Creating my first Tableau web data connector – the highs and the lows: part 1

After having successfully (enough) completed my introduction to creating a real live Tableau web data connector, I wanted to follow the lead of one of the inspirations for this otherwise unnecessary effort – Chris Love’s Persiscope on the subject of sharing Tableau-related failure as well as unbridled success –  and document something about the less smooth aspects of the journey it took. If nothing else, they’ll be useful notes if I have to do this again for real in the future.

First of all, I gave myself an unnecessarily harsh setup 🙂 . I was working on my company computer (shhhhh) as it has Tableau Desktop installed, and I figured that’d be important.  The significance of that is that I don’t have the admin rights needed to install any new software on it. And I don’t do web development as part of the day job, so I was restricted to using only very generic tools. In practice, this meant Windows Notepad for the most part, and Google Chrome for testing.

I had downloaded the Tableau Data Connector software development kit  I was a little worried at claims that I’d need to install a web server to use it, which I’m not sure our work IT security overlords would appreciate – but in the end, I learned that you can successfully create a Tableau web data connector without having:

  • the web data connector SDK
  • a web server
  • admin rights
  • …Tableau (yes, seriously).

What I did need:

  • a web browser (I used Chrome)
  • a text editor (I used Window notepad, because, well, what more could you want?)

I had also decided to try and work it out without asking anyone anything. The Tableau user community is pretty amazing in terms of generously giving up answers, and I’m sure someone would have solved any problem I encountered so fast all the fun would have gone.

My approach then was to follow the Tableau Web Data Connector tutorial. In this tutorial, they build a web data connector to a financial website to retrieve stock data. I figured for a first try I’d just follow along and just put the details of the BoardGameGeek API I wanted to use in instead of the Yahoo API.

I’m not going to go through the tutorial line by line, as you might as well just read the original. Instead I’ll just intend to highlight some points where I had problems, and what I had to do to overcome them.

The first thing I’d note in hindsight is that the tutorial is not actually “how to build the simplest possible web data connector” as I had imagined it would be from its description as “basic”. It surely is a relatively simple one (no authentication needed etc.) but it does contain at least 3 functions that are only necessary because of the specific API they were connecting to. These are:

  • buildUri
  • getFormattedDate
  • makeTwoDigits

Pretty obvious when you see what they do – but it would be a mistake to imagine you should just copy the function structure of the basic connector and replace it with your own code. You won’t need the above 3 functions for the most part. I felt the tutorial could make that clearer, especially for someone even more novice than I, who had never touched web programming (I’ve done some in the distant past).

But anyway, begin at the beginning. I raced happily through parts 1 and 2 of the tutorial, copying and pasting their base code. Nothing important to change there unless you want to give your version a more appropriate title.

Part 3 instructed me how to create a form for the user to enter information about their data on. Again, I can imagine some data connectors won’t need to prompt the analyst using it for any information, in which case you could also disregard this section.  However I did actually need that feature, as I wanted it to let me enter a BoardGameGeek username in and only retrieve board games that person had in their collection.

In the mean time, I had discovered – joyfully – that there’s a hosted Tableau Web Data Connector simulator on Github, thank you so much! The reason it made me happy is that it meant that I didn’t need to install a web server on my own computer, or do anything with the SDK that might have involved needing to beg for admin rights over my laptop.

Once I developed a connector in Notepad, I could just upload it somewhere (I chose Github Pages myself) and use the hosted simulator to see if it works – which is the reason you don’t actually need a copy of Tableau in the first place.  I’m sure it would have been far quicker to iterate if I had installed it locally, but it works just fine in a hosted version – as long as you beware the cache.

Lesson learned: It seems like there’s a lot of caching going on somewhere between or within the hosted Tableau Web Data Connector simulator and my web host (Github). Oftentimes I’d make changes to the code, reupload, but it didn’t seem to change the result as shown in the simulator. Sometimes closing browsers, deleting cookies etc. helped – but not always. I’m sure there is some science to this that one could work out, but given I didn’t need to make a lot of edits in developing a relatively simple data connector, I basically settled for renaming my file “version 1.html”, “version 2.html” etc. whenever I made a modification, which guaranteed a lack of annoying caching action.

But anyway, defining the user interface per the tutorial went smoothly. I entered the web address where I’d uploaded my connector: “amedcalf.github.io/BGGConnector.html”, unticked the “automatically continue to data phase” box (as the data phase is something I defined later, in line with the tutorial), and ran the “interactive phase”.

Up popped my bare-bones form asking for a BoardGameGeek username, I filled it in and pressed OK, and it took me back to the simulator and showed me a form that indicated that it had indeed recognised the information I gave it. Success!

Capture

No data was returned just yet – but it clearly recognised what I had entered into the form just fine.

Lesson learned: Although this wasn’t a problem for me in this stage, I later noticed that if there’s anything wrong in your code then you do not always get an error message per se. Sometimes the simulator just doesn’t close your UI, or it does but doesn’t return you any information – i.e. acts like a faulty web page. In my experience that tends to be when I’d made a minor mistake in my code – a missing semicolon or bracket or similar. Once that was fixed, the simulator worked nicely again (if you want to go wild and use something other than notepad that does syntax highlighting, you’ll probably not suffer this much.) So you should assume that it’s your code, not the simulator, that is broken in such instances 🙂

It became clear the user interface is defined in normal HTML – so if you are a nifty web designer/coder, or want to learn to be one, you can make it as beautiful as you like. That wasn’t the point of the exercise for me though, so I just made a plain default font and default box to type information into for my effort.

So, that was the user interface “designed” and tested, which takes us up to part 4 of the Tableau tutorial.

Next up: time to actually access the data I wanted. This proved to be a little more difficult first time through though.

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