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Why Python for Data Analysis ?

Saurabh Jain

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python.jpgFor data analysis and interactive, exploratory computing and data visualization, Python will inevitably draw comparisons with the many other domain-specific open source and commercial programming languages and tools in wide use, such as R, MATLAB, SAS, Stata, and others. In recent years, Python’s improved library support (primarily pandas) has made it a strong alternative for data manipulation tasks. Combined with Python’s strength in general purpose programming, it is an excellent choice as a single language for building data-centric applications

Solving the “Two-Language” Problem 

In many organizations, it is common to research, prototype, and test new ideas using a more domain-specific computing language like MATLAB or R then later port those ideas to be part of a larger production system written in, say, Java, C#, or C++. What people are increasingly finding is that Python is a suitable language not only for doing research and prototyping but also building the production systems, too. I believe that more and more companies will go down this path as there are often significant organizational benefits to having both scientists and technologists using the same set of programmatic tools.

Essential Python Libraries

For those who are less familiar with the scientific Python ecosystem and the libraries used in data analysis. I present the following overview of some  libraries 

1. NumPy

numpy.jpgNumPy, short for Numerical Python, is the foundational package for scientific computing in Python.  It provides, among other things

  • A fast and efficient multidimensional array object ndarray
  • Functions for performing element-wise computations with arrays or mathematical operations between arrays
  • Tools for reading and writing array-based data sets to disk
  • Linear algebra operations, Fourier transform, and random number generation
  • Tools for integrating connecting C, C++, and Fortran code to Python

Beyond the fast array-processing capabilities that NumPy adds to Python, one of its primary purposes with regards to data analysis is as the primary container for data to be passed between algorithms. For numerical data, NumPy arrays are a much more efficient way of storing and manipulating data than the other built-in Python data structures. Also, libraries written in a lower-level language, such as C or Fortran, can operate on the data stored in a NumPy array without copying any data.

2. pandas

pandas.pngpandas provides rich data structures and functions designed to make working with structured data fast, easy, and expressive. It is, as you will see, one of the critical ingredients enabling Python to be a powerful and productive data analysis environment. The primary object in pandas that will be used is the DataFrame, a two dimensional tabular, column-oriented data structure with both row and column labels:

pandas combines the high performance array-computing features of NumPy with the flexible data manipulation capabilities of spreadsheets and relational databases (such as SQL). It provides sophisticated indexing functionality to make it easy to reshape, slice and dice, perform aggregations, and select subsets of data.

For financial users, pandas features rich, high-performance time series functionality and tools well-suited for working with financial data. In fact, I initially designed pandas as an ideal tool for financial data analysis applications. For users of the R language for statistical computing, the DataFrame name will be familiar, as the object was named after the similar R data.frame object. They are not the same, however; the functionality provided by data.frame in R is essentially a strict subset of that provided by the pandas DataFrame. While this is a book about Python, I will occasionally draw comparisons with R as it is one of the most widely-used open source data analysis environments and will be familiar to many readers. The pandas name itself is derived from panel data, an econometrics term for multidimensional structured data sets, and Python data analysis itself.

3. matplotlib

mat.pngmatplotlib is the most popular Python library for producing plots and other 2D data visualizations. It was originally created by John D. Hunter (JDH) and is now maintained by a large team of developers. It is well-suited for creating plots suitable for publication. It integrates well with IPython (see below), thus providing a comfortable interactive environment for plotting and exploring data. The plots are also interactive; you can zoom in on a section of the plot and pan around the plot using the toolbar in the plot window.

4. IPython

ipy.jpgIPython is the component in the standard scientific Python toolset that ties everything together. It provides a robust and productive environment for interactive and exploratory computing. It is an enhanced Python shell designed to accelerate the writing, testing, and debugging of Python code. It is particularly useful for interactively working with data and visualizing data with matplotlib. IPython is usually involved with the majority of my Python work, including running, debugging, and testing code. Aside from the standard terminal-based IPython shell, the project also provides 

  • A Mathematica-like HTML notebook for connecting to IPython through a web browser (more on this later). •
  • A Qt framework-based GUI console with inline plotting, multiline editing, and syntax highlighting •
  • An infrastructure for interactive parallel and distributed computing

5. SciPy

scipy.pngSciPy is a collection of packages addressing a number of different standard problem domains in scientific computing. Here is a sampling of the packages included:


  • scipy.integrate: numerical integration routines and differential equation solvers
  • scipy.linalg: linear algebra routines and matrix decompositions extending beyond those provided in numpy.linalg.
  •  scipy.optimize: function optimizers (minimizers) and root finding algorithms
  • scipy.signal: signal processing tools
  • scipy.sparse: sparse matrices and sparse linear system solvers
  • scipy.special: wrapper around SPECFUN, a Fortran library implementing many common mathematical functions, such as the gamma function
  • scipy.stats: standard continuous and discrete probability distributions (density functions, samplers, continuous distribution functions), various statistical tests, and more descriptive statistics
  • scipy.weave: tool for using inline C++ code to accelerate array computations

Together NumPy and SciPy form a reasonably complete computational replacement for much of MATLAB along with some of its add-on toolboxes.


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