The pandas library for Python is extremely useful for formatting data, conducting exploratory data analysis, and preparing data for use in modeling and machine learning.

One of the most common formats of source data is the comma-separated value format, or .csv. Spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel do a pretty good job of letting you work with .csv files natively without having to worry about things like data types. To work with these files in Python, the pandas library offers a very useful function pd.read_csv() which not only parses the .csv into a dataframe, but also gives you more granular control to how it’s parsed.

Full details on the arguments for pd.read_csv can be found in the documentation here.

I want to focus on one particular argument: na_filter, which defaults to True and controls how pandas parses null values in the .csv file. Recently, I had been working on some projects where I had it set to na_filter=False, which led to unexpected errors in my code. Debugging the issues led to a better understanding of pd.read_csv and especially the na_filter.

When you call pd.read_csv on a .csv file, the na_filter argument looks for values in the file and identifies any that are likely to be NaN, such as blank cells or various iterations of “NA” (“N/A”, “NA”, “NaN”, etc. See the documentation for details). For the corresponding value in the data frame, it places a NaN value.

This is obviously quite useful, and is the behavior we would typically want.

Why would we want to set it to na_filter=False? One reason is that if we already know our data has no NAs and the file is very large, this method can be faster. Another reason is that you may want to keep strings like “NA” based on your use case. For example, if “NA” is used as shorthand for North America.

HOWEVER a word of caution: If you use na_filter=False and there are NA values in your .csv file, they will appear as blank in your dataframe, but will be invisible to null functions.

For example:

import pandas as pd
# Import the csv with na_filter off
df = pd.read_csv("my_file.csv", na_filter=False)
# Show the first two lines of the df
>>> [col1, col2, col3
     1.5  ,     , foo
         ,  bar,    ]
# Looks like my df has null values.  Let's see how many:
>>> col1   0
    col2   0
    col3   0

Clearly, that is not correct and creates issues. Being able to quickly identify and deal with null values is critical. You can fix this with df.col1.replace('', np.nan), but that’s a hacky workaround. Better to avoid it unless your really need to not filter NAs.

It also creates another problem with column data types:

>>> col1     object

What is happening here is that, despite col1 containing a float (and let’s say for sake of argument that all non-NA values in the column are floats), pandas is treating it as an object.

This can really get in the way if you need to work with the entire column numerically. Furthermore, calling df.col1.astype(float, inplace=True) does not work on the blank values, and you are still left with an object type column.

In contrast, if na_filter=True, col1’s type would be float, not object, and I would be able to perform numerical transformations on the column despite the NaN values.

This is one of those things I discovered by accident as a result of debugging vexing errors on what seemed to be pretty simple code.

My conclusion: unless you have a very specific use case where you need to turn off na_filter, then keep the default value.