Automating Group Work Using GitHub Actions

Nov 29, 2021 17:57 · 708 words · 4 minutes read latex typesetting

During our group assignment, my group was assigned to do a case study of Netflix’ business model; it’s sustainability; and pricing. I realise that many people in my group are new to TeX, version control and to some extent the desire to automate workflows. As such, this post presents a novel workflow that I proposed to my group-mates in a bid to make things more efficient without diving deep into the arcanes of programming.

First, everything is maintained in Git. In the main Git repository we have TeX files from which people will be making their contributions. Contributions, at least to the main repository, are made either by creating an issue to the main repository, or by creating a Pull Request against the main repository. Understandably, simple as this may seem to your seasoned computer user, it’s not obvious. As such, the group leader(not me!) maintains a parallel google docs sheet which hosts group work content from the rest of the group. Some volunteer would thereafter have to spend some time to update the main TeX files to reflect activities from google docs.

What we have so far is a repository with TeX files, and nothing more. What else could we do further? First, we could have a way of compiling those files and exposing those files to GitHub; and later send a copy to our Group’s slack channel. For that, we use GitHub Actions. GitHub Actions provides a Linux environment from which we could have TeX installed, and have a PDF generated. This is shown in this YAML configuration snippet:

name: Generate pdf

# Run actions when pushing to the main branch or when you create a
# PR against it
on: push

jobs:
  build_latex:
    runs-on: ubuntu-latest

Note that we run this action whenever we update (push to) the main branch of the repository. More of this later.

Next we checkout our repository:

    - name: Set up Git repo
      uses: actions/[email protected]

We thereafter generate the main file whilst specifying “main.tex” as our target. This is akin to running a command like: pdflatex main.tex on the file (for the extra curious, a bib command is also run).

    - name: Compile LaTex document
      uses: xu-cheng/[email protected]
      with:
        root_file: main.tex

The generated main.pdf file is our “artefact”; and we need to upload it so that we can store that data during the workflow. Here is how that is done:

    - name: Upload artifact
      uses: actions/[email protected]
      with:
        name: PDF
        path: main.pdf

We are almost there! