Natural language time parsing and more with TimeAPI.org

December 9, 2009

In my post about stdicon.com, I hinted at something else I built in collaboration with a few people that started from a Twitter update. I’m just now writing about it, but I’ve actually built a lot of things I haven’t blogged about yet. Granted, they’re all an artifact of my strange world, but I figure if I need them more than once, there’s a decent chance somebody else on this planet will need them someday. Anyway…

I present to you: TimeAPI.org

It started from wanting Chronic as a Service—a natural language datetime parser written in Ruby. You know, “in five hours” or “noon next tuesday.” Sure, there are good JS libraries, but actually, it’s a backend thing for me (webhooks). Unfortunately, I don’t use or have Ruby available all the time, so as part of my effort to make lots of tiny useful web services, I decided to make it a web service. Or rather, I decided somebody should.

Half an hour after I tweeted it, somebody had a prototype deployed. Then I worked with a friend to functionally polish it up. I’ve been meaning to use it for a simple Tweet-later service, but my first use of it was in Remindify, which was fairly recent (and is something I still need to blog about). In the process, I fixed a few bugs regarding timezones and became thoroughly frustrated with datetime programming. Haven’t we all.

However, the last thing I added was support for format strings. Why? Well, it crossed my mind before, since it would help in environments that have a hard time parsing ISO 8601 formatted datetimes (GLARES FURIOUSLY AT PYTHON). What finally made me implement it was so that I could use TimeAPI with the date command as a sort of cheap ntpdate replacement. Yes, this works:

date -s "$(curl "http://www.timeapi.org/utc/now?\a \b \d \I:\M:\S \Z \Y")"

For convenience, you could use this shortened URL:

date -s "$(curl -L http://j.mp/now-utc)"

Anyway, that’s kind of neat. Obviously, it’s more useful for parsing natural language. It’s a bit dumb when it doesn’t understand your natural language queries (throws up 500), but if you know how to use it and constrain it properly in your app, you’ll be fine.

Somebody else suggested adding the reverse functionality, sort of a time_ago as a service. Not a priority for me, but if anybody wants to add it, this is a completely open source service and I do deploy patches.

9 Responses to “Natural language time parsing and more with TimeAPI.org”

  1. Kyle Says:

    Very cool, I could see this being very useful, but I have a problem.
    http://www.timeapi.org/utc/noon appears to calculate the time for noon in PST and convert the result to UTC.
    Is there any way to get noon in UTC?

  2. Kyle Says:

    It looks like some of the Chronic forks such as Mojombo’s have timezone support added. Are those of any use to you?

  3. lzell Says:

    I wrote something similar that you may be able to use (I’m not doing anything with it at the moment). It also extracts the message from the date/time string, e.g. “do something at noon next tuesday” will return the message “do something” and give you the date/time info for noon next tuesday. http://naturalinputs.com

  4. Ian Mercer Says:

    Looks interesting. I’ve been building a C# Natural Language Engine myself which can also parse complex date time expressions and turn them into SQL queries against a database. Details on my blog.


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