A Scala DSL for Stan.


ScalaStan depends on Scala, SBT, and CmdStan.

The CMDSTAN_HOME environment variable should be set to the location of the CmdStan installation. Alternatively, ScalaStan will work if PATH contains stanc within a valid CmdStan installation.

ScalaStan Dependency

To use ScalaStan, add the following to your build:

libraryDependencies += "io.gihub.cibotech" %% "scalastan" % "<version>"

Project Structure

  • com.cibo.scalastan contains the ScalaStan DSL (most importantly, the StanModel trait).
  • com.cibo.scalastan.analysis contains analyses for ScalaStan models.
  • com.cibo.scalastan.ast contains the ScalaStan abstract syntax tree.
  • contains parsers for various data sources (R, for example).
  • com.cibo.scalastan.models contains reusable ScalaStan models.
  • contains the classes to handle compiling and running a model.
  • com.cibo.scalastan.transform contains ScalaStan transformations (optimizations, etc.).
  • Examples can be found in the com.cibo.scalastan.examples package in the integration test (it) source directory. Run an example using the command sbt it:run and choosing from the available examples.


The ScalaStan DSL is accessed by extending the com.cibo.scalastan.StanModel trait. Here's a simple example of linear regression:

import com.cibo.scalastan.StanModel

object MyApp extends App {

  object MyModel extends StanModel {
    val n = data(int(lower = 0))
    val x = data(vector(n))
    val y = data(vector(n))

    val b = parameter(real())
    val m = parameter(real())
    val sigma = parameter(real(lower = 0.0))

    sigma ~ stan.cauchy(0, 1)
    y ~ stan.normal(m * x + b, sigma)

  val xs: Seq[Double] = ???
  val ys: Seq[Double] = ???
  val results = MyModel
    .withData(MyModel.x, xs)
    .withData(MyModel.y, ys)
    .run(chains = 5)


For comparison, the equivalent Stan program (without the data setup/output) is:

data {
  int<lower=0> n;
  vector[n] x;
  vector[n] y;
parameters {
  real b;
  real m;
  real<lower = 0> sigma;
model {
  sigma ~ cauchy(0, 1);
  y ~ normal(m * x + b, sigma);

Data Declarations

Data declarations define the inputs to the model. These go in the data section in Stan:

data {
  real<lower=0> x;

Using ScalaStan, this is encoded as:

val x = data(real(lower = 0))

The lower and upper bounds on values are optional in ScalaStan, just as in regular Stan. ScalaStan supports the following data types:

  • int([lower], [upper]) // An integer
  • real([lower], [upper]) // A real/double
  • vector(length, [lower], [upper]) // A (column) vector of reals
  • rowVector(length, [lower], [upper]) // A row vector of reals
  • matrix(rows, cols, [lower], [upper]) // A matrix of reals
  • categorical() // A categorical type (this is a ScalaStan extension to handle categorical data that turns into an int).

Arrays can be created for any data type with multiple dimensions by calling apply on the type. For example, to create a 2-dimensional array of int:

int()(j, k)

Parameter Declarations

Parameter declarations define the parameters to be inferred. In Stan, these go in the parameters section:

parameters {
  real y;

Using ScalaStan, this is encoded as:

val y = parameter(real())

The types for parameters are the same as those for data, however, Stan does not allow integral parameters.

Local Declarations

Local values can be declared using the local function, which behaves like the data and parameter functions, but is only available within the StanModel DSL, for example:

val z = local(real())

The Model

The StanModel trait supports a DSL to describe the model, which can be expressed directly in the body of the subclass.


Most arithmetic operators behave as one would expect (and identically to Stan), for example +, -, *, /, and %.

The logical operators <, <=, >, >= operate as expected, however, note that test for equality is === (three =s instead of ==) and test for inequality is =/= (instead of !=).

Stan supports element-wise multiplication and division, which are *:* and /:/ in ScalaStan.

The power operator is ^.

The transpose operator is .t (for example, x.t to transpose x).


The assignment operator is := (instead of =).

For Loops and Slices

For loops use the standard Scala syntax, but using the range function as a generator. For example:

for (i <- range(1, n)) {
  // ...

This will cause i to take on the values 1 through n inclusive. Note that arrays are indexed starting from one in Stan.

The range function can also be used for array slicing, for example:

x(range(1, 5)) := y(range(2, 6))

While Loops

While loops are declared using the loop function to avoid conflicting with the Scala while statement. For example:

loop(x < 10) {
  // ...

Breaking and Continuing Loops

Stan supports breaking out of loops using the break keyword and starting the next iteration using the continue keyword. Both of these are available in ScalaStan (since Scala does not support break or continue, these functions are named the same as in Stan).


Conditions take the form when and otherwise to avoid conflicting with the Scala if and else statements. For example:

when(x > 1) {
  // ...
} otherwise {
  // ...

The otherwise section is optional. Additional when statements can be added to provide an "else if" structure, but note the required .:

when(x > 1) {
  // ...
}.when(x < 0) {
  // ...
} otherwise {
  // ...

Ternary Operator

Conditionals in ScalaStan/Stan are not expressions, so there is a ternary operator to support conditionals as part of an expression. The ternary operator is supported as an overload of when:

y := when(x > 0, 1, 2)

This will evaluate the condition x > 0 and return 1 if true and 2 if false.


The built-in Stan distributions are available in ScalaStan from the stan object.

To indicate that a value is sampled from a distribution, the ~ operator is used, for example:

y ~ stan.normal(0.0, 1.0)

This is roughly equivalent to the following:

target += stan.normal(0.0, 1.0).lpdf(y)

Other Functions

The built-in Stan functions are available in ScalaStan from the stan object.

