Analysis workflow

This section introduces the typical OpenSAFELY workflow for a single research project.

The workflow consists of a number of key steps which may be iterated over as the code is developed and the study evolves. The following assumes that a well-defined and ethically-approved research agenda has been specified, with an accompanying study protocol, and all necessary permissions for accessing the OpenSAFELY platform are in place.

The workflow for a single study can typically be broken down into the following steps:

  1. Create a git repository from the template repository provided and clone it on your local machine. This repo will contain all the code relating to your project, and a history of its development over time.
  2. Write a Study Definition that specifies what data you want to extract from the database:
    • specify the patient population (dataset rows) and variables (dataset columns)
    • specify the expected distributions of these variables for use in dummy data
    • specify (or create) the codelists required by the study definition, hosted by OpenCodelists, and import them to the repo.
  3. Generate dummy data based on the Study Definition, for writing and testing code.
  4. Develop analysis scripts using the dummy data in R, Stata, or Python. This will include:
    • importing and processing the dataset(s) created by the cohort extractor
    • importing any other external files needed for analysis
    • generating analysis outputs like tables and figures
    • generating log files to debug the scripts when they run on the real data.
  5. Test the code by running the analysis steps specified in the project pipeline, which specifies the execution order for data extracts and analyses and the outputs to be released.
  6. Execute the analysis on the real data via OpenSAFELY's job server. This will generate outputs on the secure server.
  7. Check the output for disclosivity within the server, and redact if necessary.
  8. Release the outputs via GitHub.
  9. Repeat and iterate steps 2 to 8 as necessary.

These steps should always proceed with frequent git commits and code reviews where appropriate. Steps 2-5 can all be progressed on your local machine without accessing the real data.

It is possible to automatically test that the analytical pipeline defined in step 5 can be successfully executed on dummy data, using the opensafely run command. This pipeline is also automatically tested against dummy data every time a new version of the study repository is saved ("pushed") to GitHub.

As well as your own Python, R or Stata scripts, other non-standard actions are available. For example, it's possible to run a matching routine that extracts a matched control population to the population defined in the study definition, without having to extract all candidate matches into a dataset first.