This blog is about two very nifty PyTorch tools, the dataset and the dataloader. My main learning resource was this tutorial, which you might find useful too.

The dataset

I don’t know the person who invented the PyTorch dataset, but I picture that their thought process was as follows: “I train a lot of neural networks on a lot of different kinds of data. Each time, I have to write a new set of functions for reading, processing, and feeding that data into a neural network. I just wish I could work with, and index into, any dataset as easily as you index into a Python list.” And so, the dataset was born. (I conjured this story up in my mind: I make no claims to veracity.)

For me, it really is intuitive to think of a dataset as a list, where each element is an example from your data. In my data, an element example will be an image stored as a numpy array, and an associated label.

Two critical features of a dataset are the __len__ and __getitem__ methods. The fact that your dataset has a __len__ method, means that you can simply call len(my_dataset), and it will return the number of examples you have, as if it were a list. The fact that your dataset has a __getitem__ means that you can index into it, again as if it were a list. For example, if you call my_dataset[253], this would give you the 254th example in your dataset.

An additional cool feature of a dataset is that you can apply transforms to your examples on the fly, for example converting numpy arrays to PyTorch tensors, z-scoring the data, etc. See the tutorial for examples.

How do you make a dataset?

The very simplest way is to not create one at all. If you just want to practice training a neural network, you can use an existing dataset that is available in PyTorch. CIFAR10 is one example, and here is a good tutorial.

But if you have some of your own data that you want to try applying a neural network to, the simplest way that you can make a dataset for images (or other data that can be treated as an image) is by using ImageFolder. In this case, all you need to do is to organize your images into a particular folder structure, by label, and then ImageFolder does the rest of the work for you (see the tutorial for an example). A more general version of ImageFolder is DatasetFolder, which should work for any type of data, again provided that you organize your data into folders the same way as for ImageFolder.

In my case, the data that I wanted to feed into the CNN from CIFAR10 tutorial above, contained examples that were way larger than I was looking for. I didn’t want to manually reshape them all in case I would want to change those hyperparameters (width and height of the final images). Hence, I wrote my own dataset class, inheriting from the general PyTorch dataset class. If you do this, the central point is that you will want to write your own, custom __len__ and __getitem__ functions, so that they return the length of the dataset, and the correct data example, when called. I ended up creating a csv of file annotations, similarly to the tutorial. The annotation csv had a row for each example, where it provided the path to the relevant datafile as well as the starting and ending indices from which to select part of the image. Then the length could just return the full length of the csv, and when you index into the dataset, it would read the relevant file, and select the part of the image that is relevant for the example at hand.

Importantly, this implementation means that I read from disk each time I draw an example image. I learned from my mentor that this will substantially slow down network training. Hence, moving forward, I will rewrite my dataset so that it loads all the data into memory at once. To load an example, the dataloader would then index into this preloaded array, which is a much faster operation than reading from disk.

The dataloader

OK, so you have a dataset that allows you to get the length of your dataset, and read individual items from it as simply as if it were a list. What do you want to do next? That’s right, you want to draw examples from your dataset to train your neural network. Specifically, you would want to draw samples in batches; you might want to randomize the order of the presentation of batches to your neural network; and you might want to parallelize these operations, because neural network training is computationally heavy.

A dataloader allows you to do all of these things. You can think of it as a fancy iterator for your dataset.

How do you make a dataloader?

You can create a very simple dataloader with the following line of code:

dataloader = dataloader(my_dataset, batch_size=1, shuffle=False, num_workers=1)

This dataloader is literally just a simple iterator for your dataset. If you want to use some of its fancier features, you can just change some of the arguments, like so:

dataloader = dataloader(my_dataset, batch_size=4, shuffle=True, num_workers=4)

In this case, you’re including a batch size of four; you’re shuffling your training examples before presenting them to the network; and you’re parallelizing your script with four workers.


That’s it. If you have successes or struggles with these tools, perhaps if you think of cool”power user” hacks for them, or if you have feedback on this blog post, I would love to hear from you.