Books on Scala for statistical computing and data science


People regularly ask me about books and other resources for getting started with Scala for statistical computing and data science. This post will focus on books, but it’s worth briefly noting that there are a number of other resources available, on-line and otherwise, that are also worth considering. I particularly like the Coursera course Functional Programming Principles in Scala – I still think this is probably the best way to get started with Scala and functional programming for most people. In fact, there is an entire Functional Programming in Scala Specialization that is worth considering – I’ll probably discuss that more in another post. I’ve got a draft page of Scala links which has a bias towards scientific and statistical computing, and I’m currently putting together a short course in that area, which I’ll also discuss further in future posts. But this post will concentrate on books.

Reading list

Getting started with Scala

Before one can dive into statistical computing and data science using Scala, it’s a good idea to understand a bit about the language and about functional programming. There are by now many books on Scala, and I haven’t carefully reviewed all of them, but I’ve looked at enough to have an idea about good ways of getting started.

  • Programming in Scala: Third edition, Odersky et al, Artima.
    • This is the Scala book, often referred to on-line as PinS. It is a weighty tome, and works through the Scala language in detail, starting from the basics. Every serious Scala programmer should own this book. However, it isn’t the easiest introduction to the language.
  • Scala for the Impatient, Horstmann, Addison-Wesley.
    • As the name suggests, this is a much quicker and easier introduction to Scala than PinS, but assumes reasonable familiarity with programming in general, and sort-of assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of Java and the JVM ecosystem. That said, it does not assume that the reader is a Java expert. My feeling is that for someone who has a reasonable programming background and a passing familiarity with Java, then this book is probably the best introduction to the language. Note that there is a second edition in the works.
  • Functional Programming in Scala Chiusano and Bjarnason, Manning.
    • It is possible to write Scala code in the style of "Java-without-the-semi-colons", but really the whole point of Scala is to move beyond that kind of Object-Oriented programming style. How much you venture down the path towards pure Functional Programming is very much a matter of taste, but many of the best Scala programmers are pretty hard-core FP, and there’s probably a reason for that. But many people coming to Scala don’t have a strong FP background, and getting up to speed with strongly-typed FP isn’t easy for people who only know an imperative (Object-Oriented) style of programming. This is the book that will help you to make the jump to FP. Sometimes referred to online as FPiS, or more often even just as the red book, this is also a book that every serious Scala programmer should own (and read!). Note that is isn’t really a book about Scala – it is a book about strongly typed FP that just "happens" to use Scala for illustrating the ideas. Consequently, you will probably want to augment this book with a book that really is about Scala, such as one of the books above. Since this is the first book on the list published by Manning, I should also mention how much I like computing books from this publisher. They are typically well-produced, and their paper books (pBooks) come with complimentary access to well-produced DRM-free eBook versions, however you purchase them.
  • Functional and Reactive Domain Modeling, Ghosh, Manning.
    • This is another book that isn’t really about Scala, but about software engineering using a strongly typed FP language. But again, it uses Scala to illustrate the ideas, and is an excellent read. You can think of it as a more practical "hands-on" follow-up to the red book, which shows how the ideas from the red book translate into effective solutions to real-world problems.
  • Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, second edition Abelson et al, MIT Press.
    • This is not a Scala book! This is the only book in this list which doesn’t use Scala at all. I’ve included it on the list because it is one of the best books on programming that I’ve read, and is the book that I wish someone had told me about 20 years ago! In fact the book uses Scheme (a Lisp derivative) as the language to illustrate the ideas. There are obviously important differences between Scala and Scheme – eg. Scala is strongly statically typed and compiled, whereas Scheme is dynamically typed and interpreted. However, there are also similarities – eg. both languages support and encourage a functional style of programming but are not pure FP languages. Referred to on-line as SICP this book is a classic. Note that there is no need to buy a paper copy if you like eBooks, since electronic versions are available free on-line.

Scala for statistical computing and data science

  • Scala for Data Science, Bugnion, Packt.
    • Not to be confused with the (terrible) book, Scala for machine learning by the same publisher. Scala for Data Science is my top recommendation for getting started with statistical computing and data science applications using Scala. I have reviewed this book in another post, so I won’t say more about it here (but I like it).
  • Scala Data Analysis Cookbook, Manivannan, Packt.
    • I’m not a huge fan of the cookbook format, but this book is really mis-named, as it isn’t really a cookbook and isn’t really about data analysis in Scala! It is really a book about Apache Spark, and proceeds fairly sequentially in the form of a tutorial introduction to Spark. Spark is an impressive piece of technology, and it is obviously one of the factors driving interest in Scala, but it’s important to understand that Spark isn’t Scala, and that many typical data science applications will be better tackled using Scala without Spark. I’ve not read this book cover-to-cover as it offers little over Scala for Data Science, but its coverage of Spark is a bit more up-to-date than the Spark books I mention below, so it could be of interest to those who are mainly interested in Scala for Spark.
  • Scala High Performance Programming, Theron and Diamant, Packt.
    • This is an interesting book, fundamentally about developing high performance streaming data processing algorithm pipelines in Scala. It makes no reference to Spark. The running application is an on-line financial trading system. It takes a deep dive into understanding performance in Scala and on the JVM, and looks at how to benchmark and profile performance, diagnose bottlenecks and optimise code. This is likely to be of more interest to those interested in developing efficient algorithms for scientific and statistical computing rather than applied data scientists, but it covers some interesting material not covered by any of the other books in this list.
  • Learning Spark, Karau et al, O’Reilly.
    • This book provides an introduction to Apache Spark, written by some of the people who developed it. Spark is a big data analytics framework built on top of Scala. It is arguably the best available framework for big data analytics on computing clusters in the cloud, and hence there is a lot of interest in it. The book is a perfectly good introduction to Spark, and shows most examples implemented using the Java and Python APIs in addition to the canonical Scala (Spark Shell) implementation. This is useful for people working with multiple languages, but can be mildly irritating to anyone who is only interested in Scala. However, the big problem with this (and every other) book on Spark is that Spark is evolving very quickly, and so by the time any book on Spark is written and published it is inevitably very out of date. It’s not clear that it is worth buying a book specifically about Spark at this stage, or whether it would be better to go for a book like Scala for Data Science, which has a couple of chapters of introduction to Spark, which can then provide a starting point for engaging with Spark’s on-line documentation (which is reasonably good).
  • Advanced Analytics with Spark, Ryza et al, O’Reilly.
    • This book has a bit of a "cookbook" feel to it, which some people like and some don’t. It’s really more like an "edited volume" with different chapters authored by different people. Unlike Learning Spark it focuses exclusively on the Scala API. The book basically covers the development of a bunch of different machine learning pipelines for a variety of applications. My main problem with this book is that it has aged particularly badly, as all of the pipelines are developed with raw RDDs, which isn’t how ML pipelines in Spark are constructed any more. So again, it’s difficult for me to recommend. The message here is that if you are thinking of buying a book about Spark, check very carefully when it was published and what version of Spark it covers and whether that is sufficiently recent to be of relevance to you.


There are lots of books to get started with Scala for statistical computing and data science applications. My "bare minimum" recommendation would be some generic Scala book (doesn’t really matter which one), the red book, and Scala for data science. After reading those, you will be very well placed to top-up your knowledge as required with on-line resources.

Scala for Data Science [book review]

This post will review the book:

Disclaimer: This book review has not been solicited by the publisher (or anyone else) in any way. I purchased the review copy of this book myself. I have not received any benefit from the writing of this review.


On this blog I previously reviewed the (terrible) book, Scala for machine learning by the same publisher. I was therefore rather wary of buying this book. But the topic coverage looked good, so I decided to buy it, and wasn’t disappointed. Scala for Data Science is my top recommendation for getting started with statistical computing and data science applications using Scala.


The book assumes a basic familiarity with programming in Scala, at around the level of someone who has completed the Functional Programming Principles in Scala Coursera course. That is, it (quite sensibly) doesn’t attempt to teach the reader how to program in Scala, but rather how to approach the development of data science applications using Scala. It introduces more advanced Scala idioms gradually (eg. typeclasses don’t appear until Chapter 5), so it is relatively approachable for those who aren’t yet Scala experts. The book does cover Apache Spark, but Spark isn’t introduced until Chapter 10, so it isn’t “just another Spark book”. Most of the book is about developing data science applications in Scala, completely independently of Spark. That said, it also provides one of the better introductions to Spark, so doubles up as a pretty good introductory Spark book, in addition to being a good introduction to the development of data science applications with Scala. It should probably be emphasised that the book is very much focused on data science, rather than statistical computing, but there is plenty of material of relevance to those who are more interested in statistical computing than applied data science.

