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The Step After Notebooks

March 19, 2020  /  ~8-minute read

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The quality of an analysis is measured by impact. Analytics exists to solve client problems, and with the volume of client data continuing to explode, data science represents a vital opportunity for impact. People realize this: IBM forecasts that there will be almost 3,000,000 data science jobs by the end of this year.

Unfortunately, data science is a complex domain, and what I’ll call notebook-driven development, the popular technique of conducting an analysis primarily in Jupyter notebooks, does little to manage that complexity. This makes it difficult (at best!) for an analysis to be maximally impactful out of the box. Luckily, at the end of the day, data science is made out of software, and for decades, software engineers have studied how to manage complexity. Let’s leverage these years of progress and explore how a little software engineering discipline can multiply our data science impact.

Impact Multiplier #1: Abstraction

Abstraction creates power and power enables impact.

An abstraction encapsulates the details of a pattern, letting us state our intention concisely and move on to the next thing quickly. It’s also easier to communicate (both to teammates and to clients) with a good abstraction, rather than laying bare all the minutiae. For example, PyTorch’s nn.Linear class abstracts over the matrix algebra involved in a fully connected neural network layer. This expressive power saves us the tedium of managing the layer’s weights and biases and lets us communicate the layer’s role concisely.

An abstraction must be portable to be impactful; we should be able to exploit it wherever we find the pattern it encapsulates. This is the first axis on which notebook-driven development inhibits abstraction: once code is written in a notebook, the only way to use it is to run the notebook and read the output. This is by design. Jupyter, in spite of appearances, isn’t really an IDE, but a literate programming tool:

The Jupyter Notebook is an open-source web application that allows you to create and share documents that contain live code, equations, visualizations and narrative text. (emphasis added)

An ipynb file isn’t so much a program to be run by a machine as it is a report to be read by a human. The notebook should import – not implement – a library and communicate the results of its use through visualization and prose.

This leads us to our first concrete recommendation: implement core code as functions in a library (in .py files). Now, what used to be anonymous blocks of code stuck inside our input cells are named functions which can be exported, tested, and reused for great fortune and impact. Use the %autoreload magic to facilitate the concurrent development of notebooks and libraries. Also note that it’s much easier to version control a .py file than a notebook (which is just a blob of JSON under the hood). In the face of changing requirements, using Git to manage the evolution of your analysis will enable collaboration and help you continue to make an impact.

This organization makes the abstractions we develop over the course of the project portable; we’re one file away from being able to pip install this work to another project. This reuse saves us critical time and effort, and lets us focus on the unique challenges of that new project.

Impact Multiplier #2: Composition

Good abstractions enhance impact by making the most of patterns, and principled composition enhances impact by making the most of abstractions. Software engineering is digital alchemy, nothing more or less than a cycle of problem decomposition and solution (or abstraction) composition. That is to say, when we write code, we’re doing composition, regardless of whether we pay attention to how.

Notebook-driven development tends to yield a sort of unbounded, non-linear composition. Perhaps you’ve seen a notebook like this: the first couple cells do imports and read in the data, then the rest form this goop of trial and error, where you can tell from the cell numberings that they’ve been run out of order, so it’s totally unclear what the steps of the pipeline are, let alone how they relate to and depend on each other, and the notebook reads like a meandering run-on sentence, much like this one.

If this image isn’t relatable, good. That probably means you’ve internalized the importance of abstraction and have, at the very least, given your processing steps names by putting them in functions. However, stopping there fails to unlock the full potential of our abstractions. If we don’t think about the framework with which we’ll compose them, we’re doomed to maintain the unbounded, non-linear composition that bogged us down before. Consider:

df = pd.read_csv('data/initial_housing_data_RAW-2020JAN12.csv')
df['avg_neighborhood_lot_size'] = avg_lot_size(df, by='neighborhood')
df = binarize_listing_status(df)

While we can make out the individual steps, the interfaces are all over the place; one tweaks the data frame in place, another returns a series, and yet another, a tweaked copy of the data frame. We’re leaving value on the table by not taking a more principled approach. The guiding principle I suggest is design functions to be pipelined. Pandas gives us a useful tool to steer us in this direction: the DataFrame.pipe method.

