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How I Do an Analysis

19 May 2019

I’ve been working as a full-time data scientist for the better part of a year now and wanted to take a moment to step back and document my process.

The Booz Allen data science community is largely an R + Python shop, with my team falling into the latter camp. I confess having reservations about Python for data science, but for small-scale analyses, I’ve seen that it can work.

When I decide to tackle an analysis using Python, here’s what I do.


To get the most out of this post, I recommend having at least topical familiarity with the following:

WARNING: Opinions ahead.

00 - Initialization

Every project I do – including analyses – gets its own folder, so my first step is always to create a folder. On my work machine, a Mac, I have a folder ~/Documents/proj where I put all my projects. If the analysis is stand-alone (i.e. not part of a larger project) it gets its own folder here:

$ mkdir ~/Documents/proj/my-analysis
$ cd $_

Otherwise, if it is a component of a larger project, it becomes a subdirectory of that project.


An analysis is ultimately a scientific experiment to test one or more hypotheses about some data, whose findings will form the basis for further research, business decisions, or some other communication. However, the recipients of our findings are often not data scientists themselves, and can’t verify by introspection alone whether our conclusions are valid. We need another way to build trust with our audiences.

To this end, one of the most important attributes of any scientific experiment is reproducibility: if someone else can emulate our experimental environment and get the same results as us, then that is evidence supporting the analysis’ validity. On the other hand, if someone using an analogous environment fails to reproduce our findings, then this is evidence that something has gone wrong.

This is as true for data science as it is for any other science. Therefore, I strive to make my analyses as easy to reproduce as possible. One of the most important things I do to achieve this is to document EVERYTHING.

As we’ll soon see, this includes (but is not limited to) explicitly writing down:

  1. Steps to recreate the environment
  2. Python package dependencies
  3. Explanation for all changes made to code base
  4. Experimental procedure/ task interdependencies

The documentation of an analysis should form a cohesive, well-defined, easy-to-follow narrative with a consistent beginning, middle, and end. My “beginning” is, a GitHub Flavored Markdown document which contains my initial ideas and plans for the analysis. Here’s an outline:

# my-analysis

I had this really cool idea about doing this one thing on this one
[dataset][dataset online]. I'm going to compare this model and that
one to see which one is better for my use case.

[dataset online]:

## Requirements


## Setup


I include blank sections for Requirements and Setup because I use them to document the analysis’ environment. They will be present in virtually every single README I write, though what exactly they say will of course depend on the project.

At this point I also download GitHub’s Python gitignore as this will be important for the next step:

$ curl -LsSo .gitignore ''

Version Control EVERYTHING

Version control is itself a form of documentation: it documents the change history of your files. Making sure I’m still in the new project directory (which is often referred to as the “project root”) I initialize it as a Git repository:

$ git init

I track projects with Git whenever I can, even if I’m the only one who will ever see or touch the code. Having a log of every revision you make to a project and being able to revert those changes can be indispensable (and this usefulness extends beyond the code files of your project, including data and documentation too). For example, if I come back to some funky looking code a month after I write it, I don’t have to wonder what was going on in my head, I can check the log:

$ git blame src/
a6ea915b (Will Badart 2019-03-26 14:19:12 -0700   1) FOO = 'bar'
a6ea915b (Will Badart 2019-03-26 14:19:12 -0700   2)
a6ea915b (Will Badart 2019-03-26 14:19:12 -0700   3) def funtimes():
c3e471dd (Will Badart 2019-03-27 03:43:05 -0700   4)   global FOO
c3e471dd (Will Badart 2019-03-27 03:43:05 -0700   5)   FOO = 'teehee'

$ git show c3e471dd
commit c3e471dd812fa8e0b35210478207597daab1c72d
Author: Will Badart <>
Date:   Wed Mar 27 03:43:05 2019 -0700

    Fixed that bug I was having with a really clever and sustainable

The benefits multiply when it comes time to collaborate on project code. Best of all, Git is completely free money-wise, and insanely cheap effort/ overhead -wise. All you have to do is write a little message when you make a set of changes.

NOTE: You will enjoy your life more if you keep your commits atomic.

NOTE: Check out nbdime to help version control Jupyter notebooks.

At this point, I write my initial commit explaining what steps I took to initialize the project:

$ git add .gitignore
$ git commit -v

If you’re planning on using GitHub or some other remote, now would be a good time to create the remote repository in the web interface and configure your local repo to talk to it. Using the URL from the Clone or download button:

$ git remote add origin

origin is just the conventional name for the main remote. The URL should reflect your preference for SSH vs. HTTPS (mine is SSH because it lets met push without inputting a password).

01 - Sandbox Configuration

If you try and use your global system Python binary and/ or packages for every project (or any project for that matter) you will find yourself in a world of pain.

Instead, use one of the many virtual environment management tools put forth by the Python community over the years to isolate your project environment, and keep projects from overwriting each others’ dependencies. If I know up front that my project will depend on any Anaconda-only packages, I use conda’s environment management. Otherwise, I stick with the lightweight, tried and true virtualenv:

$ virtualenv -p `which python3` .venv
$ . .venv/bin/activate

Isolating your environment gives you bonus points for reproducibility; the stronger the isolation, the easier it is to consistently recreate the environment. At the expense of a bit of overhead and boilerplate, you can run your analysis in a Docker container for near-perfect isolation, but for most small to medium analyses, a virtual environment is enough.