Chapter by chapter

  1. Scala and Data Science – motivation for using Scala in preference to certain other languages I could mention…
  2. Manipulating data with BreezeBreeze is the standard Scala library for scientific and statistical computing. It’s pretty good, but documentation is rather lacking. This Chapter provides a good tutorial introduction to Breeze, which should be enough to get people going sufficiently to be able to make some sense of the available on-line documentation.
  3. Plotting with breeze-viz – Breeze has some support for plotting and visualisation of data. It’s somewhat limited when compared to what is available in R, but is fine for interactive exploratory analysis. However, the available on-line documentation for breeze-viz is almost non-existent. This Chapter is the best introduction to breeze-viz that I have seen.
  4. Parallel collections and futures – the Scala standard library has built-in support for parallel and concurrent programming based on functional programming concepts such as parallel (monadic) collections and Futures. Again, this Chapter provides an excellent introduction to these powerful concepts, allowing the reader to start developing parallel algorithms for multi-core hardware with minimal fuss.
  5. Scala and SQL through JDBC – this Chapter looks at connecting to databases using standard JVM mechanisms such as JDBC. However, it gradually introduces more functional ways of interfacing with databases using typeclasses, motivating:
  6. Slick – a functional interface for SQL – an introduction to the Slick library for a more Scala-esque way of database interfacing.
  7. Web APIs – the practicalities of talking to web APIs. eg. authenticated HTTP requests and parsing of JSON responses.
  8. Scala and MongoDB – working with a NoSQL database from Scala
  9. Concurrency with Akka – Akka is the canonical implementation of the actor model in Scala, for building large concurrent applications. It is the foundation on which Spark is built.
  10. Distributed batch processing with Spark – a tutorial introduction to Apache Spark. Spark is a big data analytics framework built on top of Scala and Akka. It is arguably the best available framework for big data analytics on computing clusters in the cloud, and hence there is a lot of interest in it. Indeed, Spark is driving some of the interest in Scala.
  11. Spark SQL and DataFrames – interfacing with databases using Spark, and more importantly, an introduction to Spark’s DataFrame abstraction, which is now fundamental to developing machine learning pipelines in Spark.
  12. Distributed machine learning with MLLib – MLLib is the machine learning library for Spark. It is worth emphasising that unlike many early books on Spark, this chapter covers the newer DataFrame-based pipeline API, in addition to the original RDD-based API. Together, Chapters 10, 11 and 12 provide a pretty good tutorial introduction to Spark. After working through these, it should be easy to engage with the official on-line Spark documentation.
  13. Web APIs with Play – is concerned with developing a web API at the end of a data science pipeline.
  14. Visualisation with D3 and the Play framework – is concerned with integrating visualisation into a data science web application.


This book provides a good tutorial introduction to a large number of topics relevant to statisticians and data scientists interested in developing data science applications using Scala. After working through this book, readers should be well-placed to augment their knowledge with readily searchable on-line documentation.

In a follow-up post I will give a quick overview of some other books relevant to getting started with Scala for statistical computing and data science.

Calling Scala code from R using rscala


In a previous post I looked at how to call Scala code from R using a CRAN package called jvmr. This package now seems to have been replaced by a new package called rscala. Like the old package, it requires a pre-existing Java installation. Unlike the old package, however, it no longer depends on rJava, which may simplify some installations. The rscala package is well documented, with a reference manual and a draft paper. In this post I will concentrate on the issue of calling sbt-based projects with dependencies on external libraries (such as breeze).

On a system with Java installed, it should be possible to install the rscala package with a simple


from the R command prompt. Calling


will check that it has worked. The package will do a sensible search for a Scala installation and use it if it can find one. If it can’t find one (or can only find an installation older than 2.10.x), it will fail. In this case you can download and install a Scala installation specifically for rscala using the command


This option is likely to be attractive to sbt (or IDE) users who don’t like to rely on a system-wide scala installation.

A Gibbs sampler in Scala using Breeze

For illustration I’m going to use a Scala implementation of a Gibbs sampler. The Scala code, gibbs.scala is given below:

package gibbs

object Gibbs {

    import scala.annotation.tailrec
    import scala.math.sqrt
    import breeze.stats.distributions.{Gamma,Gaussian}

    case class State(x: Double, y: Double) {
      override def toString: String = x.toString + " , " + y + "\n"

    def nextIter(s: State): State = {
      val newX = Gamma(3.0, 1.0/((s.y)*(s.y)+4.0)).draw
      State(newX, Gaussian(1.0/(newX+1), 1.0/sqrt(2*newX+2)).draw)

    @tailrec def nextThinnedIter(s: State,left: Int): State =
      if (left==0) s else nextThinnedIter(nextIter(s),left-1)

    def genIters(s: State, stop: Int, thin: Int): List[State] = {
      @tailrec def go(s: State, left: Int, acc: List[State]): List[State] =
        if (left>0)
          go(nextThinnedIter(s,thin), left-1, s::acc)
          else acc

    def main(args: Array[String]) = {
      if (args.length != 3) {
        println("Usage: sbt \"run <outFile> <iters> <thin>\"")
      } else {
        val outF=args(0)
        val iters=args(1).toInt
        val thin=args(2).toInt
        val out = genIters(State(0.0,0.0),iters,thin)
        val s = new
        s.write("x , y\n")
        out map { it => s.write(it.toString) }


This code requires Scala and the Breeze scientific library in order to build. We can specify this in a sbt build file, which should be called build.sbt and placed in the same directory as the Scala code.