For our purposes, DataFrame.pipe allows you to chain function calls on a data frame, but only for functions which both take and return a data frame; they must share an interface.

df = pd.read_csv('data/initial_housing_data_RAW-2020JAN12.csv')
df_preprocessed = df.pipe(normalize_addresses)\
                    .pipe(avg_lot_size, by='neighborhood')\

This reads almost like natural language. Moreover, it’s constrained our abstractions to a uniform interface: take a data frame and some parameters, and return a data frame. We may be reluctant to sacrifice the flexibility of programming to arbitrary interfaces, however, 1) it’s a very small lift to get our abstractions to conform to the common interface, and 2) making that small effort will unlock additional expressive power.

To point (1): in the original formulation, normalize_addresses operated on df in place and returned None. Adding return df to the end of the function is the only change we need. Likewise, we need only include the assignment step of df['avg_neighborhood_lot_size'] and return df to make avg_lot_size compliant. binarize_listing_status already conformed.

To point (2): if the output is always a data frame, then we can mechanically add serializing features like checkpointing to any or all of our processing steps:

from checkpoints import checkpoint

def normalize_addresses(df):

Now normalize_addresses automatically caches its results to the specified path. The same goes for any other processing step we decorate. This is critical to the impact of long-running pipelines. Failures are inevitable, but having a checkpoint to resume from can save you hours when you restart the pipeline following a crash. Before we designed our functions for pipelining, the diverging interfaces prevented us from taking a single approach to checkpointing; we’d have to modify each function individually with custom caching logic (or, more likely, exclude checkpoints altogether). Now, we can just install the checkpoints package and sprinkle in a couple decorators to make our big data pipelines more resilient and impactful.

Impact Multiplier #3: Reproducibility

Reproducibility is a key tenet of the scientific method, and striving to make our results as reproducible as possible will yield better software and more impactful analyses.

Your results are more than the sum of their source code. They are equally (and implicitly) dependent on your compute environment. Therefore, being able to reproduce results entails being able to reproduce the environment. The challenge is that an “environment,” unlike the raw text of a source file, is a rather abstract thing, encompassing the libraries used, their versions, your Python installation, the state of the file system, and even the hardware used. The complexity and importance of this challenge has led to a plethora of solutions. Rather than detailing the options, allow me to explain the single approach I’ve found to be the most broadly applicable and have the best power-to-weight ratio: write a Dockerfile and create a container.

A Docker container is essentially a diet virtual machine which can be run on any host with the Docker runtime. This works because a container is, as the name suggests, self-contained; we completely specify the needed operating system, libraries, packages, and setup steps in a Dockerfile . For example, if we’ve been good and maintained a requirements file we can write:

FROM python:3.7
COPY . .
RUN pip install -r requirements.txt notebook
CMD jupyter notebook --allow-root

Anyone interested in recreating our results need only run:

docker build -t experiment:v1 .
docker run -p 8080:8080 experiment:v1

They will then be able to freely re-run our notebooks against the same OS, the same Python version, the same libraries, the same files as ours; in an environment which, for all intents and purposes, is identical to ours. Suddenly, the reproduction of our environment goes from daunting and ad-hoc to trivial and mechanical, greatly boosting our reproducibility and thusly impact.

Remarkably, those 5 lines of Dockerfile have made our analysis cloud-ready for free. After running the above docker build command, one little docker push can send your analysis to an AWS container registry, where it can be picked up and run, for example, by Fargate. With almost no overhead, we’ve enabled innumerable highly-scalable deployment options for our client. Talk about impact.

See simplegcn for a Python project which uses a Dockerfile. In this project’s case, the Dockerfile enabled Travis CI to create an environment for running tests.


Data science is still a relatively young field within computing. It faces unique challenges not yet fully addressed by established methodologies. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help. Remember:

These software engineering recommendations, which entail surprisingly little overhead, augment notebook-driven development in a way that makes the practice of data science more rigorous, collaborative, and impactful.