Note: the code for this project is available on GitHub.

For a related project on creating a dashboard for the main CLPS dataset, see here.


Some friends of mine have been working on a project that required the use of data from the Canadian Legal Problems Survey (CLPS). CLPS is a national survey of Canadians’ experiences with the justice system, conducted periodically by Statistics Canada, with the most recent survey conducted in 2021. Data from the survey is freely available in the form of a Public Use Microdata File provided by StatsCan.

The main data set is a CSV file containing individual survey responses as rows, with each column corresponding to a survey variable (i.e. a response to an individual question or a demographic variable). Column headings represent a variable name. For example, the column PRIP05A corresponds to a question about whether the respondent had a dispute related to a large purchase, and values in the PRIP05A column represent answers to that question. These answers are coded as integers, with “Yes” mapped to 1, “No” mapped to 2, and “Not stated” mapped to 9.

A full list of these headings and response mappings are provided in a codebook PDF file, but in a format that is not readily machine-readable, requiring manual transcribing to access.

Thus, in this project, I extracted the data from the codebook PDF in order to use it in combination with the main data set for processing and display. The result is a JSON with the extracted codebook data, as well as a simple web app for browsing the codebook and verifying correct extraction. I plan to use this JSON in a future project to create a web app for exploring the main CLPS data set.

Format of the Codebook

A typical page of the codebook PDF will contain several survey variables, with each variable separated by dividing lines:

Codebook page

A survey variable section doesn’t always reside on a single page, but may bridge across two pages.

For example, the survey variable PRIP05C has its answer categories on a separate page:

Multipage variable

Sometimes, page breaks can occur in the middle of a field. For example, CON_10D has its question text broken over two pages:

Multipage Question Text

As well, when a page break occurs in the middle of the answer categories fields, it creates more than one set of answer category headings:

Multipage Answer Categories

While it is possible to manually copy-paste the data out into a spreadsheet, I felt this would be somewhat error-prone and tedious as there 277 survey variables. This is especially true as I wanted to extract all the data from each section, since the frequency counts etc. might be useful for cross referencing to the main data set later.

Extracting to HTML

I first sought out a Python library to extract data from PDFs. There’s a number of options, such as pypdf, PyMuPDF, pdfminer.six, and PDFquery.

After experimenting with extracting the text with them, I found that the bare text was not sufficient, as it loses the semantic structure of the document. For example, the heading “Answer Categories” and the answer category text values themselves may not be next to each other on when extracted to text, so it’s not clear which text chunk belongs under which heading.

Most of the pdf libraries can include positioning information upon extraction by embedding the text in XML or HTML tags that contain the coordinates of a bounding box for each text element. I ended up choosing pdfminer.six as it had a simple CLI utility that could convert the entire PDF to HTML in one step, at which point I could manipulate the HTML with a library like beautifulsoup4.

After installing pdfminer.six, the CLI utility is a one-liner: codebook.pdf -o codebook.html --output_type html

The resulting HTML file is a reasonably good facsimile of the original PDF:

HTML codebook

Extracting the Data from HTML to JSON

Parsing HTML with BeautifulSoup

The structure of the extracted HTML file is a list of sibling <div> and <span> elements inside the main <body> tag. For example, the following is a very truncated version of the first page of data corresponding to page 9 of the original pdf:

<div style="position:absolute; top:6786px;"><a name="9">Page 9</a></div>
    style="position:absolute; border: textbox 1px solid; writing-mode:lr-tb; left:245px; top:6806px; width:120px; height:19px;">
    <span style="font-family: NimbusSanL-Bold; font-size:8px">CLPS 2021 - Data Dictionary
    style="position:absolute; border: textbox 1px solid; writing-mode:lr-tb; left:40px; top:6852px; width:64px; height:8px;">
    <span style="font-family: NimbusSanL-Bold; font-size:8px">Variable Name:
<span style="position:absolute; border: black 1px solid; left:36px; top:7548px; width:540px; height:1px;"></span>
<span style="position:absolute; border: gray 1px solid; left:0px; top:7628px; width:612px; height:792px;"></span>

This is a relatively simple structure with a few notable features:

  • During extraction to HTML, pdfminer.six marks the beginning of each page with an e.g. <div><a name="9">Page 9</a></div> nested anchor tag.
  • Nested <div><span>text</span></div> elements represent the text on the page
  • Single <span> elements represent horizontal lines or other drawn objects.
  • A subset of <span> horizontal lines are used to divide survey variables from each other.
  • Each element also has a style attribute that contains positioning and size information.

Using the Python library beautifulsoup4, I first cleaned up the HTML in several steps:

  • Locate the starting and ending anchor tags that mark the page breaks at the start of Page 9 and the end of Page 126 (i.e. the start of Page 127), which correspond to the first and last pages containing survey variable data in the codebook.
  • Extract all the HTML between those two anchor elements.
  • Filter out unnecessary and cosmetic elements such as:
    • The page break anchor elements
    • Horizontal lines that aren’t the dividers between survey variables
    • Headers and footers

This left only the HTML elements corresponding to data for each survey variable and the horizontal lines that divide survey variables between each other.

