Konrad Hinsen's Blog

The computational notebook of the future (part 2)

A while ago I wrote about my ideas for a successor of today’s computational notebooks. Since then I have made some progress on a prototype implementation, which is the topic of this post. Again I have made a companion screencast (also on Vimeo for those who find peervideo.net too slow to access) so that you can get a better idea of how all this works in practice.

As a reminder, the two aspects of today’s notebooks (Mathematica, Jupyter, R markdown, Emacs/OrgMode) that I consider harmful for scientific communication are:

  1. The linear structure of a notebook that forces the narrative to follow the order of the computation.

  2. The impossibility to refer to data and code in a notebook from the outside, and in particular from another notebook, making reuse of code and data impossible.

Like the demo that I made last time, and which is best qualified as a quick hack, the computational document that I am presenting today is implemented in Pharo and builds on the Glamorous Toolkit, which is an innovative development environment designed around the notion of “moldable development”, which means that developers should be able to adapt their tools to their specific needs with little effort. This is precisely what I have done. The code is on GitHub and includes the example document from the demo.

Contrary to today’s notebooks, my computational documents consist of two distinct layers, which I show for an example in the screencast. A workflow layer consists of scripts (short pieces of code) that compute datasets keep track of the data dependencies. The workflow layer can be visualized as a graph. Scripts and datasets make up a standard Pharo object that can be used as a building block in subsequent work, unlike the code and data in today’s notebooks. For example, the Pharo expression InfluenzaLikeIllnessInFrance data absoluteIncidence yields one of the data frames from my example document and can be used in any type of Pharo code, including code in another document.

On top of that workflow layer, there is a documentation layer consisting of a Wiki-style multi-page document in which each page can contain code snippets. These code snippets are intended for data presentation (plotting etc.) and for demonstrations (examples, verifications, etc.) They are not accessible from outside their pages, and they cannot change the datasets computed by the workflow. The documentation pages can refer to and include the datasets, the scripts, but also arbitrary other Pharo code. In particular, this allows including library code used by the workflow scripts in the documentation layer, as opposed to today’s notebooks for which library code is undocumentable black-box code.

A third essential element is the playground attached to the workflow. This is where interactive exploration takes place. Code snippets in the playground can access datasets just like scripts, but they cannot modify them. The playground is meant both for authors and for readers. Authors develop scripts incrementally in the playground, and turn them into scripts (at the click of a button) when they are satisfied. Readers can write code snippets for exploring the data in more detail.

The code is currently “demo quality”, so please don’t rely on it for your own research. Even the underlying GToolkit library is still advertised as alpha level. There is a reason for calling this the future rather than the present! However, there are a few conclusions that I am already willing to draw from this work:

  1. An authoring environment for computational documents should also be a more general software development environment. If you have to change tools for switching from library code to a computational document or back, you have a technological barrier to overcome that creates a mental separation between “inside” and “outside”, whereas the science that you want to communicate is on both sides of your barrier.

  2. The emphasis on making all code and data explorable that has been part of Smalltalk culture from the start is highly beneficial for computational science as well. Notebook environments such as Jupyter or RStudio feel extremely limited compared to the standard Pharo environment, let alone the more advanced GToolkit.

  3. Decomposing the computation into smaller independent scripts with well-defined interfaces makes it more understandable. In the traditional linear notebooks, you never know how far further down a temporary variable will be used. You must read the code from top to bottom to be sure not to miss something. Likewise, separating “essential” computations on the data from “superficial” computations such as plotting makes the overall scientific logic stand out better.

  4. A good authoring environment must support the full lifecycle of computer-aided research, starting with interactive exploration and iterating towards a computational document optimized for the reader rather than the author. Today’s notebooks do not provide this support by sticking to a linear structure that is satisfactory only in the initial stages of the lifecycle.