Pyflyby: Improving Efficiency of Jupyter Interactive Sessions

Few things hinder productivity more than interruption. A notification, random realization, or unrelated error can derail one's train of thought when deep in a complex analysis – a frustrating experience.

In the software development context, forgetting to import a statement in an interactive Jupyter session is such an experience. This can be especially frustrating when using typical abbreviations, like np, pd, plt, where the meaning is obvious to the human reader, but not to the computer. The time-to-first-plot, and ability to quickly cleanup one's notebook afterward are critical to an enjoyable and efficient workflow.

In this blogpost we present pyflyby, a project and an extension to IPython and JupyterLab, that, among many things, automatically inserts imports and tidies Python files and notebooks.

What is pyflyby?

Pyflyby is a set of tools designed to improve interactive and non-interactive workflows in Python. Pyflyby provides a number of utilities and extensions aimed at making day-to-day work in Python faster and simpler.

Code which does not import NumPy, but does use NumPy methods, is evaluated in
a fresh IPython session. pyflyby automatically imports these methods from NumPy
before successfully executing the code.


One of pyflyby's key capabilities is automatic importing of commonly used modules and objects, leading to simpler, faster, and less disruptive coding. In a new session, for example, one can type:


Pyflyby will then hook into the execution mechanism of Python, execute the correct import, and confirm with a clear message:

[PYFLYBY] from numpy import arange
[PYFLYBY] from numpy import sin

Pyflyby will also do so when running a command line file via the py executable replacing python.

With the jupyterlab-pyflyby extension, imports will be executed and inserted in the first cell of one's notebook:

Fresh Jupyter session with two cells: the first imports Matplotlib, and the
second plots using both Matplotlib and NumPy. Upon execution, jupyterlab-pyflyby
automatically adds the missing NumPy import in the first cell, and then
successfully renders the plot.


In addition to the extension that can seamlessly import the right libraries while exploring, another pyflyby feature helps to maintain scripts and notebooks with explicit and correct imports.

Pyflyby displays the tidy-import command line tool to gather, insert, and format imports in Python files. This is similar to tools such as black and isort, but with different styling options and with the ability to infer missing imports.

tidy-import includes the imports to pandas and matplotlib, as in the example below, and queries whether to update the file:

$ tidy-imports
[PYFLYBY] added 'import pandas as pd'
[PYFLYBY] added 'from matplotlib import pyplot'
---  2021-03-08 10:33:04.000000000 -0800
+++  2021-03-08 10:33:18.000000000 -0800
@@ -1,2 +1,7 @@
+from   matplotlib               import pyplot
+import pandas as pd
 data = pd.read_csv("./data/base-pop-2015.csv")

Replace [y/N]

Other utilities

Pyflyby contains a number of other utilities to improve the efficiency of manipulating and executing Python code. (Please refer to pyflyby's README for additional information.)

py is one such example. It is a flexible tool that can be used either to start IPython or to execute commands quickly from the developer's shell without the need for imports. It supports a range of syntax options, allowing for quick calculation and graph plotting.

  • Without any parameters, py will start IPython with the pyflyby extension activated.
  • With space-separated arguments, py will attempt to interpret each argument as a Python function call with the right imports:
$ py np.random.normal 0 1
[PYFLYBY] import numpy as np
[PYFLYBY] np.random.normal(0, 1)
  • When more control over values is necessary, py will run a Python expression:
$ py 'plot(scipy.stats.norm.pdf(linspace(-5, 5), 0, 1))'
[PYFLYBY] from numpy import linspace
[PYFLYBY] from matplotlib.pyplot import plot
[PYFLYBY] import scipy.stats
[PYFLYBY] plot(scipy.stats.norm.pdf(linspace(-5, 5), 0, 1))
[<matplotlib.lines.Line2D object at 0x132981940>]

Bash shell where the py command is passed a string argument, which is code
that renders a Matplotlib plot using methods that were not imported. The plot 
successfully renders. The Python code used is printed, which contains the
automatically inferred imports and ends with the passed code.

find-import , another utility available in pyflyby, can be deployed to find a particular function across many libraries by returning the relevant import. For example:

$ find-import norm
from scipy.stats.distributions import norm

Notes on pyflyby codebase

The Pyflyby codebase provides a window into advanced data structures and programming paradigms. Its use of modules and programming concepts is unusual relative to those found in more classical data science-focused libraries. For example:

  • Pyflyby will conduct non-trivial manipulation of the Python Abstract Syntax Tree (AST), which represents code written in tree form. Pyflyby uses AST to find and insert missing imports, and it does so even as AST's exact representation changes with almost every minor release.

  • Pyflyby demonstrates the use of Aspect-Oriented programming, which highlights the flexibility of the Python programming model.


Pyflyby's utilities are designed to improve developer efficiency and materially reduce the impact of interruption on productivity. Its value, however, is broader than that. Pyflyby expands what one is capable of doing within the Python ecosystem and has helped identify a number of limitations and bugs in Python and IPython over time.

How to get pyflyby

Pyflyby is available on GitHub or, for terminal IPython users:

$ pip install pyflyby
$ py pyflyby.install_in_ipython_config_file

JupyterLab users can also install the JupyterLab Extension, which is notebook-aware and enables even more features.


Pyflyby was created by Karl Chen and is supported by the D. E. Shaw group in collaboration with Quansight.