Dependency Management

When writing Python software, I prefer to track project dependencies in the install_requires section of a file. For an analysis, however, which will not be “installed” to a new system with setuptools, I track them in requirements.txt. Some people will advise you to periodically update your requirements.txt file like so:

(.venv)$ pip freeze > requirements.txt

You would then commit the changes. This is a valid approach that strongly guarantees that the versions of any packages used by the project will align across systems. However, I prefer a different method.

You see, pip freeze outputs the complete contents of your virtual environment’s site packages. It’s a lot of information, but interestingly, it removes the information that I try to communicate to others with a requirements.txt file, namely, the direct dependencies of my project; the packages my code imports and uses. My dependencies’ dependencies are just noise.

For this reason, I maintain requirements.txt by hand, adding a new entry every time I pip install something, making sure to include sufficient version constraints:

(.venv)$ pip install pandas
Collecting pandas
  Using cached
Requirement already satisfied: numpy>=1.12.0 in ./.venv/lib/python3.6/site-packages (from pandas) (1.16.3)
Requirement already satisfied: python-dateutil>=2.5.0 in ./.venv/lib/python3.6/site-packages (from pandas) (2.8.0)
Requirement already satisfied: pytz>=2011k in ./.venv/lib/python3.6/site-packages (from pandas) (2019.1)
Requirement already satisfied: six>=1.5 in ./.venv/lib/python3.6/site-packages (from python-dateutil>=2.5.0->pandas) (1.12.0)
Installing collected packages: pandas
Successfully installed pandas-0.24.2

(.venv)$ echo 'pandas==0.24.2' >> requirements.txt

A caveat: the one package I use in just about every analysis but do not track in requirements.txt is Jupyter Lab. Unlike the other packages I use for an analysis, Jupyter Lab isn’t a library I import and use in the source code. It’s a tool. People may prefer to use other notebook viewers, such as the old-school Jupyter Notebook interface.

Of course, I commit changes to requirements.txt whenever I make them.

02 - Analysis is a DAG, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love make

In this analysis, my pre-processing script can’t run unless the raw data is present, and the visualization notebook can’t run without the pre-processed data and the serialized model files, which are generated by…

Sound familiar? A full analysis is a network of these interdependent tasks which, when executed in just the right order, take you all the way from raw data to you conclusions.

This ordering of which tasks depend on which others exists in any analysis, regardless of whether it’s explicitly documented. As a courtesy to others trying to run my analysis (which, again, should be easy if my results are to be reproducible, and, by extension, trustworthy) I choose to document it.

Writing down “you need to run the pre-processing script before you train the models” and such in a README is better than nothing, but it leaves the door wide open to human error in reproducing your steps. Therefore, I choose a more expressive medium for declaring my task dependencies, one whose native language is tasks and dependencies, and one which can be found on virtually any (*NIX) system: make.

Just like requirements.txt, I build up a Makefile incrementally as I execute the tasks of my analysis. It records the commands to run a task as well as the dependencies of that task. (Here’s a quick tutorial if you’ve never seen a Makefile before.) For example, I usually start by recording how to acquire the raw data:

# Makefile
# created: MAY 2019

data: data/raw/cooldataset.csv data/raw/otherstuff.csv

    mkdir -p $@

# cooldataset.csv depends on data/raw being present
# If it's not, run the data/raw "recipe" above
data/raw/cooldataset.csv: data/raw
    curl -LsSo $@
    chmod -w $@

# same story here
data/raw/otherstuff.csv: data/raw
    aws s3 cp s3://other/stuff.csv ./$@
    chmod -w $@

Now I, or anyone with a copy of the project, can get the raw dataset simply by running:

$ make data

I leave it as a task to the reader to research the internal mechanics of make, how it analyzes dependencies and only does work when it has to. Just know that if you’ve accurately stated every task’s decencies in the Makefile, you can simply state your end goal (e.g. make deliverables at the command line) and make will take care of everything else that needs to be done without duplicating work done. This definitely beats reproducing someone’s steps by hand.

NOTE: When my raw data lands on disk, I chmod -w it (make it read-only) to prevent accidental changes.

Now let’s say I’ve created a pre-processing script. At this point I’d record how to use it as well as what’s required to run it in the Makefile:

    mkdir -p $@

data/processed/cooldataset.csv: data/raw/cooldataset.csv data/processed src/
    python -m src.preprocess $< --gpu -v > $@

The command line args of your pre-processing script will of course vary, this is just an example. Now someone can run:

$ make data/processed/cooldataset.csv

to generate the pre-processed dataset.

Ultimately, I’ll end up with a target such as model or report or some other deliverable such that someone can clone my analysis’ Git repository, and simply run make report to completely reproduce my results. In other words, I try my darnedest to make my results completely reproducible with three simple commands:

$ git clone
$ cd my-analysis
$ make report

Since make knows the internal dependencies of our tasks, we can tell it run independent tasks concurrently with the -j (“jobs”) flag:

$ make -j2 report   # Use 2 concurrent worker processes
$ make -j report    # Use `nproc` concurrent worker processes

I leave you with some further reading from the folks I first heard this idea from, Cookiecutter Data Science. I encourage you to read the whole page, but there’s a link to Analysis is a DAG in the sidebar if you’re pressed for time.

Putting it All Together

With the above process as a backdrop, the sometimes tedious work of experimentation becomes a lot smoother an more enjoyable. By recording my procedure in the Makefile and keeping tabs on file changes with Git, I always know how I got to where I’m at, which helps me determine where to go next. Having a consistent README across projects makes it easier for others to hit the ground running when they want to contribute. Using a sandbox environment keeps me from getting inaccurate results when package versions change out from under me.

This flow has worked well for me, but it’s not the only path to reproducibility. If I missed something big, or there’s something I should try, let me know!

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