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PDF Scraping: Making Modern File Formats More Accessible

Data scraping is the process of automatically sorting through information contained on the internet inside html, pdf or other documents and collecting relevent information to into databases and spreadsheets for later retrieval. On most websites, the text is easily and accessibly written in the source code but an increasing number of buisnesses are using Adobe PDF format (Portable Document Format: A format which can be viewed by the free Adobe Acrobat software on almost any operating system). The advantage of PDF format is that the document looks exactly the same no matter which computer you view it from making it ideal for buisness forms, specification sheets, etc.; the disadvantage is that the text is converted into an image from which you often cannot easily copy and paste. PDF Scraping is the process of data scraping information contained in pdf files. To PDF scrape a PDF document, you must employ a more diverse set of tools.

There are two main types of PDF files: those built from a text file and those built from an image(likely scanned in). Adobe's own software is capable of PDF scraping from text-based PDF files but special tools are needed for PDF scraping text from image-based PDF files. The primary tool for PDF scraping is the OCR program. OCR, or Optical Character Recognition, programs scan a document for small pictures that they can separate into letters. These pictures are then compared to actual letters and if matches are found, the letters are copied into a file.

OCR programs can perform PDF scraping of image-based PDF files quite accurately but they are not perfect. Once the OCR program or Adobe program has finished PDF scraping a document, you can search through the data to find the parts you are most interested in. This information can then be stored into your favorite database or spreadsheet program. Some PDF scraping programs can sort the data into databases and/or spreadsheets automatically making your job that much easier. Quite often you will not find a PDF scraping program that will obtain exactly the data you want without customization. Surprisingly a search on google only turned up one business, (the amusingly named ScrapeGoat.com) that will create a customized PDF scraping utility for your project. A handful of off the shelf utilities claim to be customizable, but seem to require a bit of programming knowledge and time commitment to use effectively. Obtaining the data yourself with one of these tools may be possible but will likely prove quite tedious and time consuming. It may be advisable to contract a company that specializes in PDF scraping to do it for you quickly and professionally.

Let's explore some real world examples of the uses of PDF scraping technology. A group at Cornell University wanted to improve a database of technical documents in PDF format by taking the old PDF file where the links and references were just images of text and changing the links and references into working clickable links thus making the database easy to navigate and cross-reference. They employed a PDF scraping utility to deconstruct the PDF files and figure out where the links were. They then could create a simple script to re-create the PDF files with working links replacing the old text image. A computer hardware vendor wanted to display specifications data for his hardware on his website. He hired a company to perform PDF scraping of the hardware documentation on the manufacturers' website and save the PDF scraped data into a database he could use to update his webpage automatically. PDF Scraping is just collecting information that is available on the public internet. PDF Scraping does not violate copyright laws. PDF Scraping is a great new technology that can significantly reduce your workload if it involves retrieving information from PDF files. Applications exist that can help you with smaller, easier PDF Scraping projects but companies exist that will create custom applications for larger or more intricate PDF Scraping jobs.


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