Django and Collection+JSON

Recently, I have been reading (and re-reading) Building Hypermedia APIs with HTML5 and Node. There’s lots to like about this book, especially after reading (and mostly discarding) REST API Design Rulebook.

There is one thing that bugs me, and that is the way that templates are used to generate the JSON. As I said to Mike Amundsen:

His response was that he sometimes used JSON.stringify, at other times templates. But it got me thinking. I have written lots of code that serialises Django models, or more recently forms into JSON and other formats. Getting a nice Collection+JSON representation actually maps quite nicely onto these django constructs, as we often have the metadata that is required for the fields.

Consider the following (simple) django model:

class Article(models.Model):
    title = models.CharField('Title of Article', max_length=128)
    content = models.TextField('Content of Article')
    author = models.ForeignKey('auth.User', verbose_name='Author of Article')
    def get_absolute_url(self):
        return reverse('article_detail', kwargs={'pk',})

I don’t normally supply verbose_names, but I have in this case. We’ll see why in a minute.

Now, what I would declare is the obvious JSON representation of this is something like:

  "title": "Title goes here",
  "content": "Content goes here",
  "author": 1,
  "href": "…"

But, I’m quite interested in Collection+JSON. We might see something like:

  "collection": {
    "version": "1.0",
    "href": "…",
    "links": [
      {"href":"…", "rel":"…", "prompt":"…", "name":"…", "render":"string"}
    "items": [
        "href": "…",
        "data": [
          {"name":"title", "value":"Title goes here", "prompt":"Title of Article"},
          {"name":"content", "value":"Content goes here", "prompt":"Content of Article"},
          {"name":"author", "value":"1", "prompt":"Author of Article"},
        "links": []

From a django ModelForm, we should be able to easily generate each member of items:

links = getattr(form, 'links', [])
return {
    "data": [
        {"name", "prompt":f.label, "value":f.value()} for f in form
    "href": ,
    "links": links

The only bit that we are missing out of the form/field data is data type, or more specifically in this case, the available choices that are permitted for the author field. Now, this is missing from the Collection+JSON spec, so I’m not sure how to handle that.

I think this is actually an important problem: if we have a discoverable/hypermedia API, how do we indicate to the client what are valid values that can be entered for a given field?

For those not familiar with django: the verbose_name on a model field is used for the default label on a form field. If you were not using a model, you could just supply a label in the form class.

The other part that is a little hard to think about now are the other attributes: href, and links. Now, these may actually coalesce into one, as links.self.href should give us href. Perhaps we have to look on the form object for a links property. But, in django, it’s not really the domain of the form to contain information about that. For now, I’m going to have a links property on my forms, but that feels dirty too.