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July 15, 2013 / Damien Irving

PyCon Australia: a scientist’s perspective

To be a successful weather/climate scientist, you need more than just an in-depth knowledge of your specialist area. You also need to be proficient in mathematics and statistics, written and verbal communication, and in computer programming. In light of this fact, it’s a little concerning that most of us don’t have regular contact with mathematicians, statisticians, science communicators or programmers. For instance, I spend almost half my time writing code, and yet I’m completely ignorant of many of the programming tools and techniques that are considered standard practice in the software industry.

Cognisant of this problem, a few months ago I decided to try and increase my interaction with computer programmers. Since I use Python for most of my programming, the obvious starting point was to sign up to the mailing list of my local Python Users Group. The group has monthly meet ups where people give presentations about all things Python, however from watching the mailing list I quickly released that most of the topics are either well over my head or not relevant to the science I’m doing. Confused about what to try instead, I stumbled upon an advertisement for PyCon Australia. I submitted an abstract about the Software Carpentry Boot Camp that I helped organise earlier this year, and next thing I knew I was jetting off to Hobart to present at a programming conference! (see the recording of my presentation here)

While the majority of the 310 conference delegates were programmers by trade (or at least by serious hobby), there was a surprisingly strong contingent of scientists. What’s more, I’d predict that this contingent will grow in years to come, as their needs were very well catered for. The format of the main conference was three parallel sessions running over two days, and at any given time there was always at least one session running suitable for a beginner/intermediate audience. Much of the time these beginner/intermediate sessions focused on scientific applications, which made it a very useful learning experience.

The great thing about Python conferences, both in Australia and overseas, is that all the presentations are recorded and made available at pyvideo.org. So if you missed PyCon Australia this year, here’s a list of links to the presentations that I think were most useful for weather/climate scientists who are at a beginner to intermediate level with their Python programming:

 
In addition to these four great talks, the following tools/packages featured regularly throughout the conference:

    • IPython Notebook – A new web-based interactive computational environment where you can combine code execution, text, mathematics and plots into a single document.
    • Pandas – A new data analysis package that is kind of like NumPy, but better. Data arrays can have row and column labels, it has database style look-up and selection functions, and it makes dealing with the time axis really easy.
    • virtualenv – A tool for creating isolated Python environments. It’s particularly useful if you regularly update Python packages on your machine, because you can create a virtual environment for existing code that uses the older superseded packages.

 
In summary, I’d highly recommend PyCon Australia 2014 to any weather/climate scientists who use Python. In the meantime, check out the great content from previous conferences at pyvideo.org – it’s a really great resource.

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