Over the past year or so I’ve been using GitHub Actions on a few different projects for building documentation and executables. The direct integration into GitHub makes it a bit more convenient than Travis, and being able to use predefined Actions makes simple processes way easier to set up.

However, one thing I hadn’t noticed until recently was that you can trigger workflows to run on a schedule. This is an extremely powerful feature that, to me, seems under-publicised. My first idea was that gives us the option of setting up auto-updating graphs - so I decided to try that out with UK Covid-19 vaccination data. You can see the results of this here, but in this post I’m going to run through the (fairly straightforward) set-up I used.

The config file

As with all(?) uses of GitHub Actions, the workflow is a YAML file stored in .github/workflows in the project. It’s relatively short, so here’s the whole thing:

name: Redraw graph

    - cron:  '0 2 * * *'

    runs-on: ubuntu-latest
      - uses: actions/checkout@v2

      - name: Get date
        run: |
                    echo "CURR_DATE=$(date +%Y-%m-%d)" >> $GITHUB_ENV
      - name: Set up Python 3.7
        uses: actions/setup-python@v2
          python-version: 3.7

      - name: Install dependencies
        run: |
          python -m pip install --upgrade pip setuptools wheel
          pip install -r requirements.txt          
      - name: Draw graph
        run: python draw.py

      - name: Commit updated graph back to the repo
        uses: EndBug/add-and-commit@v7
          message: '${{ env.CURR_DATE }}: Automated graph update'
          add: 'Graphs/*.png'

The process

From the above, you can see there are several different steps in the process. This is running on Ubuntu just to make sure the module installs are nice and smooth (as opposed to Windows potentially needing a bit of faff).

  1. We checkout the repo. A fairly standard first step.
  2. We get the current date and store it in a way that we can access in other parts of the process. In this instance, we’re just using it to keep our commit messages informative
  3. We set up Python. Again, GitHub Actions coming into its own by making this a single line command
  4. We update pip, just in case, and then install our dependencies.
  5. We actually draw the graph!
  6. We use the add-and-commit Action to stage and commit our updated graph. The beauty of this Action is that it doesn’t create a commit if the files are unchanged - so if the data we’re using hasn’t been updated between our scheduled runs of the process, our graph doesn’t change and we don’t get an empty commit. This helps to keep the commit logs nice and clean.

The scheduling

Setting it up to run on a schedule is super-simple and is shown right near the top of the file. Simply:

    - cron:  '0 2 * * *'

The syntax is as standard for cron jobs (I always use the crontab guru to check before I run) and… that’s it??? You don’t need to do anything else with your repo, simply having the schedule defined in your workflow ensures it is automatically called. As you can see here, I have my process run at 2am each day, in the hope that this will ensure the open data has been updated.