Git is a version control system whose original purpose was to help groups of developers work collaboratively on big software projects. Git manages the evolution of a set of files – called a repository or repo – in a highly structured way. Historically, these files would have consisted of source code and the instructions for how to build an application from its source.
Git has been re-purposed by the data science community (Ram 2013; Bartlett 2016; Perez-Riverol et al. 2016). We use it to manage the motley collection of files that make up typical data analytical projects, which consist of data, figures, reports, and, yes, some source code.
For new or existing projects, we recommend that you:
- Dedicate a local directory or folder to it.
- Make it an RStudio Project. Optional but recommended; obviously only applies to projects involving R and users of RStudio.
- Make it a Git repository.
This setup happens once per project and can happen at project inception or at any later point. Chances are your existing projects each already live in a dedicated directory. Making such a directory an RStudio Project and Git repository boils down to allowing those applications to leave notes for themselves in hidden files or directories. The project is still a regular directory on your computer, that you can locate, name, move, and generally interact with as you wish. You don’t have to handle it with special gloves!
The daily workflow is probably not dramatically different from what you do currently. You work in the usual way, writing R scripts or authoring reports in LaTeX or R Markdown. But instead of only saving individual files, periodically you make a commit, which takes a snapshot of all the files in the entire project. If you have ever versioned a file by adding your initials or the date, you have effectively made a commit, albeit only for a single file. It is a version that is significant to you and that you might want to inspect or revert to later. Periodically, you push commits to GitHub. This is like sharing a document with colleagues on DropBox or sending it out as an email attachment. By pushing to GitHub, you make your work and all your accumulated progress accessible to others.
This is a moderate change to your normal, daily workflow. It feels weird at first, but quickly becomes second nature. In STAT 545 students are required to submit all coursework via GitHub, starting in week one. Most have never seen Git before and do not identify as programmers. It is a major topic in class and office hours for the first two weeks. Then we practically never discuss it again.