Patterns and anti-patterns of data analysis reuse

data science workflows

A speed-run through four stages of data analysis reuse, to the end game you probably guessed was coming.

Miles McBain
Three projects share a common code library dependency. Re-use solved?

Figure 1: Three projects share a common code library dependency. Re-use solved?

Every data analysis / data scientist role I’ve worked in has had a strong theme of redoing variations of the same analysis. I expect this is something of an industry-wide trend. If you’re in marketing you’re ranking prospects, and A/B testing their responses. If you’re in emergency services planning you’re re-running the same kinds of simulations targeting the same kinds of KPIs (response times). If you’re in banking you’re predicting churn, arrears etc. The details change, but you see the same problem structure repeated over and over.

Even when I was supporting researchers I often saw them cut and paste methods from older works and ‘adapt them’ to whatever the current question was, using their favoured hammer to hit every nail.

It’s The Data Analyst’s Curse: You’re keen to prove you can use these much-hyped skills to add value. But as soon as you do, you’re stuck. Your value-add becomes business as usual (BAU). And good luck to you if you think you’re going to shirk BAU to investigate more interesting data - that would be a value-subtract. And those make the well dressed people with soft-keyboard-covered-iPads under their arms very unhappy.

Given your curse, your sanity now depends on re-using as much work as possible across these achingly-samey-but-subtlety-different projects. You and your team need to set yourselves up so you can re-cover old ground quickly, hopefully ensuring that you have plenty of time to build on capabilities you’ve already proven, rather than just executing and re-executing the same capability until you all get bored and quit.1

So now lets look at the ways you can reuse your data analysis work. And I’m making two pretty big assumptions in this discussion:

  1. Your work is written in code e.g. R, Python, Julia, Rust etc. - If you’re using PowerBI, or god forbid Excel, you’re largely limited to the first two less than ideal approaches I am about to discuss.
  2. You use a technology like Quarto, or Rmarkdown, or Shiny, such that any document-like products are generated from code. - If you don’t do this there’s a host of added pitfalls on top of what we’ll discuss here, more than can sensibly be covered in one blog post.

Copying and pasting from stuff you did earlier

It’s in the name. Instead of redoing an analysis you know how to do from scratch you open up the project from last time and go ctrl-c ctrl-v wild. At first this may feel pretty good. Almost like cheating. If you’re clever you won’t tell your boss or clients how much time you just saved. And not because you’re dishonest. No it’s because what the ol’ copypasta is actually doing is slowly accumulating a mountain of ‘technical-debt’ or ‘old-weird-stuff-we-don’t-really-understand-anymore-but-keeps-coming-along-for-the-ride-and-now-we-can’t-touch-it-without-ruining-everything’.

Eventually the interest on that technical debt, paid in terms of ‘time spent stuffing around trying to add an incremental improvement’, eats all the productivity gains you got from the copy-paste in the first place. 2

There are several ways this can happen. Here’s a scenario.

The client really liked the dynamics evident in the event stream plot on project BLUE. So for project ORANGE it’s only natural to pull that plot and its data processing dependencies in via copy-paste.

A copy of a data analysis directory is made.

Figure 2: A copy of a data analysis directory is made.

But hang on your colleague Russell is a fan of the work too. He wants to show it to a new client on project GREEN. No worries mate, it’s in /projects/GREEN/GREEN_final_complete2/code/script04.R. What? No it worked on my machine, I swear. Oh wait. Try the dev version of ggplot2.

A copy of a copy is made.

Figure 3: A copy of a copy is made.

Oh no. Murphy’s law. You found a bug in that beautiful plot you were so proud of. There were some pesky duplicates in the data. So you fixed it on project ORANGE. Better fix it on project BLUE too. And lookout you forgot to tell Russell on project GREEN!

A bug is found and two of the three copies are updated.

Figure 4: A bug is found and two of the three copies are updated.

What kind of damage can we expect from this?

One of the copies still carries the bug.

Figure 5: One of the copies still carries the bug.

