On the WatchList: VisualPython

A fragmentary note to put a watch on Visual Python, a classic Jupyter notebook extension (note that.. a classic notebook extension) to support visual Python programming:

It’s a bit flaky at the moment — the above screenshot shows multiple previews of the selected function code, and the function preview doesn’t properly render things like the function arguments (nor could I get the function to appear in the list of user defined functions), but it’s early days yet.

At first, a blocker to me in terms of suggesting folk internally have at a look at it right now included the apparant inability to define a variable by visual means (all I wanted to do was set a=1) or clear the notebook cells when I wanted to reflow the visual program into the notebook code cell area.

But then I twigged that rather than trying to create a complete program using the visual tools, a better way of using visualpython might be as a helper to code fragments for me in particular use cases.

In the example below, I created the dataframe manually and then used the editor to create a simple plot command that could be inserted into a notebook code cell. The editor picked up on the dataframe I had defined and used that to prepopulate selection lists in the editor.

If the environment becomes the plaything of devs looking to put complex features into the environment, seeing it as a rich power tool for them (and contra to their beliefs, an increasingly hostile environment to novices as more “powerful” features are added and more visual clutter to the environment to scare the hell of users with things that at irrelevant), then the basic usability required for a teaching and learning environment will be lost if users see it as a tool for creating complete programs visually.

For the developers, it’s all too easy to see how the environment could become as much a toy for adding yet more support for yet more packages that can be demonstrated in the environment but never used (because the power users actually prefer using autocomplete in a “proper IDE”) rather than being simplified for use by novices with very, very, very simple programming demands; (just think of the two, three, four lines of code examples that fill the pages of introductory programming text books).

If folk do want a visual editor for data related programming, wouldn’t they use something like Orange, enso, or the new JupyterLab based orchest?

orchest-0.3.0-demo
orchest: JupyterLab visual pipleine programming environment

But if you see the Visual Python editor as a tool at the side that essentially operationalises documentation lookup in a way that helps you create opinionated code fragments, where the opinion is essentially a by prodcut of the code templates that are used to generate code from particular visual UI selections, then I think it could be useful as a support tool for creating code snippets, not as an authoring tool for writing a more complete program or computational analysis.

So what will I be watching for? User uptake (proxied by mentions I see of it), some simple documentation, and perhaps a two minute preview video tour (I’m not willing to spend my time on this right now because I think it needs a bit more time in the oven…). The usability should improve as novices get confused and raise issues with how to perform the most basic of tasks and as the noosphere finds a way to conceptualise the sort of usage patterns and workflows that VisualPython supports best.

My intial reaction was a bit negative — it’s too visually complex already for novices, and some really basic usability issues and operations are either missing or broken, if you see it as an editor for creating complete programs. But if you view it as a code generating documentation support tool that lets you hack together a particular code fragment with visual cues that you might otherwise pick up from from documentation, documentation code examples or simple tutorials, then I think it could be useful.

Hmmm… Another thing to try to get my head round in the context of generative workflow tools…

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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