Converting HTML Elements into Python Objects

At this point, rather than continuing to work with the HTML elements, I thought it would be easier to work with a more structured representation of the data. I created an Element dataclass that would hold positionig information, whether the element was a text element or a dividing horizontal line, and any text within the element:

class Element:
    TEXT_TYPE = 'text'
    DIVIDER_TYPE = 'divider'
    elem_type: str
    left: int
    top: int
    width: int
    height: int
    right: int = field(init=False)
    bottom: int = field(init=False)
    text: str = ''

    def __post_init__(self):
        # Convert to ints
        self.left = int(self.left) = int(
        self.width = int(self.width)
        self.height = int(self.height)
        # Calculate right and bottom positions
        self.right = self.left + self.width
        self.bottom = + self.height

I then converted each HTML element into an Element object, stripped whitespace from the text, and sorted the elements by top to bottom position, then left to right, resulting in a list of Element objects.

Assembling Data Elements into Units

The next step was to assemble the Element objects into units that correspond to a single survey variable.

Since the list of Elements is sorted by position, I iterated through the list and used the divider elements Elements as markers to group elements into sublists. This list of units of elements could then be iterated through to extract information for each survey variable.

Defining a Text Extraction Strategy and the Output Format

At this point, my goal was to convert the data into list of dicts format that could be converted directly into JSON:

    "variable_name": "PHHP01P",
    "length": "2.0",
    "position": "7",
    "question_name": "",
    "concept": "Number of people in household",
    "question_text": "Including yourself, how many people live in your household? Number of people",
    "universe": "All respondents",
    "note": "",
    "source": "",
    "answer_categories": [
      "1 person",
    "code": [
    "frequency": [
    "weighted_frequency": [
    "percent": [
    "total": {
      "frequency": "21170",
      "weighted_frequency": "30091985",
      "percent": "100.0"

To do this, I wrote a series of functions to extract and clean the text from each data field. These functions are roughly grouped between the top, middle, and bottom section for each survey variable:

Extracting the Top Section

The top section consists of the variable name, length, and position fields horizontally stacked beside each other:

For variable name, my strategy was to look for the elements containing the text “Variable Name:” and “Length:” and then look for the single text element in between these two elements (raising an error if more than one element was found).

For length and position, the field name and field value were fused into a single element (e.g. “Length: 2.0”), so I searched for element containing the field heading text (e.g. “Length:” and “Position:”), then split/stripped the text to get just the field value.

Extracting the Middle Section

The middle section consists of data fields that are vertically stacked on top of each other:

My first strategy was to have several functions e.g. get_question_name, get_concept, etc. call a generic function get_middle_section that would take as arguments the current field heading and the next field heading below it. For example, to get the “Concept” data field, get_middle_section would take in "Concept:" and "Question Text: as arguments, find the elements that contain that text, and use their position to get all the text elements to the right of and in between the two data headings.

This strategy generally worked. However, I discovered that there was a issue with some “question_text” fields. For example, for the survey variable ASTP20B, the second line of question text has a dash that causes pdfminer.six to extract it as the following text elements:

# Top text element
'Indicate the helpfulness of the actions you took to resolve your most serious problem'
# Left side text element that fuses with the last line
'Only report the actions you took in Canada.\nthedispute'
# Right side text element
' - Contacted the other party involve in'

The way get_middle_section was written misses the text element on the right. Rather than rewriting the whole function and having to check to see if any new problems arise with the fields that already worked, I decided clone the function to a new function get_middle_section_broad that gets all text elements and also splits the strings by new lines before putting them together in the right order. Then I just had get_question_text call get_middle_section_broad instead of get_middle_section.

Extracting the Bottom Section

The bottom section contains the answer categories, their encodings in the main dataset, frequency, weighted frequency, and percent data for each answer category for respondents in the survey:

For most of the survey variables, each column is extracted as a single block, with the headings as a separate element (although the frequency and weighted frequency headings are fused to each other). The totals row is fused with the column values above it.

However, sometimes the answer categories get broken by a page break, resulting in multiple headings:

As well, there are cases that individual answer categories have text broken into multiple lines. This breaks the corresponding code column into more than one element. For example, in the code column below, there is an element with "1\n2\n3\n4" and another element with "6\n7\n9":

The extracted text for multiline answer categories are not distinguishable from multiple answer categories on their own. For example, the answer category "Not applicable/did not retain\nlawyer/paralegal/law student" would appear as two answer categories since newline characters also separate the other answer categories from each other. However, since these cases only appear when the code column is broken into multiple elements, I could incorporate that information to figure out where the multiline answer categories occur.

