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A solution for inconsistencies in indexing operations in pandas

Get rid of annoying SettingWithCopyWarning messages

Introduction

Indexing operations in pandas are quite flexible and thus, have many cases that can behave quite different and therefore produce unexpected results. Additionally, it is hard to predict when a SettingWithCopyWarningis raised and what this means exactly. I’ll show a couple of different scenarios and how each operation might impact your code. Afterwards, we will look at a new feature called Copy on Write that helps you to get rid of the inconsistencies and of SettingWithCopyWarnings. We will also investigate how this might impact performance and other methods in general.

Indexing operations

Let’s look at how indexing operations currently work in pandas. If you are already familiar with indexing operations, you can jump to the next section. But be aware, there are many cases with different forms of behavior. The exact behavor is hard to predict.

An operation in pandas produces a copy, when the underlying data of the parent DataFrame and the new DataFrame are not shared. A view is an object that does share data with the parent object. A modification to the view can potentially impact the parent object.

As of right now, some indexing operations return copies while others return views. The exact behavior is hard to predict, even for experienced users. This has been a big annoyance for me in the past.

Let’s start with a DataFrame with two columns:

df = pd.DataFrame({"user_id": [1, 2, 3], "score": [10, 15, 20]})

A getitem operation on a DataFrame or Series returns a subset of the initial object. The subset might consist of one or a set of columns, one or a set of rows or a mixture of both. A setitem operation on a DataFrame or Series updates a subset of the initial object. The subset itself is defined by the arguments to the calls.

A regular getitem operation on a DataFrame provides a view in most cases:

view = df["user_id"]

As a consequence, the new object view still references the parent object df and its data. Hence, writing into the view will also modify the parent object.

view.iloc[0] = 10

This setitem operation will consequently update not only our view but also df. This happens because the underlying data are shared between both objects.

This is only true, if the column user_id occurs only once in df. As soon as user_id is duplicated the getitem operation returns a DataFrame. This means the returned object is a copy instead of a view:

df = pd.DataFrame(
    [[1, 10, 2], [3, 15, 4]], 
    columns=["user_id", "score", "user_id"],
)
not_a_view = df["user_id"]
not_a_view.iloc[0] = 10

The setitem operation does not update df. We also get our first SettingWithCopyWarning, even though this is a perfectly acceptable operation. The getitem operation itself has many more cases, like list-like keys, e.g. df[["user_id"]], MultiIndex-columns and many more. I will go into more detail in follow-up posts to look at different forms of performing indexing operations and their behavior.

Let’s have a look at another case that is a bit more complicated than a single getitem operation: chained indexing. Chained indexing means filtering with a boolean mask followed by a getitem operation or the other way around. This is done in one step. We do not create a new variable to store the result of the first operation.

We again start with a regular DataFrame:

df = pd.DataFrame({"user_id": [1, 2, 3], "score": [10, 15, 20]})

We can update all user_ids that have a score greater than 15 through:

df["user_id"][df["score"] > 15] = 5

We take the column user_id and apply the filter afterwards. This works perfectly fine, because the column selection creates a view and the setitem operation updates said view. We can switch both operations as well:

df[df["score"] > 15]["user_id"] = 5

This execution order produces another SettingWithCopyWarning. In contrast to our earlier example, nothing happens. The DataFrame df is not modified. This is a silent no-operation. The boolean mask always creates a copy of the initial DataFrame. Hence, the initial getitem operation returns a copy. The return value is not assigned to any variable and is only a temporary result. The setitem operation updates this temporary copy. As a result, the modification is lost. The fact that masks return copies while column selections return views is an implementation detail. Ideally, such implementation details should not be visible.

Another approach of doing this is as follows:

new_df = df[df["score"] > 15]
new_df["user_id"] = 10

This operation updates new_df as intended but shows a SettingWithCopyWarning anyway, because we can not update df. Most of us probably never want to update the initial object (e.g. df) in this scenario, but we get the warning anyway. In my experience this leads to unnecessary copy statements scattered over the code base.

This is just a small sample of current inconsistencies and annoyances in indexing operations.

