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One of the great strengths of Python is the wide spectrum of libraries available for it. Not only does it have a rich set of data-processing tools and machine learning libraries, but it is also widely used in web programming, having a number of mature web frameworks available. This general purpose sets it apart from other languages used in data science, and puts us in a great place for productionising data science models as web APIs.

In this post, we provide a guide for wrapping data science models in web APIs using the Flask web framework. Flask is a great choice for this as it is extremely lightweight, needing only a little code to convert a Python function into a web endpoint.

Other frameworks, such as Django, are great, providing a lot of functionality out of the box. However, much of this functionality is centred on using fully fledged web applications rendering and serving HTML rather than providing simple web APIs.

In this post, we’ll cover the basics of Flask, and wrap an example model from scikit-learn into a simple API.

Flask basics

Flask is often referred to as a microframework as it’s very minimal. Compared to other frameworks, it provides only a core set of features needed to implement HTTP endpoints, and it needs very little boilerplate. A minimal Flask application looks like the following:

from flask import Flask

app = Flask(__name__)

@app.route('/')
def hello():
    return 'Hello World!'

if __name__ == '__main__':
    app.run(debug=True)

In the above snippet, we instantiate the Flask app as app, then use the @app.route() decorator to register the hello() function as an endpoint on /, the root endpoint. Finally, we run the app with app.run(), in debug mode.

Running the app is as simple as running the script:

python app.py

And while it’s running, we can use curl to hit the server on the root endpoint (on the default Flask port of 5000, which should be indicated in the log of the app ran above):

curl localhost:5000
Hello World!

You can see that curl prints the body that was returned by the registered endpoint, Hello World!.

You can also call the endpoint from any language’s HTTP client library. In Python, we would recommend the requests library, which is not in the standard library but is very widely used. This code snippet performs the same request as above:

>>> import requests
>>> response = requests.get('http://localhost:5000')
>>> response.text
'Hello World!'

You may prefer to use a GUI tool to run test queries against your API. One that we’ve used and works well is Postman.

Adding additional routes

Aside from for the simplest applications, you’ll want to expose multiple entry points into your API. To do this, you can use the @app.route() decorator to register different Python functions on different HTTP endpoints. Recall that from the example above we registered our hello() function on the root endpoint, /:

@app.route('/')
def hello():
    return 'Hello World!'

The first argument to @app.route() determines the route the endpoint will be served on. We can easily register additional functions on other endpoints:

@app.route('/foo')
def foo():
    return 'bar'

You can easily choose the right endpoint by including it in the URL:

$ curl localhost:5000
Hello World!
$ curl localhost:5000/foo
bar

You can also parameterise endpoints with variable rules. Use angle brackets in the route name to match any string and pass it as an argument to the function:

@app.route('/hi/<name>')
def hi(name):
    return f'Hi {name}!'

This can again be queried by choosing the right URL:

$ curl localhost:5000/hi/Andrew
Hi Andrew!
$ curl localhost:5000/hi/acroz
Hi acroz!

Encoding responses in JSON

In the examples above, we’ve generated some fairly simple text as output to demonstrate the routing functionality in Flask, but for a practical data science API you’ll typically want to return more rich structured and/or numerical data. There are a number of ways you can encode this information, but the most common is to use JavaScript Object Notation, or JSON for short.

JSON is a great choice for APIs as it’s simple, yet provides enough to cover most use cases; it’s easy to parse, yet is fairly human-readable; practically every language has a parser, so you don’t need to write one yourself; and it’s so commonly used in APIs that it’s practically a standard.

Python has JSON support in its standard library, but when using Flask we recommend using the jsonify() helper, which not only serialises your data to JSON, but also prepares a Flask Response object with useful things like the HTTP content type preset.

To use jsonify(), pass the Python object (usually a dict) you want to encode, and return the generated response:

from flask import jsonify

@app.route('/api')
def api():
    data = {
        'name': 'Andrew',
        'user': 'acroz'
    }
    return jsonify(data)

You can then query the endpoint as normal:

$ curl localhost:5000/api
{
  "name": "Andrew",
  "user": "acroz"
}

As mentioned, a lot of languages and libraries have JSON support built in. The Python requests library we demonstrated earlier is among them. Call .json() on a requests response object to decode the body as JSON and return the equivalent Python representation:

>>> response = requests.get(
>>>     'http://localhost:5000/api'
>>> )
>>> response.json()
{'name': 'Andrew', 'username': 'acroz'}