name := "gibbs"

version := "0.1"

scalacOptions ++= Seq("-unchecked", "-deprecation", "-feature")

libraryDependencies  ++= Seq(
            "org.scalanlp" %% "breeze" % "0.10",
            "org.scalanlp" %% "breeze-natives" % "0.10"

resolvers ++= Seq(
            "Sonatype Snapshots" at "",
            "Sonatype Releases" at ""

scalaVersion := "2.11.6"

Now, from a system command prompt in the directory where the files are situated, it should be possible to download all dependencies and compile and run the code with a simple

sbt "run output.csv 50000 1000"

sbt magically manages all of the dependencies for us so that we don’t have to worry about them. However, for calling from R, it may be desirable to run the code without running sbt. There are several ways to achieve this, but the simplest is to build an “assembly jar” or “fat jar”, which is a Java byte-code file containing all code and libraries required in order to run the code on any system with a Java installation.

To build an assembly jar first create a subdirectory called project (the name matters), an in it place two files. The first should be called assembly.sbt, and should contain the line

addSbtPlugin("com.eed3si9n" % "sbt-assembly" % "0.13.0")

Since the version of the assembly tool can depend on the version of sbt, it is also best to fix the version of sbt being used by creating another file in the project directory called, which should contain the line


Now return to the parent directory and run

sbt assembly

If this works, it should create a fat jar target/scala-2.11/gibbs-assembly-0.1.jar. You can check it works by running

java -jar target/scala-2.11/gibbs-assembly-0.1.jar output.csv 10000 10

Assuming that it does, you are now ready to try running the code from within R.

Calling via R system calls

Since this code takes a relatively long time to run, calling it from R via simple system calls isn’t a particularly terrible idea. For example, we can do this from the R command prompt with the following commands

system("java -jar target/scala-2.11/gibbs-assembly-0.1.jar output.csv 50000 1000")

This works fine, but is a bit clunky. Tighter integration between R and Scala would be useful, which is where rscala comes in.

Calling assembly Scala projects via rscala

rscala provides a very simple way to embed a Scala interpreter within an R session, to be able to execute Scala expressions from R and to have the results returned back to the R session for further processing. The main issue with using this in practice is managing dependencies on external libraries and setting the Scala classpath correctly. By using an assembly jar we can bypass most of these issues, and it becomes trivial to call our Scala code direct from the R interpreter, as the following code illustrates.

sc%~%'import gibbs.Gibbs._'

Here we call the getIters function directly, rather than via the main method. This function returns an immutable List of States. Since R doesn’t understand this, we map it to an Array of Arrays, which R then unpacks into an R matrix for us to store in the matrix out.


The CRAN package rscala makes it very easy to embed a Scala interpreter within an R session. However, for most non-trivial statistical computing problems, the Scala code will have dependence on external scientific libraries such as Breeze. The standard way to easily manage external dependencies in the Scala ecosystem is sbt. Given an sbt-based Scala project, it is easy to generate an assembly jar in order to initialise the rscala Scala interpreter with the classpath needed to call arbitrary Scala functions. This provides very convenient inter-operability between R and Scala for many statistical computing applications.

Scala for Machine Learning [book review]

Full disclosure: I received a free electronic version of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.

There is clearly a market for a good book about using Scala for statistical computing, machine learning and data science. So when the publisher of “Scala for Machine Learning” offered me a copy for review purposes, I eagerly accepted. Three months later, I have eventually forced myself to read through the whole book, but I was very disappointed. It is important to be clear that I’m not just disappointed because I personally didn’t get much from the book – I am not really the target audience. I am disappointed because I struggle to envisage any audience that will benefit greatly from reading this book. There are several potential audiences for a book with this title: eg. people with little knowledge of Scala or machine learning (ML), people with knowledge of Scala but not ML, people with knowledge of ML but not Scala, and people with knowledge of both. I think there is scope for a book targeting any of those audiences. Personally, I fall in the latter category. The book author claimed to be aiming primarily at those who know Scala but not ML. This is sensible in that the book assumes a good working knowledge of Scala, and uses advanced features of the Scala language without any explanation: this book is certainly not appropriate for people hoping to learn about Scala in the context of ML. However, it is also a problem, as this would probably be the worst book I have ever encountered for learning about ML from scratch, and there are a lot of poor books about ML! The book just picks ML algorithms out of thin air without any proper explanation or justification, and blindly applies them to tedious financial data sets irrespective of whether or not it would be in any way appropriate to do so. It presents ML as an incoherent “bag of tricks” to be used indiscriminately on any data of the correct “shape”. It is by no means the only ML book to take such an approach, but there are many much better books which don’t. The author also claims that the book will be useful to people who know ML but not Scala, but as previously explained, I do not think that this is the case (eg. monadic traits appear on the fifth page, without proper explanation, and containing typos). I think that the only audience that could potentially benefit from this book would be people who know some Scala and some ML and want to see some practical examples of real world implementations of ML algorithms in Scala. I think those people will also be disappointed, for reasons outlined below.

