make-table data))
      (emacspeak-table-prepare-table-buffer data-table buffer)))

The two-dimensional vector described earlier is now converted to a tabular structure as expected by module emacspeak-table-ui, the primary difference being that this structure explicitly captures row and column headers.

3.4 Browsing The Tabular Data

Emacspeak's Table UI allows one to:

  1. Move through table cells, either by row or column.
  2. Determine what is spoken during such navigation,
  3. Spoken views can include cell value, row header and column header.
  4. For more advanced use-cases, one can define a row filter or column filter, think of these as specialized formatters that can format selected cells and their headers into a natural-sounding sentence.