Jsonifying NumPy values

It’s worth noting that Python’s standard library json package, which is used internally by flask.jsonify(), doesn’t play well with NumPy types. For example, while the serialisation of a normal Python int works fine:

>>> import json
>>> json.dumps(3)
'3'

Doing the same with a numpy.int64 does not:

>>> import numpy
>>> json.dumps(numpy.int64(3))
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "/Users/acroz/.pyenv/versions/3.6.2/Python.framework/Versions/3.6/lib/python3.6/json/__init__.py", line 231, in dumps
    return _default_encoder.encode(obj)
  File "/Users/acroz/.pyenv/versions/3.6.2/Python.framework/Versions/3.6/lib/python3.6/json/encoder.py", line 199, in encode
    chunks = self.iterencode(o, _one_shot=True)
  File "/Users/acroz/.pyenv/versions/3.6.2/Python.framework/Versions/3.6/lib/python3.6/json/encoder.py", line 257, in iterencode
    return _iterencode(o, 0)
  File "/Users/acroz/.pyenv/versions/3.6.2/Python.framework/Versions/3.6/lib/python3.6/json/encoder.py", line 180, in default
    o.__class__.__name__)
TypeError: Object of type 'int64' is not JSON serializable

For that reason, you’ll want to make sure any content you’re serialising with flask.jsonify() is converted to native Python types. In the above example:

>>> numpy_integer = numpy.int64(3)
>>> json.dumps(int(numpy_integer))
'3'

And for arrays:

>>> array_1d = numpy.array([1., 1.5, 2.])
>>> json.dumps([float(v) for v in array_1d])
'[1.0, 1.5, 2.0]'
>>> array_2d = numpy.array([[1., 1.5], [1.5, 2.]])
>>> json.dumps([[float(v) for v in row] for row in array_2d])
'[[1.0, 1.5], [1.5, 2.0]]'

Wrapping a data science model

We’ve covered some of the basics of wrapping Python functionality in HTTP endpoints using Flask; now we’ll go through a brief example of a scikit-learn model that we want to wrap in an API.

Example model

scikit-learn provides some convenient functions for generating training data that you can use to test out models. Here we use make_classification from sklearn.datasets to generate some data to fit a binary classifier to:

from sklearn.datasets import make_classification

X, y = make_classification(
    n_samples=100,
    n_features=2,
    n_classes=2,
    n_informative=2,
    n_redundant=0
)

This generates two clusters in a two-dimensional feature space:

Training data

Using scikit-learn, it’s fairly easy to train a simple logistic regression classifier to this data:

from sklearn.linear_model import LogisticRegression
model = LogisticRegression()
model.fit(X, y)

We can then use this trained classifier to predict the class of a point with a value of 2 for both features:

>>> import numpy
>>> X_predict = numpy.array([[2, 2]])
>>> model.predict(X_predict)
array([1])

We can also determine the probability of that point being of either class:

>>> model.predict_proba(X_predict)
array([[ 0.02086766,  0.97913234]])

Plotting the line where both probabilities are 0.5 allows us to see the decision boundary predicted by the model:

Classifier

Model as an API

We now want to make the prediction functionality of this model to be exposed through an API. Assuming that the trained model is available in the module namespace as model, we can register a /predict endpoint with the Flask app that takes the two features as inputs:

@app.route('/predict/feature_1/<feature_1>/feature_2/<feature_2>')
def predict(feature_1, feature_2):

    # Convert inputs from strings to floats
    feature_1 = float(feature_1)
    feature_2 = float(feature_2)

    # Perform model prediction
    features = numpy.array([[feature_1, feature_2]])
    predicted_class = model.predict(features)[0]
    probabilities = model.predict_proba(features)[0]

    # Prepare response
    content = {
        'class': int(predicted_class),
        'probabilities': [
            float(p) for p in probabilities
        ]
    }

    return jsonify(content)

This example puts together the Flask features described above: the features are extracted from the endpoint and passed as arguments to the function, used to make a model prediction, and a JSON response is generated and returned.

We can then query the endpoint to do a model prediction:

$ curl localhost:5000/predict/feature_1/2.0/feature_2/2.0
{
  "class": 1,
  "probabilities": [0.02086766, 0.97913234]
}

There remain a number of improvements that can be made to this endpoint. For example, consider what happens when either feature_1 or feature_2 passed to predict() can’t be converted to a valid float. In further blog posts, we’ll cover ways of guarding against such issues and provide examples covering more complicated flows that you may wish to implement.

To find out more about what Faculty can do for you and your organisation, get in touch.