Copy-pasted code is like a virus. With each reproduction it can acquire mutations that make it more or less fit to be copied in the future. Maybe Russell added a sweet forecast with uncertainty gradients to the plot. He didn’t bother to fix the duplicate issue because it was minor in his case. Now when someone wants a forecast, it is Russell’s variant of your buggy code that will reproduce. After it acquires enough mutations you could very well accidentally copy a version containing your original bug into your own project, and you’ll be confused as to how this bug you fixed 18 months ago has risen from the grave.

The erosion of trust, the stress, the time wasted, the fumbling for the right version in this every growing pile is the interest bill for your technical debt.3

The one template to rule them all

The cure for the copy-paste virus and all it’s ills is centralisation. For each project you build on a centralised base that contains the definitive versions of all the commonly used functionality that makes up your data analysis capability. Creating a shared project template is a realisation of this idea. The crudest example of a viable template might be a giant monolith of a Quarto file that contains all your project code and text, with placeholder text or #TODO comments that indicate where the data analyst needs to insert stuff that is specific to their current project.

The return of copy-paste

In theory, as the team builds on their data analysis capability, the shared template can be updated so all future projects will benefit from enhancements or fixes that are made. I say ‘in theory’ because the first pitfall of this approach is that in order to build on the template you have to take a copy of it. So changes you make to your copy don’t automatically get reflected in the centralised version. Your colleagues aren’t even aware your changes exist. There may be some kind of agreement in place that ‘we’ll all push our changes back to the central template as we go’, but since this task is not necessary for the delivery of the work, it relies on human discipline, or rigid adherence to process, which inevitably fails under pressure.

So despite the best of intentions your team can end up with diverging templates in play, and the temptation is to reuse a version with the features you need rather then the shared version, and THUNK you’ve backslid to ‘copying and pasting from stuff you did earlier’.

But that’ll never happen to your team right? You’re not that lazy. Well let me tell you about a different kind of trap templates hold for clever industrious types.

Power overwhelming

When you’re maintaining a template it seems like the productive thing to do should be to push as much as possible into it, to minimise the work needed for each data analysis job. Perhaps you have an ideal where you press a button, the machinery cranks away, and spits out all the metrics, tables, and plots you need. Leaving you just bit of interpretation and a few points of commentary to do.

The challenge you’ll face in getting there is that there are always niggling little details of each new data set, and new context that require some special handling. To try to solve for this you can make the template configurable. You might even employ meta-programming techniques to conditionally change the way your outputs look.

So because the word ‘configure’ was spoken, someone will suggest using YAML or JSON to store it. Guaranteed. Because that’s just what you do config right? Resist this. I urge you. Does YAML look that much better to your eyes than a literal R list or Python dictionary? Code can be refactored, code can be auto-completed, code can be analysed, checked, styled etc. But text? May you be so lucky.

Once you’re talking template config you’re on a narrow and dangerous path. You feed the beast and it grows bigger and hungrier. Despite your best efforts the template will never be flexible enough to satisfy your ideal. You’ll find yourself saying ‘if we just allow X to be configurable…’ and field upon field will be added. Perhaps you’ll find away to allow configured objects to be referenced so they can be reused. Or maybe you’ll sprinkle a bit of flow control on it - ‘if this not that’ etc.

Or maybe to speed up the now arduous config process you’ll template the config for the template, yeah that should probably do it. No? Okay fuck it. Maybe you’ll allow the user to supply custom code expressions enclosed in " (of course) to be inserted at critical junctures in the project. You may think I am exaggerating but these are horrors I have seen with my own eyes. Some created by my own hand.

And maybe if you’re fortunate, when you’re bloodied and panting, having just screamed “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” into your screen like a lunatic, you will have a moment of clarity, and you will realise that you were never configuring anything. You were slowly imbuing your configuration with the powers of code to create yourself a new high level, fully functional, but horribly specified language with which to describe your solution to the data analysis problem. It was programming all along.