The following is an approximate description of the process to these issues. I used two custom classes PageBreak and CodeElementBreak to represent where page breaks and breaks in the code column occur. Note that the actual code combines some of these steps, but I’ve illustrated it slightly differently for clarity:

## Initial text that gets extracted, text contains internal headers
# as well as a multiline answer category
# Categories:
["Cat1\nCat2A\nCat2B\nCat3\nCat4", "Answer Categories", "Cat 5\nCat6"]
# Codes:
["1\n2","3\n4", "Code", "5\n6"]

## Swap internal headers for PageBreaks
# Categories:
[["Cat1","Cat2A","Cat2B","Cat3","Cat4"], PageBreak, ["Cat 5","Cat6"]]
# Codes:
[["1","2"],["3","4"], PageBreak,["5","6"]]

## Add in CodeElementBreaks in between code elements
## but not where there are page breaks
# Codes:
[["1","2"], CodeElementBreak, ["3","4"], PageBreak, ["5","6"]]

# Flatten both answer categories and codes
# Categories:
["Cat1", "Cat2A", "Cat2B", "Cat3", "Cat4", PageBreak, "Cat 5", "Cat6"]
# Codes:
["1", "2", CodeElementBreak, "3", "4", PageBreak, "5", "6"]

# Infer the presence of a multiline answer category by the presence of a
# CodeElementBreak in the codes list
# Categories:
["Cat1", "Cat2ACat2B", "Cat3", "Cat4", PageBreak, "Cat 5", "Cat6"]

# Clean up CodeElementBreaks and PageBreaks
# Categories
["Cat1", "Cat2ACat2B", "Cat3", "Cat4", "Cat 5", "Cat6"]
# Codes:
["1", "2", "3", "4", "5", "6"]

For processing frequency, weighted frequency, and percent columns, I only had to handle internal headers, as the multiline issue was already resolved between the answer category and code columns.

As a side note, I found it helpful to code defensively during this process, and incorportate assert checks to make sure my assumptions about the state of the columns and data were correct.

Miscellaneous Issues

There are several other issues of note:

  • Words like “certificate” are extracted with 'fi' as a single character 'fi'. These needed to be replaced.
  • A number of apostrophes are extracted as “right single quotation marks” instead of '. These are also replaced for consistency.
  • In the question text fields, some words contain line-breaking hyphens. I removed these hyphens, as I felt they would not be useful if the question text needed to be displayed elsewhere.
  • There are occasional inconsistent dashs/hyphens (e.g. spaces before or after dashs). I left these as is.
  • The survey variables PUMFID and WTPP have no answer categories. However, my extraction function depended on the “Answer Categories” heading to locate where the boundary of the “source” field was. These survey variables didn’t actually have data in the source field, so rather than rewrite the function, I just added these as check conditions in the main loop to handle them.
  • The survey variable VERDATE has no answer categories, as it just has a date in the code column. This would raise AssertionErrors in my extraction functions, so I also handled it with a check condition in the main loop.

Running the Extraction Script

To run the extraction script, run the following in the main project folder:

python codebook.html

There is an optional -d flag to enable debug mode, which will print out several text files representing intermediate steps in the extraction process, as well as a -o flag to change the output file name (which by default is survey_var.json).

Verification App


While I was working on the extraction script, I keep discovering new issues which made me nervous about the integrity of the extracted data. Since the number of survey variables is fairly small (277), I thought I could look through all of the extracted data without consuming too much time.

However, trying to look through the data as a JSON file and then having to match it to a PDF file while scrolling sounded extremely painful and error-prone. I decided it would be prudent to make a simple app to display the extracted data in a nicely formatted way. Indeed, I ended up discovering several issues this way, which I then went back and fixed in the extraction script.

Choosing Streamlit

I had heard about Streamlit some time ago. Its main draw is that it turns fairly simple Python scripts into decent-looking web apps, so this sounded like an easy, fast way to get started with a simple app.

Additionally, Streamlit Community Cloud provides free hosting and deploys apps straight off a GitHub repo, so I didn’t have to worry about managing a server etc.

Implementing the App

My initial prototype was to display all the data on a single scrollable page, but formatted to look like the PDF. I did this with a bunch of nested st.container, st.column, and st.metric objects, but I found that the app had trouble loading. I did some quick testing, and found that page loading takes 10 seconds with 900 st.metric objects, 30-45 seconds with 1800 objects, and fails to load with 3600 objects.

Since scrolling is kind of a pain anyways, I decided to make the app display one survey variable at a time. The user then chooses the survey variable via a searchable dropdown menu in the sidebar, or can click a next/prev button to cycle through the survey variables. The current variable displayed is stored as an index in the app’s session state, so that the next/prev buttons and the dropdown menu stay in sync with each other. The sidebar also includes a button to download the JSON data.

The app is available at Streamlit Community Cloud hosting hibernates the app after a few days of no traffic, in which case a user can click the “Wake App” button, which usually takes from a few seconds to a couple of minutes.

Discussion and Improvements

The data extraction in the main script relies on finding headers and using their corner positions as landmarks to find where data values are located in relation to the headers. An alternate approach could be to explicitly define bounding boxes and finding data value elements that overlap with these boxes. I suspect this approach might lead to more standardized extraction functions that are easier to think about and read/write, and perhaps handle edge cases better (e.g. when there are missing headers).

However, since this data extraction step is probably a one-off, I do not plan to rewrite it at this time. Instead, I plan to move on and use this extracted data with the main CLPS data set.