Since the actual behavior is hard to predict, this forces many defensive copies in other methods. For example,

  • dropping of columns
  • setting a new index
  • resetting the index

All copy the underlying data. These copies are not necessary from an implementation perspective. The methods could return views pretty easily, but returning views would lead to unpredictable behavior later on. Theoretically, one setitem operation could propagate through the whole call-chain, updating many DataFrames at once.

Copy on Write

Let’s look at how a new feature called “Copy on Write” (CoW) helps us to get rid of these inconsistencies in our code base. CoW means that any DataFrame or Series derived from another in any way always behaves as a copy. As a consequence, we can only change the values of an object through modifying the object itself. CoW disallows updating a DataFrame or a Series that shares data with another DataFrame or Series object inplace. With this information, we can again look at our initial example:

df = pd.DataFrame({"user_id": [1, 2, 3], "score": [10, 15, 20]})
view = df["user_id"]
view.iloc[0] = 10

The getitem operation provides a view onto df and it’s data. The setitem operation triggers a copy of the underlying data before 10 is written into the first row. Hence, the operation won't modify df. An advantage of this behavior is, that we don’t have to worry about user_id being potentially duplicated or using df[["user_id"]] instead of df["user_id"]. All these cases behave exactly the same and no annoying warning is shown.

Triggering a copy before updating the values of the object has performance implications. This will most certainly cause a small slowdown for some operations. On the other side, a lot of other operations can avoid defensive copies and thus improve performance tremendously. The following operations can all return views with CoW:

  • dropping columns
  • setting a new index
  • resetting the index
  • and many more.

Let’s consider the following DataFrame:

na = np.array(np.random.rand(1_000_000, 100))
cols = [f"col_{i}" for i in range(100)]
df = pd.DataFrame(na, columns=cols)

Using add_prefix adds the given string (e.g. test) to the beginning of every column name:

df.add_prefix("test")

Without CoW, this will copy the data internally. This is not necessary when looking solely at the operation. But since returning a view can have side effects, the method returns a copy. As a consequence, the operation itself is pretty slow:

482 ms ± 3.43 ms per loop (mean ± std. dev. of 7 runs, 1 loop each)

This takes quite long. We practically only modify 100 string literals without touching the data at all. Returning a view provides a significant speedup in this scenario:

46.4 µs ± 1.04 µs per loop (mean ± std. dev. of 7 runs, 10,000 loops each)

The same operation runs multiple orders of magnitude faster. More importantly, the running time of add_prefix is constant when using CoW and does not depend on the size of your DataFrame. This operation was run on the main branch of pandas.

The copy is only necessary, if two different objects share the same underlying data. In the example above, view and df both reference the same data. If the data is exclusive to one DataFrame object, no copy is needed, we can continue to modify the data inplace:

df = pd.DataFrame({"user_id": [1, 2, 3], "score": [10, 15, 20]})
df.iloc[0] = 10

In this case the setitem operation will continue to operate inplace without triggering a copy.

As a consequence, all the different scenarios that we have seen initially have exactly the same behavior now. We don’t have to worry about subtle inconsistencies anymore.

Another case that currently has strange and hard to predict behavior is chained indexing. Chained indexing under CoW will never work. This is a direct consequence of the CoW mechanism. The initial selection of columns might return a view, but a copy is triggered when we perform the subsequent setitem operation. Fortunately, we can easily modify our code to avoid chained indexing:

df["user_id"][df["score"] > 15] = 10

We can use loc to do both operations at once:

df.loc[df["score"] > 15, "user_id"] = 10

Summarizing, every object that we create behaves like a copy of the parent object. We can not accidentally update an object other than the one we are currently working with.

How to try it out

You can try the CoW feature since pandas 1.5.0. Development is still ongoing, but the general mechanism works already.

You can either set the CoW flag globally through on of the following statements:

pd.set_option("mode.copy_on_write", True)
pd.options.mode.copy_on_write = True

Alternatively, you can enable CoW locally with:

with pd.option_context("mode.copy_on_write", True):
    ...

Conclusion

We have seen that indexing operations in pandas have many edge cases and subtle differences in behavior that are hard to predict. CoW is a new feature aimed at addressing those differences. It can potentially impact performance positively or negatively based on what we are trying to do with our data. The full proposal for CoW can be found here.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to reach out to share your thoughts and feedback on indexing and Copy on Write. I will write follow.up posts focused on this topic and pandas in general.