The first problem with the book is that it is just full of errors and typos. It doesn’t really matter to me that essentially all of the equations in the first chapter are wrong – I already know the difference between an expectation and a sample mean, and know Bayes theorem – so I can just see that they are wrong, correct them, and move on. But for the intended audience it would be a complete nightmare. I wonder about the quality of copy-editing and technical review that this book received – it is really not of “publishable” quality. All of the descriptions of statistical/ML methods and algorithms are incredibly superficial, and usually contain factual errors or typos. One should not attempt to learn ML by reading this book. So the only hope for this book is that the Scala implementations of ML algorithms are useful and insightful. Again, I was disappointed.

For reasons that are not adequately explained or justified, the author decides to use a combination of plain Scala interfaced to legacy Java libraries (especially Apache Commons Math) for all of the example implementations. In addition, the author is curiously obsessed with an F# style pipe operator, which doesn’t seem to bring much practical benefit. Consequently, all of the code looks like a strange and rather inelegant combination of Java, Scala, C++, and F#, with a hint of Haskell, and really doesn’t look like clean idiomatic Scala code at all. For me this was the biggest disappointment of all – I really wouldn’t want any of this code in my own Scala code base (though the licensing restrictions on the code probably forbid this, anyway). It is a real shame that Scala libraries such as Breeze were not used for all of the examples – this would have led to much cleaner and more idiomatic Scala code, which could have really taken proper advantage of the functional power of the Scala language. As it is, advanced Scala features were used without much visible pay-off. Reading this book one could easily get the (incorrect) impression that Scala is an unnecessarily complex language which doesn’t offer much advantage over Java for implementing ML algorithms.

On the positive side, the book consists of nearly 500 pages of text, covering a wide range of ML algorithms and examples, and has a zip file of associated code containing the implementation and examples, which builds using sbt. If anyone is interested in seeing examples of ML algorithms implemented in Scala using Java rather than Scala libraries together with a F# pipe operator, then there is definitely something of substance here of interest.


It should be clear from the above review that I think there is still a gap in the market for a good book about using Scala for statistical computing, machine learning and data science. Hopefully someone will fill this gap soon. In the meantime it is necessary to learn about Scala and ML separately, and to put the ideas together yourself. This isn’t so difficult, as there are many good resources and code repositories to help. For learning about ML, I would recommend starting off with ISLR, which uses R for the examples (but if you work in data science, you need to know R anyway). Once the basic concepts are understood, one can move on to a serious text, such as Machine Learning (which has associated Matlab code). Converting algorithms from R or Matlab to Scala (plus Breeze) is generally very straightforward, if you know Scala. For learning Scala, there are many on-line resources. If you want books, I recommend Functional Programming in Scala and Programming in Scala, 2e. Once you know about Scala, learn about scientific computing using Scala by figuring out Breeze. At some point you will probably also want to know about Spark, and there are now books on this becoming available – I’ve just got a copy of Learning Spark, which looks OK.

Inlining Scala Breeze code in R using jvmr and sbt

[Update: The CRAN package “jvmr” has been replaced by a new package “rscala”. Rather than completely re-write this post, I’ve just created a github gist containing a new function, breezeInterpreter(), which works similarly to the function breezeInit() in this post. Usage information is given at the top of the gist.]


In the previous post I showed how to call Scala code from R using sbt and jvmr. The approach described in that post is the one I would recommend for any non-trivial piece of Scala code – mixing up code from different languages in the same source code file is not a good strategy in general. That said, for very small snippets of code, it can sometimes be convenient to inline Scala code directly into an R source code file. The canonical example of this is a computationally intensive algorithm being prototyped in R which has a slow inner loop. If the inner loop can be recoded in a few lines of Scala, it would be nice to just inline this directly into the R code without having to create a separate Scala project. The CRAN package jvmr provides a very simple and straightforward way to do this. However, as discussed in the last post, most Scala code for statistical computing (even short and simple code) is likely to rely on Breeze for special functions, probability distributions, non-uniform random number generation, numerical linear algebra, etc. In this post we will see how to use sbt in order to make sure that the Breeze library and all of its dependencies are downloaded and cached, and to provide a correct classpath with which to initialise a jvmr scalaInterpreter session.

