Data Provenance with GitPython

Data Provenance

When running scientific software it is considered a best practice to automatically record the versions of all the software you use. This practice is sometimes referred to as recording the provenance of the results and helps make your analysis more reproducible. Almost all software libraries will have a version number that you can somehow access from your own software. For example, NumPy’s version number is recorded in the variable numpy.__version__ and most Python packages will having something similar. Python’s version is in the variable sys.version (and, alternatively, sys.version_info).

However, a lot of personal or lab software doesn’t have a version number. The software might change so fast and be modified by so many people that manually incrememented version numbers aren’t very practical. There’s still hope in this situation, though, if the software is under version control. (Your software is under version control, isn’t it?) In Subversion the keyword properties feature is often used to record provenance. There isn’t a compatible feature in Git, but for Python software in Git repositories we can engineer a provenance solution using the GitPython package.

Returning to Previous States with Git

When you make a commit in Git the state of the repository is recorded and given a label based on a hash of the commit data. We can use the commit hash to return to any recorded state of the repository using the “git checkout” command. This means that if you know the commit hash of your software when you created a certain set of results, you can always set your software back to that state to reproduce the same results. Very handy!

Recording the Commit Hash

When you import a Python module, code at the global level of the module is actually executed. This is often used to set global variables within the module, which is what we’ll do here. GitPython lets us interact with Git repos from Python and one thing we can do is query a repo to get the commit hash of the current “HEAD“. (HEAD is a label in Git pointing to the latest commit of whatever state the repository is currently in.)

What we can do with that is make it so that when our software modules are imported they set a global variable containing the commit hash of their HEAD at the time the software was run. That hash can then be inserted into data products as a record of the software version used to create them. Here’s some code that gets and stores the hash of the HEAD of a repo:

from git import Repo
MODULE_HASH = Repo('/path/to/repo/').head.commit.hexsha

If the module we’re importing is actually inside a Git repo we can use a bit of Python magic to get the HEAD hash without manually listing the path to the repo:

import os.path
from git import Repo
repo_dir = os.path.abspath(os.path.dirname(__file__))
MODULE_HASH = Repo(repo_dir).head.commit.hexsha

(__file__ is a global variable Python automatically sets in imported modules.)

Versioned Data

Some data formats, especially those that are text based, can be easily stored in version control. If you can put your data in a Git repo then the same strategy as above can be used to get and store the HEAD commit of the data repo when you run your analysis, allowing you to reproduce both your software and data states during later runs. If your data does not easily fit into Git it’s still a good idea to record a unique identifier for the dataset, but you may need to develop that yourself (such as a simple list of all the data files that were used as inputs).

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