Data organization

How should data be stored? On the simplest level, this asks “on what physical disks”, but this page is concerned about something more high-level: how you organize data on those disks.

Data organization is very important, because if you don’t do it early, you end up with a epic mess which you will never have time to clean up. If you organize data well, then everything after becomes much easier: you can archive what you need. Others can find what they need. You can open what you need easily.

Everything here applies equally if you are working alone or if you are part of a team.

Organize your projects into directories


As simple as it seems, choosing a good name for each distinct workspace is an important first step. This serves as an identifier to you and others, and by having a name you are able to refer to, find, and organize your data now and in the future.

A name should be unique among all of your work over all your career, and also unique among all of your colleagues, too (and any major public projects, too). Don’t reuse the same names for related things. For example, let’s say I have a project called xproject. If I track the code separately from the data, I’d have a different directory called xproject-data and the main projects refers to the data directory, instead of coping the data.

How many named workspaces should you have for each project? It depends on how large they are and how diverse the types of data are. If the data is small and not very demanding, it doesn’t matter much. If you have large data vs small other files, it may be good to separate out the data. If you have some data/code/files which will be reused in different projects, it makes sense to split them. If you have confidential data that can’t be shared, it’s good to separate them from the rest of the data.

Names should be usable and directory names and identifiers. Try to stick to letters, numbers, -, and _ - no spaces, punctuation, or symbols. Then, the name is usable on repositories and other services, too.

Good names include MobilityAnalysis, transit, transit-hsl, and lgm-paper. Bad names are too general given their purpose or what else you might do.

Each directory’s contents moves together as a unit, as much as possible.

Organizing these directories

You should have a flat organization in as few places as possible. For example, on your laptop you may have ~/project for things for the stuff you mainly work on and ~/git for other minor version controlled things. On your workstations or servers, you may also have /scratch/work/$username which is your personal stuff that is not backed up, /m/cs/project/$groupname/$username/ which is backed up, /local which is temporary stuff on your own computer, and so on. The server-based locations can be easily shared among multiple people.

Your structure should be as flat as possible, without many layers in each directory. Thus, to find a given project, you only need to look inside each of the main locations above, not inside every other project. This allows you to get the gist of your data for future archival or clean-up. When two directories need to refer to each other, you have them directly refer to each other where they are, for example use ../xproject-data from inside the xproject directory. (You can have subdirectories inside the projects).

Different types of projects go in different places. For example, xproject can be on the backed up location because it’s your daily work, while xproject-data is on some non-backed up place because you can always recover the data.


If you work on different systems, each directory of the same name should have roughly the same contents - as if you could synchronize it with version control.

For small stuff, you might synchronize with version control. You may use some other program, like Dropbox or the like. Or in the case of data which has a master copy somewhere else, you just download what you need.

Organize files within directories

Traditional organization

This is the traditional organization within a single person’s project. The key concept is separation of code, original data, scratch data, and final outputs. Each is handled properly.

  • PROJECT/code/ - backed up and tracked in a version control system.

  • PROJECT/original/ - original and irreplaceable data. Backed up at the same time it is placed here.

  • PROJECT/scratch/ - bulk data, can be regenerated from code+original

  • PROJECT/doc/ - final outputs, which should be kept for a very long term.

  • PROJECT/doc/paper1/ - different papers/reports, if not stored in a different project directory.

  • PROJECT/doc/paper2/

  • PROJECT/doc/opendata/

When the project is over, code/ and doc/ can be backed up permanently (original/ is already backed up) and the scratch directory can be kept for a reasonable time before it is removed (or put into cold storage).

The most important thing is that code is kept separate from the data. This means no copying files over and over to minor variations. Could should be adjustable for different purposes (and you can always get the old versions from version control). Code is run from the code directory, no need to copy to each folder individually.


The system above can be trivially adapted to suit a project with multiple users:

  • PROJECT/USER1/.... - each user directory has their own code/, scratch/, and doc/ directories. Code is synced via the version control system. People use the original data straight from the shared folder in the project.

  • PROJECT/USER2/....

  • PROJECT/original/ - this is the original data.

  • PROJECT/scratch/ - shared intermediate files, if they are stable enough to be shared.

For convenience, each user can create a symbolic link to the original/ data directory from their own directory.

Master project

In this, you have one long-term master directory for a whole research group, and members project that has many different users and research themes with in. As time goes on, once users leave, their directories can be cleaned up and removed. The same can happen for the themes.




  • PROJECT/original/



  • PROJECT/archive/

Common variants

  • Simulations with different parameters: all parameters are stored in the code directory, within version control. The code knows what parameters to use when making a new run. This makes it easy to see the entire history of your simulations.

  • Downloading data: this can be put into either original or scratch, depending on how much you trust the original source to stay available.

  • Multiple sub-projects: this can be

  • Multiple types of code: separate long-term code from scratch research code. You can separate parameters from code. And so on…


In Aalto, data is organized into project groups. Each project has members who can access the data, and different shared storage spaces (project, archive, scratch (see below)). You can apply for these whenever you need.

What should a project contain? How much should go into the same project?

  • One project that lasts forever per research group: This is traditional. A professor will get a project allocated, and then people put data in here. There may be subdirectories for each researcher or topic, and some shared folders for common data. The problem here is that the size will grow without bound. Who will ever clean up all the old stuff? These have a way of growing forever so that the data becomes no longer manageable, but they are convenient because it keeps the organization flat.

    • If data size is small and growing slower than storage, this works for long-term.

    • It can also work if particular temporary files are managed well and eventually removed.

  • One project for each distinct theme: A research group may become interested in some topic (for example, a distinct funded project), and they get storage space just for this. The project goes on and is eventually closed.

    • You can be more fine-grained in access, if data is confidential

    • You can ensure that the data stays together

    • You can ensure that data end-of-life happens properly. This is especially useful for showing you are managing data properly as part of grant applications.

    • You can have a master group as a member of the specific project. This allows a flat organization, where all of your members can access all data in different projects.