Setting up

Configuring your system to be able to inline Scala Breeze code is very easy. You just need to install Java, R and sbt. Then install the CRAN R package jvmr. At this point you have everything you need except for the R function breezeInit, given at the end of this post. I’ve deferred the function to the end of the post as it is a bit ugly, and the details of it are not important. All it does is get sbt to ensure that Breeze is correctly downloaded and cached and then starts a scalaInterpreter with Breeze on the classpath. With this function available, we can use it within an R session as the following R session illustrates:

&gt; b=breezeInit()
&gt; b['import breeze.stats.distributions._']
&gt; b['Poisson(10).sample(20).toArray']
 [1] 13 14 13 10  7  6 15 14  5 10 14 11 15  8 11 12  6  7  5  7
&gt; summary(b['Gamma(3,2).sample(10000).toArray'])
   Min. 1st Qu.  Median    Mean 3rd Qu.    Max. 
 0.2124  3.4630  5.3310  5.9910  7.8390 28.5200 

So we see that Scala Breeze code can be inlined directly into an R session, and if we are careful about return types, have the results of Scala expressions automatically unpack back into convenient R data structures.


In this post I have shown how easy it is to inline Scala Breeze code into R using sbt in conjunction with the CRAN package jvmr. This has many potential applications, with the most obvious being the desire to recode slow inner loops from R to Scala. This should give performance quite comparable with alternatives such as Rcpp, with the advantage being that you get to write beautiful, elegant, functional Scala code instead of horrible, ugly, imperative C++ code! 😉

The breezeInit function

The actual breezeInit() function is given below. It is a little ugly, but very simple. It is obviously easy to customise for different libraries and library versions as required. All of the hard work is done by sbt which must be installed and on the default system path in order for this function to work.

  sbtStr="name := \"tmp\"

version := \"0.1\"

libraryDependencies  ++= Seq(
            \"org.scalanlp\" %% \"breeze\" % \"0.10\",
            \"org.scalanlp\" %% \"breeze-natives\" % \"0.10\"

resolvers ++= Seq(
            \"Sonatype Snapshots\" at \"\",
            \"Sonatype Releases\" at \"\"

scalaVersion := \"2.11.2\"

lazy val printClasspath = taskKey[Unit](\"Dump classpath\")

printClasspath := {
  (fullClasspath in Runtime value) foreach {
    e =&gt; print(\"!\")

Statistics for Big Data

Doctoral programme in cloud computing for big data

I’ve spent much of this year working to establish our new EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Cloud Computing for Big Data, which partly explains the lack of posts on this blog in recent months. The CDT is now established, with 11 students in the first cohort, and we have begun recruiting for the second cohort, to start in September 2015. We admit roughly equal numbers of students from a Computing Science and Mathematics/Statistics background, and provide an intensive programme of inter-disciplinary training in the first (of four) years. After initial induction and cohort team-building events, the programme begins with 8 weeks of intensive bespoke training developed especially for the CDT students. For the first two weeks the cohort is split into two streams for an initial crash course. Students from a M/S background receive basic training in CS and programming, with an emphasis on object-oriented programming in Java. Students from a CS background get basic training in M/S, emphasising elementary probability and statistics and basic linear algebra. From the start of the third week the entire cohort is trained together. This whole cohort training begins with two 6 week courses running in parallel. One is Programming for big data, concentrating on R programming, Java, databases, and software development tools and techniques. The other course is Statistics for big data, a course that I developed and taught, and the main topic of this post. After the initial 8 weeks of specialist training, the students next take courses on Cloud Computing and Machine learning followed by Big data analytics and Time series data, and finally courses on Research skills and Professional skills, which run along side a Group project.

Statistics for big data

I have found it an interesting challenge to try and put together a 15 credit (150 hours of student effort) course to start from a basic level of statistical knowledge and cover most of the important concepts and methods necessary for modelling and analysis of large and complex data sets. Although the course was not about Big Data per se, it emphasised scalability in general, and exploitation of linearity in particular. Given the mixed levels of mathematical sophistication of the cohort I felt it important to start off with a practical non-technical introduction. For this I covered the first 6 chapters of Introduction to Statistical Learning with R. This provided the students with a basic grounding in statistical modelling ideas, and practical skills in working with data in R. This book is excellent as a non-technical introduction, but is missing the underpinning mathematical and computational details necessary for understanding how to implement such methods in practice. I’ve not found Elements of Statistical Learning to be very suitable as a student text, so I revised, expanded and updated my old multivariate notes to produce a new set of notes on Multivariate Data Analysis using R (I discussed an early version of these notes in a previous post). These notes emphasise the role of numerical linear algebra for solving problems of linear statistical inference in an efficient and numerically stable manner. In particular, they illustrate the use of different matrix factorisations, such as Cholesky, QR, SVD, as well as spectral decompositions, for constructing efficient solutions. Although some of the students with a weaker mathematical background struggled with some of the more technical topics, the associated practical sessions illustrated how the techniques are used in practice.