If you are at this point now do not despair. Many have been here before you. I know this phenomenon as The Inner Platform Effect and I learned about it the hard way in my first job. I also like to remix Greenspun’s tenth rule of programming for this occasion:

Any sufficiently complicated plain text configuration scheme contains an ad
hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of
Common Lisp.

Templates are, at best, a partial solution to data analysis reuse. In a similar way to the copy-paste strategy, they can feel very productive initially, but if you let them become too complex, increasing amounts of resources will go to keeping the template machinery working, sucking time away from developing your team’s data analysis capabilities.

The one package to rule them all

Instead of expressing a high level project solution in template configuration, there’s a much better time to be had creating a library of powerful domain specific functions (or objects if that’s your thing) that can be composed and invoked to perform major parts of the data analysis. The flexibility to handle all the little individual circumstantial curios comes from parameters which can change the behaviour of functions, or from composing the functions in different ways, perhaps adding, removing, or swapping them to account for different situations.

With powerful functions you still maximise the ratio of work done to keystrokes pressed. You do so by doing more work with each line of code you type, as opposed to building a machine powered by config that outputs prefabricated analysis. And code, unlike configuration, has all the degrees of freedom you could possibly need from the outset.

So assuming you can create this suite of functions designed to work together that the whole team will share and contribute to, it’s fairly natural to put them into a software package or library. One reason for this is that the combination of package name and version give you what you need create reproducible work. The package can be updated, but so long as you know the version number your project depends on, you can install that version from the source code repository, and your code won’t break due to changes made by others.

Why is this important? Well I think one of the main reasons templates backslide into copy-pasting your own bespoke versions of said templates is because it can feel like ‘there’s not enough time’ to understand what (if any) changes have been made to the centralised version by others, and how to incorporate them with your own. A package acts as a kind of ‘forcing function’ for better practices that make this easier.

An example practice is automated testing. This is a practice typically associated with packages, but not configurable templates. A test suite can give your team the confidence to merge multiple streams of changes together, since a passing test suite becomes strong evidence that the changes mesh together nicely!

You may be wondering about the overhead of building and maintaining software packages. People who haven’t done much of it usually do. The trick is that there are software packages that contain sets of powerful functions dedicated to creating and maintaining software packages. In R these are {devtools}, {testthat}, {usethis} et. al. With these I can create a fully compliant and installable R package, backed by a git repository, in less than 10 minutes. In most decent programming languages I have used this is also the case. Nothing exceptional going on here.

That fact that the pattern of breaking a problem domain into powerful functions that are packaged into modular units can be recursively applied to solve the problem of creating packages of functions should be some evidence that this is a scalable technique for managing complexity. And it has been complexity, in various guises, that has wrought havoc on the reuse techniques mentioned up until this point.

Caution: Oversized

I’m going to warn you about a pitfall here, but unfortunately it probably won’t save you. Every workplace I have seen turn toward software packaging as a tool for data analysis reuse has fallen into this pit. Perhaps we are all destined to.

I surmise it’s to do the fact that initially creating a software package can be daunting. There’s a bit to get your head around. Conventions to learn. So since it seems like it’s going to be a slog, maybe teams imagine that this is a task they’re going to undertake once. If they work for ACME company then they’re making a single package: {aceme}, {acmefun}, {acemetools}, {acmeutils} or some such generic concept like that.

The problem with this idea is that eventually complexity overcomes here as well. One reason is that it’s generally considered bad juju to remove functions from a package. You typically do a thing called ‘deprecation’ where you make calling the function throw threatening warnings to stop using it. And you leave those warnings in place for a long while before you hit delete, so that all the package’s users have a chance to update their project sources.

So if it’s easy to add, but hard to remove, package bloat is a risk. In a bloated package it gets hard to find things. Reading the documentation becomes a chore. In their bloat-induced-ignorance people may add functionality to it that is a rehash of stuff that already exists in a different form, further exacerbating this problem.

I also believe monolithic packages encourage bad software design. Assumptions about the internal implementations of functions or the internal data structure of their outputs may bleed out into other areas of the package, causing them to become coupled by those assumptions. In a sprawling code base these kinds of couplings are not always clear, so in practice this means you run into unexpected challenges when rewriting things to work better, since you unwittingly violate assumptions made elsewhere, making more work for yourself.

