I created my twitterverse repo because I was interested in fetching, storing and reporting on data in the Twitter API. Such as trending topics at locations, or using the Search API to get individual tweets in the past 7 days which match a search query.

Some years ago I started out learning to use the Twitter API in the Twitter developer console - that doesn’t seem available anymore on their site, though apigee still provides this functionality. When I started learning Python, I found a way to compose URLs and do queries to get tweet data. Over time, the requests I wanted to do become more complex and also I needed an elegant way to handle rate-limiting. So I moved using to the tweepy Python library to access the Twitter API. There are a few Python libraries for the Twitter API, including Twython.

I am aware of SQLAlchemy and its popularity, though I implemented the application using SQLObject as the ORM between Python and the database. That was because I was a lot more familiar with using SQLObject at work and wanted to focus my efforts in one direction for a while.

I like using an ORM to do complex CRUD operations on your database from within Python script or the iPython console, since the ORM lets you work with tables and records as objects and it takes care of a lot of things for you like JOIN operations. The downside, though, is the speed of execution, since reading and writing (whether to a text file or a database) is a lot slower than doing those operations in-memory. Also, the ORM has to process its own validation rules from within Python, as the rules are not the database schema and cannot be executed in the database layer.

I didn’t realize how slow the ORM was compared with native SQL statements until I started growing my project to larger volumes of tweet data. I used tweepy to do a search query on the Twitter API to get tweets within the past 7 days. I had a script to fetch the tweet object (including the profile of the author), write the tweet and profile records and then assign each tweet a campaign label and each profile a category label (so I can filter and group the records in my database later). The entire process took nearly 4 hours for a batch of 50 000 tweets. But, I wanted to do it faster.

I decided to optimize the campaign labeling process first. When assigning a campaign label, the script uses the ORM to insert a single record, then immediately get the created record (so it is available as Python object). This is repeated for every single record to be inserted. This is inefficient because there is overhead in connecting to the database and executing the query to read or write data. So, instead of handling record individually due to the ORM limitation, I composed a single INSERT statement in SQL with all the values - this requires only a single query to the database. So the duration came down from minutes to less than a second, which is several orders of magnitude faster.

I could have gone through the trouble of writing the raw SQL as a string and substituting in values, but that is not elegant and also means a risk of SQL syntax errors. I used the ORM’s SQLBuilder module to compose and execute the batch SQL statement, passing in the table name, field names and a list of rows to be used.

The logic is in a function named bulkAssignTweetCampaign in tweets.py. That is called by the main function of searchAndStoreTweets.py.

Here is the simplified version of the code.

from sqlobject.sqlbuilder import Insert

from lib import database as db

# ...

# Example value hardcoded here.
campaignID = 2

# Create the INSERT statement using N number of tweetIDs and
# a constant campaignID value. The tweet_campaign table
# contains pairs of values, in order to map a tweet table ID
# to campaign table ID with a many-to-many relationship.
insert = Insert(
    template=['campaign_id', 'tweet_id'],
    valueList=[(campaignID, tweetID) for tweetID in tweetIDs]

# Convert the object into a native SQL statement.
SQL = db.conn.sqlrepr(insert)

# Ignore duplicate errors if the assignment has been done
# previously.

# The resulting SQL statement looks something like this:
INSERT OR IGNORE INTO tweet_campaign (campaign_id, tweet_id)
VALUES (2, 403), (2, 404), (2, 405) ... ;

# Execute the query using the database connection object.
# This will just return a success code. A downside of this
# approach is that, unlike when using the ORM, here
# we do not get the inserted ` records returned
# as Python objects, as this is just a write operation with no
# ORM layer.

Reducing the campaign insert time was only part of the script. I then improved category insert time the same way. I worked out that the next step is inserting tweets and profile objects into the database. That would reduce the entire insertion process to a matter of seconds.

I fetch tweets from the API but but instead of writing out to the database immediately, after a certain number of pages have been process then I flatten the pages to rows of data and then write them out to a CSV location in a staging directory. The tweets are cleared from memory then the process is repeated for more pages.

When there are no more pages to process and write, the script ends. I then use a separate script to read in from the CSV and writing out to the database with a handful of statements to be executed. This can be done immediately or when run manually later.

With the rate limiting of 480 pages per 15 minute window (using the Application-only auth) and a good network and processing speed, I am able to get almost 500 pages every 15 minutes, which is almost 2 000 pages an hour. And one page has up to 100 tweets on it, letting me fetch nearly 200 000 tweets in a hour. That is 4 times the number of records as in the previous case, yet in a quarter of the time, meaning it is 8 times faster. This makes it much easier to get large volumes of tweets into my system.

I currently have this extract process working well and I am logging the requests to a log file. I can see that each request for 100 tweets takes on average close to 1 second on my laptop. When executing on PythonAnywhere as a cloud solution, it only takes about a third of a second per request, due to differences in hardware and internet connectivity speeds.

I worked on my twitterverse repo frequently over a few months. When I took a break from developing my application and actually started using it as a tool to fetch and report on data, I found that I got faster at identifying bugs and finding new features to add to it. That is something I can apply now across many projects. I choses topic which are relevant to me and the people around me. Such as South African politics (#ZumaRecall, #BudgetSpeech2019) or the Cape Town water crisis (#CapeTownWaterCrisis, #CPTWaterCrisis and #DayZero).

I am continuing to scrape and store data related to topics like this, finding ways to improve the efficiency and thinking of creative ways to visualize in the data in a meaningful way.