After filling in a few additional topics of frequentist linear statistical inference (including ANOVA, contrasts, missing data, and experimental design), we moved on to computational Bayesian inference. For the introductory material, I used a variety of sources, including Bayesian reasoning and machine learning, and some introductory material from my own textbook, Stochastic modelling for systems biology. The emphasis for this part of the course was the use of flexible Bayesian hierarchical modelling using MCMC. The primary software tool used was JAGS, used via the rjags package from R. For more advanced material on Bayesian computation, I made substantial use of various posts on this blog, as well as some other material we use for teaching Bayesian inference as part of our undergraduate programmes. As for the first part of the course, the emphasis was on practical modelling and data analysis rather than theory. A few of the computer practicals from the Bayesian part of the course are on-line. I may re-write one or two of these practicals as blog posts in due course. Although the emphasis was on flexible modelling, we did touch on efficiency and exploitation of linearity, and I included an extra Chapter on linear Bayesian inference in my multivariate notes in this context. I rounded off this part of the course with a lecture on parallelisation of Monte Carlo algorithms, along the lines of my BIRS lecture on that topic.

The course finished with a group data analysis project, concerned with linear modelling and variable selection for a fairly large heterogeneous data set containing missing data, using both frequentist and Bayesian approaches. The course has just finished, and I’m reasonably happy with how it has gone, but I’ll reflect on it for a couple of weeks and get some feedback before deciding on some revisions to make before delivering it again for the new cohort next year.

Scala as a platform for statistical computing and data science

There has been a lot of discussion on-line recently about languages for data analysis, statistical computing, and data science more generally. I don’t really want to go into the detail of why I believe that all of the common choices are fundamentally and unfixably flawed – language wars are so unseemly. Instead I want to explain why I’ve been using the Scala programming language recently and why, despite being far from perfect, I personally consider it to be a good language to form a platform for efficient and scalable statistical computing. Obviously, language choice is to some extent a personal preference, implicitly taking into account subjective trade-offs between features different individuals consider to be important. So I’ll start by listing some language/library/ecosystem features that I think are important, and then explain why.

A feature wish list

It should:

  • be a general purpose language with a sizable user community and an array of general purpose libraries, including good GUI libraries, networking and web frameworks
  • be free, open-source and platform independent
  • be fast and efficient
  • have a good, well-designed library for scientific computing, including non-uniform random number generation and linear algebra
  • have a strong type system, and be statically typed with good compile-time type checking and type safety
  • have reasonable type inference
  • have a REPL for interactive use
  • have good tool support (including build tools, doc tools, testing tools, and an intelligent IDE)
  • have excellent support for functional programming, including support for immutability and immutable data structures and “monadic” design
  • allow imperative programming for those (rare) occasions where it makes sense
  • be designed with concurrency and parallelism in mind, having excellent language and library support for building really scalable concurrent and parallel applications

The not-very-surprising punch-line is that Scala ticks all of those boxes and that I don’t know of any other languages that do. But before expanding on the above, it is worth noting a couple of (perhaps surprising) omissions. For example:

  • have excellent data viz capability built-in
  • have vast numbers of statistical routines in the standard library

The above are points (and there are other similar points) where other languages (for example, R), currently score better than Scala. It is not that these things are not important – indeed, they are highly desirable. But I consider them to be of lesser importance as they are much easier to fix, given a suitable platform, than fixing an unsuitable language and platform. Visualisation is not trivial, but it is not fantastically difficult in a language with excellent GUI libraries. Similarly, most statistical routines are quite straightforward to implement for anyone with reasonable expertise in scientific and statistical computing and numerical linear algebra. These are things that are relatively easy for a community to contribute to. Building a great programming language, on the other hand, is really, really, difficult.

I will now expand briefly on each point in turn.

be a general purpose language with a sizable user community and an array of general purpose libraries, including good GUI libraries, networking and web frameworks

History has demonstrated, time and time again, that domain specific languages (DSLs) are synonymous with idiosyncratic, inconsistent languages that are terrible for anything other than what they were specifically designed for. They can often be great for precisely the thing that they were designed for, but people always want to do other things, and that is when the problems start. For the avoidance of controversy I won’t go into details, but the whole Python versus R thing is a perfect illustration of this general versus specific trade-off. Similarly, although there has been some buzz around another new language recently, which is faster than R and Python, my feeling is that the last thing the world needs right now is Just Unother Language for Indexed Arrays…

In this day-and-age it is vital that statistical code can use a variety of libraries, and communicate with well-designed network libraries and web frameworks, as statistical analysis does not exist in a vacuum. Scala certainly fits the bill here, being used in a large number of important high-profile systems, ensuring a lively, well-motivated ecosystem. There are numerous well-maintained libraries for almost any task. Picking on web frameworks, for example, there are a number of excellent libraries, including Lift and Play. Scala also has the advantage of offering seamless Java integration, for those (increasingly rare) occasions when a native Scala library for the task at hand doesn’t exist.