By contrast, in a modular system of tightly focused software packages, it is more obvious that knowledge relating to implementation details should not influence code across package boundaries. To do so would imply the two packages have to be updated in a synchronised fashion, and that sounds like an awkward bad time, because it is.

I’ve seen a similar (anti)pattern to ‘one-package’ play out with functions. This seems to catch out people who are transitioning out of a script-based workflow with lots of duplicated code, into a style based on functional composition.

Massive functions get written with perhaps a dozen arguments, containing hundreds of lines of code, that are really not much more than wrangle_data.script rebadged as:


Sure we’re using functions, but we’re actually attempting to template the entire solution using the function’s arguments. Many of the pitfalls of templates apply 4.

Such a function is pretty much un-testable due to the combinatoric explosion of possible sets of inputs. And you can bet that the internals are not written in high level domain-specific code. When I look at that function signature I hear the screams of matrices being ground to a fine powder of bits through the conical burrs of nested for loops, and laboured index arithmetic.

Functions with these properties are hard to update with confidence, so they tend to set like concrete. Discrete sections of code that might be more widely applicable are locked up inside, unless… you could copy-paste them out? ;)

As per concrete pretty much the only way to fix these functions is to break them up do over (with modular re-usable pieces!).

Your personal ’verse of packages

We’re getting to it now! When we were discussing the ‘one-package’ pattern we talked about how the pattern of breaking down data analysis code into reusable functions stored in packages is a recursively applicable method for managing complexity in reusable code - that is we can use the same idea to break down both analysis projects and monolithic packages into a modular ‘universe’ of packages that are interoperable.

A healthy universe will likely contain packages spread out along the ‘ladder of abstraction’ - that is we’ll have a mix of user-facing tools (high level), and lower level packages that contain common code that powers those tools (low level).

Examples are probably useful here. In my current job we have a small package called {checkurself} that facilitates creating and running list of quality checks on a dataset. This package can be used directly, but it shows up as a dependency in a higher level package called {tdctargets} which contains macros5 for pipeline construction. There are macros that define certain kinds of pipeline targets (inputs / outputs) that are quality checked, with the quality check results automatically becoming a separate pipeline target. You can roll with a default quality check, or you can use {checkurself} directly to plug in your own.

Other examples of lower level packages in your universe might be things that wrap up API endpoints or SQL queries to provide easy access to commonly used source data. These might show up as dependencies for higher level packages that make frequently used visualisations of those data.

In my last job we were endlessly plotting fire stations on maps. So it made sense build out tooling to the point where you could just do something like:

qfesdata::get_station_locations() |>
  ggplot() +
  snapbox::layer_mapbox(geometry = st_bbox(area_of_interest)) +
  qfesvis::layer_stations() +
  # some kind of analysis layer

{qfesdata}, {snapbox}, and {qfesvis} were the in-house built packages that wrapped up a surprisingly large amount stuff: database queries, API calls, geospatial data transformation, plotting aesthetic mappings etc. Making beautiful maps went from hours down to minutes.

We also retained the flexibility to build off in new directions on top of what we had, without the weight of copying hundreds of lines of code around.

On the subject of identifying niches for internal packages, I really enjoyed Emily Riederer’s essay on the topic, which introduces the idea that internally developed packages are kind of like extra expert team members.

You can give your software a graceful death

With the package universe, the problem of ‘easy to add difficult to remove’ that drives individual package bloat is a bit less severe. If a package becomes superseded or irrelevant, you can just stop taking a dependency on it, and forget about it. Unlike deprecated functions that have to live on guarded by warnings, you’re not going to be constantly reminded of a superseded package. You won’t have to navigate around its source and documentation when they show up in your searches.6

Snap back to reality

I’ve presented a shared universe of domain specific software packages as an idealised solution to data analysis code reuse. There are several problems with this idea in practice.

