ReproNim module for dataprocessing

Lesson 4: Create reusable and composable dataflow tools


Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • How to use dataflow tools?

  • Understand the conceptual components of dataflow tools

  • Learn to use Nipype as an example dataflow tool

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This lesson provides an approach to capturing analysis steps using dataflow tools that decouple specification of analysis from execution, and often from data, across different computation platforms, whether a local environment or an HPC cluster.

Lesson outline

Lesson requirements

Although not essential it is helpful to have an understanding of:


Most brain imaging analyses comprise common steps: preprocessing, quality control, registration, normalization, statistical estimation. However, there are many software and tools that implement many of these of algorithms. The performance of these algorithms often vary as a function of participant age, data quality, and computational environment. Each software brings with a set of strengths and weaknesses and as many analyses move towards multimodal data, it becomes essential to be able to combine elements of different packages.

However, such combination comes at a cost. It increases the complexity of software environments, the additional learning necessary to combine software packages, and often the ability to script and program one’s analyses. But, once one masters the ability to perform these kinds of analyses, one can essentially create any analyses. Further, by thinking about pieces of analyses, one can optimally combine the most appropriate (e.g., least error, most robust) algorithms for a task rather than being restricted to what is available in a single package.

The essence of dataflows are:

  1. Separation of data, scripts, and execution.
  2. The scripts themselves should not be intricately tied to a particular data set.
  3. The data should be abstracted into a consistent structured form that can be queried.

Most dataflow frameworks rely on language abstractions to support the flow of data. Algorithms or dataflows written using such abstractions can be reused on different datasets.

A shell script example

Nipype: an example dataflow tool

Nipype is a Python-based framework for writing dataflows. It provides access to many brain imaging algorithms and workflows using a consistent API. It also provides isolation of data being worked on. Here is an example Nipype workflow.

from nipype import Node, Workflow

in_file = "/path/to/data/T1.nii.gz"

skullstrip = Node(fsl.BET(in_file=in_file, mask=True), name="skullstrip")
smooth = Node(fsl.IsotropicSmooth(in_file=in_file, fwhm=4), name="smooth")
mask = Node(fsl.ApplyMask(), name="mask")

wf = Workflow(name="smoothflow")
wf.connect(skullstrip, "mask_file", mask, "mask_file")
wf.connect([(smooth, mask, [("out_file", "in_file")])])

An example general purpose workflow for functional preprocessing is available as a Dockerized application that works on BIDS datasets. You can work through the tutorials online using Binder service.

Being a Nipype workflow, any user can modify it to replace one section of the code with another or retrieve the details of any processing step.

Other dataflow tools

There are many other dataflow frameworks in use in brain imaging. Each one provides their own semantics of creating such dataflows and how to execute them.


There are global efforts to represent computational workflows in more abstract form. Two such efforts are the Common Workflow Language and NIDM. While they may not support direct analyses at this point for brain imaging, they represent a way to capture the semantics of computation in an implementation agnostic manner.

Key Points