be free, open-source and platform independent

This hardly needs expanding upon, other than to observe that there are a few well-known commercial software solutions for scientific, statistical and mathematical computing. There are all kinds of problems with using closed proprietary systems, including transparency and reproducibility, but also platform and scalability problems. eg. running code requiring a license server in the cloud. The academic statistical community has largely moved away from commercial software, and I don’t think there is any going back. Scala is open source and runs on the JVM, which is about as platform independent as it is possible to get.

be fast and efficient

Speed and efficiency continue to be important, despite increasing processor speeds. Computationally intensive algorithms are being pushed to ever larger and more complex models and data sets. Compute cycles and memory efficiency really matter, and can’t be ignored. This doesn’t mean that we all have to code in C/C++/Fortran, but we can’t afford to code in languages which are orders of magnitude slower. This will always be a problem. Scala code generally runs well within a factor of 2 of comparable native code – see my Gibbs sampler post for a simple example including timings.

have a good, well-designed library for scientific computing, including non-uniform random number generation and linear algebra

I hesitated about including this in my list of essentials, because it is certainly something that can, in principle, be added to a language at a later date. However, building such libraries is far from trivial, and they need to be well-designed, comprehensive and efficient. For Scala, Breeze is rapidly becoming the standard scientific library, including special functions, non-uniform random number generation and numerical linear algebra. For a data library, there is Saddle, and for a scalable analytics library there is Spark. These libraries certainly don’t cover everything that can be found in R/CRAN, but they provide a fairly solid foundation on which to build.

have a strong type system, and be statically typed with good compile-time type checking and type safety

I love dynamic languages – they are fun and exciting. It is fun to quickly throw together a few functions in a scripting language without worrying about declaring the types of anything. And it is exciting to see the myriad of strange and unanticipated ways your code can crash-and-burn at runtime! 😉 But this excitement soon wears off, and you end up adding lots of boilerplate argument checking code that would not only be much cleaner and simpler in a statically typed language, but would be checked at compile-time, making the static code faster and more efficient. For messing about prototyping, dynamic languages are attractive, but as a solid platform for statistical computing, they really don’t make sense. Scala has a strong type system offering a high degree of compile-time checking, making it a safe and efficient language.

have reasonable type inference

A common issue with statically typed languages is that they lead to verbose code containing many redundant type declarations that the compiler ought to be able to check. This doesn’t just mean more typing – it leads to verbose code that can hide the program logic. Languages with type inference offer the best of both worlds – the safety of static typing without the verbosity. Scala does a satisfactory job here.

have a REPL for interactive use

One thing that dynamic languages have taught us is that it is actually incredibly useful to have a REPL for interactive analysis. This is true generally, but especially so for statistical computing, where human intervention is often desirable. Again, Scala has a nice REPL.

have good tool support (including build tools, doc tools, testing tools, and an intelligent IDE)

Tools matter. Scala has an excellent build tool in the SBT. It has code documentation in the form of scaladoc (similar to javadoc). It has a unit testing framework, and a reasonably intelligent IDE in the form of the Scala IDE (based on Eclipse).

have excellent support for functional programming, including support for immutability and immutable data structures and “monadic” design

I, like many others, am gradually coming to realise that functional programming offers many advantages over other programming styles. In particular, it provides best route to building scalable software, in terms of both program complexity and data size/complexity. Scala has good support for functional programming, including immutable named values, immutable data structures and for-comprehensions. And if off-the-shelf Scala isn’t sufficiently functional already, libraries such as scalaz make it even more so.

allow imperative programming for those (rare) occasions where it makes sense

Although most algorithms in scientific computing are typically conceived of and implemented in an imperative style, I’m increasingly convinced that most can be recast in a pure functional way without significant loss of efficiency, and with significant benefits. That said, there really are some problems that are more efficient to implement in an imperative framework. It is therefore important that the language is not so “pure” functional that this is forbidden. Again, Scala fits the bill.

be designed with concurrency and parallelism in mind, having excellent language and library support for building really scalable concurrent and parallel applications

These days scalability typically means exploiting concurrency and parallelism. In an imperative world this is hard, and libraries such as MPI prove that it is difficult to bolt parallelism on top of a language post-hoc. Check-points, communication overhead, deadlocks and race conditions make it very difficult to build codes that scale well to more than a few processors. Concurrency is more straightforward in functional languages, and this is one of the reasons for the recent resurgence of functional languages and programming. Scala has good concurrency support built-in, and libraries such as Akka make it relatively easy to build truly scalable software.


The Scala programming language ticks many boxes when it comes to forming a nice solid foundation for building a platform for efficient scalable statistical computing. Although I still use R and Python almost every day, I’m increasingly using Scala for serious algorithm development. In the short term I can interface to my Scala code from R using jvmr, but in the longer term I hope that Scala will become a complete framework for statistics and data science. In a subsequent post I will attempt to give a very brief introduction to Scala and the Breeze numerical library.