The first is how and when do you actually build out the universe? Typically you can’t design this type of thing up front. You might know from experience that you’re certain to need a few pieces, but there will always be niche domain specific tasks that you do not recognise as common components of the workflow until you’ve actually performed the same flavour of data analysis a few times.

The implication here is that you’re going to need to adopt a ‘crafts-person’ style approach, where your tools are continually honed, and their effectiveness at producing superior results continuously examined. This should lead to feedback that improves the tooling, creating the headroom on top of ‘business as usual’ that you can use to improve the tooling in the future. It’s a virtuous cycle.

It’s probable you’re going to have to start this virtuous cycle from less than virtuous, or ‘humble’, beginnings. And you should be fine with that. The important thing is to keep applying the pattern of breaking down the work into powerful domain specific modular tools. I always idealise this process like a ratchet. Ideally the when the team ‘clicks forward’ we lock in capability in a way that can’t be wound back.

To lock in capability the tooling has to be well designed and built. So practices like ‘dogfooding’7, seeking peer feedback early, formal code review, and software testing become highly relevant to making this happen.

The second problem is that it’s all well and good to have this universe of powerful tools at your disposal, but starting a known type of data analysis from scratch every time, typing out the same boilerplate code to load your tools, and ingest the data can feel like a bit of a chore.

This is where a little templating can go a long way. My advice is to avoid building the complete machine (no config!), and rather conceive a lightweight project skeleton, that includes boiler plate code, and implies the overall project structure8, but leaves the user to flesh out the (hopefully) interesting parts.


I presented four patterns for reusing data analysis code:

  1. Copy-paste from stuff you did earlier
  2. A Centralised template
  3. A shared software package
  4. A shared universe of software packages

Another way of viewing this sequence is as a kind of march of progress like this:

'The March of Progress' of humanity's ancient ape-like ancestors into modern humans. From 'Early Man' (1965).

Figure 6: ‘The March of Progress’ of humanity’s ancient ape-like ancestors into modern humans. From ‘Early Man’ (1965).

Every data analysis team I have worked on has gone through this march, although some were already more advanced when I joined. I am not sure if it’s possible to skip evolutions. It it may only be possible to ‘speed run’ our teams through them.

Things being increasingly ‘centralised’ or ‘shared’ was a common thread, but I have completely neglected cultural challenges that can arise with doing this. Suffice to say for now: establishing and maintaining trust and shared values among the team is a necessary condition for effective reuse of shared resources, and progressing through the stages.

Perhaps you have seen teams even further along this march than I have. I’d be eager to hear what lies beyond!

Presented with thanks to Nick Tierney for reviewing this post. It runs with some ideas from a talk I gave in 2022.

  1. The sort of mind that will tolerate the guts of computers, and the various ways they can torture data, does so out of a kind of insatiable curiosity. That curiosity can be harnessed to great productive effect. But remove the opportunity to be curious, and curiosity will vest elsewhere, and morale will suffer.↩︎

  2. The interest on technical debt is debited at the least opportune time.↩︎

  3. Perhaps you can see why if you don’t use something like Quarto to generate your documents, you increase the surface area for ‘copy-paste gone wrong’ type mistakes to occur on greatly, since you need to execute synchronised copy-pastes in source code and document files.↩︎

  4. If a function starts taking YAML configuration files as arguments you are on borrowed time.↩︎

  5. Okay in R, they’re ‘target factories’ that depend on R’s special flavour of meta-programming.↩︎

  6. In reality you probably are because you’ll have that one colleague that will cling to it.↩︎

  7. that is ‘eating your own dogfood’ or using your own tools to understand their strengths and weaknesses↩︎

  8. It’s a little appreciated fact that deciding how to structure things is actually the ‘deciding how to name things’ problem raised to a power↩︎


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For attribution, please cite this work as

McBain (2024, March 11). Before I Sleep: Patterns and anti-patterns of data analysis reuse. Retrieved from

BibTeX citation

  author = {McBain, Miles},
  title = {Before I Sleep: Patterns and anti-patterns of data analysis reuse},
  url = {},
  year = {2024}