Pandas: Thinking in Vectors

 0 data science

The more you use pandas to wrangle your data the more likely you’ll come across something complicated that you won’t be sure how to do. I found this quite quickly when trying to calculate metrics with time series data for example.

In these cases quite often the first solution that pops into my head will be the naive, brute force one. Something like “well we can loop through all the rows and perform a computation on each row one by one”.

That is almost never the right approach, because it will be slow.

The better solution is almost always to make use of vectorisation.

Pandas is built on top of numpy, which is built with vectors in mind – that is, manipulating entire arrays at once rather than the individual elements.

That way of thinking can be a hard to adjust to when the temptation is to use loops.

Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to start with the brute force approach to be confident of the answer, and then move to a vectorised solution. For large datasets though, this move can easily be the difference between the script taking seconds or hours to run.


Date Methods

Applying methods to a column of date values is a common data manipulation task, for example when extracting the day as a new feature. There are (at least) two functionally identical ways of doing this:

# Method 1 - row by row
days = []
for s in my_dataframe["my_date_column"]:
my_dataframe["day"] = days

# Method 2 - using the inbuilt and vectorised date functionality
my_dataframe["day"] = my_dataframe["my_date_column"]

They’ll do exactly the same thing, but the second will be orders of magnitude faster.

Subtracting Consecutive Values

This is one of those problems where, if you don’t know the pandas way to do it, it’s easy to start thinking row by row.

Again, here are two functionally identical ways of doing it:

# Method 1 - a function to loop through the elements one by one
def naive_diff(series):
    diff_values = []
    for i in range(len(series)):
        # first value needs to be NaN
        if i == 0:
            diff_values.append(series[i] - series[i-1])
    return diff_values

df["diff"] = naive_diff(df["measurement"])

# Method 2 - using the pandas shift() function
df["diff_2"] = df["measurement"] - df["measurement"].shift()

As well as being shorter, the second method is again much faster.



This was just a very brief introduction into thinking in vectors when using pandas.

The code is available as a Jupyter notebook.

The take away message is that whenever you need to do something to each row, it’s worth spending time doing some research to look for an appropriate, in built function, and thinking a bit harder about how to solve it in a vectorised way.

Footnote: Apply and Itertuples

If you absolutely must loop through the dataframe row by row, you should consider using apply and itertuples. They are two pandas functions that let you perform elementwise computation, but are faster than manually looping through the row indices.

There are further good tips under this StackOverflow question.

Further Reading

When doing some research for this post I came across this blog post, which is worth a read on the subject.


Footnote #2: This is the fourth entry in my 30 day blog challenge.

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