Transformed Data and Parameters

Transformed versions of data and parameters can be declared via the transformed data and transformed parameters sections in Stan. In ScalaStan, this is accomplished by extending the TransformedData or TransformedParameter classes from within a StanModel. These classes take a parameter that is the type of the transformed value. The body of the class provides a DSL to encode the transformation using the same constructs as the model. Inside this DSL, the value is accessed using result.

Here is a simple data transform to add 1 to all elements of an array:

val xPlusOne = new TransformedParameter(vector(n)) {
  result := x + 1

The transformed parameter can now be referenced instead of the actual parameter in the model. Note that a transformed parameter can be referenced in the output, however, if the transformed parameter is not used within the model, ScalaStan will not emit it. In this case, one should use a generated quantity instead.

User-Defined Functions

User-defined functions are created by extending the Function class from within a StanModel. This class takes an optional parameter to determine the return type (it is assumed to return void if not specified). The body of the class provides a DSL for implementing the function. Inputs to the function are specified using the input function, which works much like the local function, but creates an input parameter instead of a local variable. The output function sets the return value and returns from the function.

Here is an example to add 1 to all elements of an array:

val myFunc = new Function(vector(n)) {
  val x = input(n)
  output(x + 1)

Generated Quantities

Generated quantities provide a means of deriving quantities from parameters, data, and random number generation. In ScalaStan, such quantities are created by extending the GeneratedQuantity class within a StanModel. This class works like the data and parameter transform blocks, but is contained in the model. In addition to parameters and data, a generated quantity can use random numbers drawn from a distribution.

Here is an example to draw a random number:

val rand = new GeneratedQuantity(real()) {
  result := stan.normal(0.0, 1.0).rng

Assigning Inputs

The values for data declarations are specified using the withData method on the model (technically, this method is on the CompiledModel class, but there is an implicit conversion to compile the model). So, for example, given a data declaration for an integer called x and a model called model, one obtains an updated model with the data filled in for x via:

model.withData(x, data)

Note that data in the above must be the appropriate Scala type for the model. For example, an int() in ScalaStan must be assigned an Int and a real() must be assigned a Double. Vectors and higher dimensional objects are represented Seq in Scala, which each dimension adding another Seq. Note that Scala is indexed from zero whereas Stan (and ScalaStan) is indexed from one.

It is also possible to assign data from a DataSource. The following data sources are available:

  • CsvDataSource: A data source for parsing CSV.
  • RDataSource: A data source for parsing R-formatted data.
  • TextDataSource: A data source for parsing a text file with an array of values.

For example, given a file (data.R) with R-formatted data, we can assign x from the value named X in the R data file using the apply method:

val source ="data.R")
model.withData(source(x, "X"))

Using data sources, it is also possible to load the data in Scala format for manipulation using the read method:

val source ="data.csv")
val data: Seq[Double] =, "X")

Before the model can be run, all inputs must be assigned. To assign different inputs, the reset method must be called. Using the reset method will clear all assigned inputs and initial values, allowing the model to be run multiple times with different inputs. The reset method, like the withData method, returns an updated copy of the model.

Initial Values

Initial values can be set for parameter declarations using the withInitialValue method on the model (like withData, this is actually on the CompiledModel class). Here is an example to set the initial value for b:

model.withInitialValue(b, value)

It is also possible to set the initial value to a range [-x, x] for all parameters using:


Running the Model

Once all inputs are assigned, the model can be run using the run method. This method takes the following optional parameters:

  • chains: An integer specifying the number of chains to run in parallel. This defaults to 4.
  • seed: An integer specifying the first random number seed to use or -1 to use system time to select one. With multiple chains, the chain index is added to the seed to ensure each chain gets a different, but deterministic seed.
  • cache: A boolean specifying whether results should be cached. This defaults to true. When the results are cached, re-running the model with the same data set and seed as before will cause the results from the previous run to be returned rather than re-executing the model.
  • method: The method to use (RunMethod.Sample(), RunMethod.Optimize(), RunMethod.Variational(), or RunMethod.Diagnose()). This defaults to RunMethod.Sample(). Note that each RunMethod is a case class that can accept additional parameters.

The return value of the run method is a results object that can be used to extract values from the run.

The first run of a model will take a long time since the Stan code will need to be built. However, the generated Stan executable is cached and reused, so additional runs will be fast. The SHA1 hash of the generated code from ScalaStan is used to determine if the code has changed and needs to be rebuilt. The cached models and results are stored in $HOME/.scalastan. Old models and results are removed in a least-recently used fashion.

Getting Results

The run method on CompiledModel returns a StanResults object, which has several methods to extract samples and statistics on the results of the run. These methods take a parameter (or transformed parameter) as an argument.

For example, to get the mean of the samples for parameter y:

val m = results.mean(model.y)

This will return the mean with the same shape as the input parameter. Note that the Scala data structure is indexed from zero (instead of one as it is in Stan).

For convenience, there is also a get method on StanResults to access the input data.

The results object also has a summary method to output a summary of results like the stansummary program:


External Stan Code

It is possible to use ScalaStan to generate regular Stan code using the emit function on the model. For example:

    object MyModel extends StanModel {
      // ...
    val writer = new"myModel.stan")

It is also possible to use ScalaStan to run existing Stan models. To use an existing model, the data and parameters must be set up in ScalaStan, then the loadFromFile (or loadFromString) method on Model can be used to load the model. Once loaded, the model can be used just as a model implemented directly in ScalaStan. For example:

  object MyModel extends StanModel {
    val n = data(int(lower = 0))
    val x = data(vector(n))
    val mu = parameter(real())
    val sigma = parameter(real(lower = 0))


  // ...