Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

Useful Python packages for working with data

14th October 2021

My response to changes in the technology stack used in clinical research is to develop some familiarity with programming and scripting platforms that complement and compete with SAS, a system with which I have been programming since 2000. One of these has been R but Python is another that has taken up my attention and I now also have Julia in my sights as well. There may be others to assess in the fullness of time.

While I first started to explore the Data Science world in the autumn of 2017, it was in the autumn of 2019 that I began to complete LinkedIn training courses on the subject. Good though they were, I find that I need to actually use a tool in order to better understand it. At that time, I did get to hear about Python packages like Pandas, NumPy, SciPy, Scikit-learn, Matplotlib, Seaborn and Beautiful Soup  though it took until of spring of this year for me to start gaining some hands-on experience with using any of these.

During the summer of 2020, I attended a BCS webinar on the CodeGrades initiative, a programming mentoring scheme inspired by the way classical musicianship is assessed. In fact, one of the main progenitors is a trained classical musician and teacher of classical music who turned to Python programming when starting a family so as to have a more stable income. The approach is that a student selects a project and works their way through it with mentoring and periodic assessments carried out in a gentle and discursive manner. Of course, the project has to be engaging for the learning experience to stay the course and that point came through in the webinar.

That is one lesson that resonates with me with subjects as diverse as web server performance and the ongoing pandemic pandemic supplying data and there are other sources of public data to examine as well before looking through my own personal archive gathered over the decades. Some subjects are uplifting while others are more foreboding but the key thing is that they sustain interest and offer opportunities for new learning. Without being able to dream up new things to try, my knowledge of R and Python would not be as extensive as it is and I hope that it will help with learning Julia too.

In the main, my own learning has been a solo effort with consultation of documentation along with web searches that have brought me to the likes of Real Python, Stack Abuse, Data Viz with Python and R and others for longer tutorials as well as threads on Stack Overflow. Usually, the web searching begins when I need a steer on a particular or a way to resolve a particular error or warning message but books always are worth reading even if that is the slower route. Those from the Dummies series or from O’Reilly have proved must useful so far but I do need to read them more completely than I already have; it is all too tempting to go with the try the “programming and search for solutions as you go” approach instead.

To get going, many choose the Anaconda distribution to get Jupyter notebook functionality but I prefer a more traditional editor so Spyder has been my tool of choice for Python programming and there are others like PyCharm as well. Spyder itself is written in Python so it can be installed using pip from PyPi like other Python packages. It has other dependencies like Pylint for code management activities but these get installed behind the scenes.

The packages that I first met in 2019 may be the mainstays for doing data science but I have discovered others since then. It also seems that there is porosity between the worlds of R an Python so you get some Python packages aping R packages and R has the Reticulate package for executing Python code. There are Python counterparts to such Tidyverse stables as dply and ggplot2 in the form of Siuba and Plotnine, respectively. The syntax of these packages are not direct copies of what is executed in R but they are close enough for there to be enough familiarity for added user friendliness compared to Pandas or Matplotlib. The interoperability does not stop there for there is SQLAlchemy for connecting to MySQL and other databases (PyMySQL is needed as well) and there also is SASPy for interacting with SAS Viya.

Pyhton may not have the speed of Julia but there are plenty of packages for working with larger workloads. Of these, Dask, Modin and RAPIDS all have there uses for dealing with data volumes that make Pandas code crawl. As if to prove that there are plenty of libraries for various forms of data analytics, data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning, there also are the likes of Keras, TensorFlow and NetworkX. These are just a selection of what is available and there is no need not to check out more. It may be tempting to stick with the most popular packages all the time, especially when they do so much, but it never hurst to keep an open mind either.

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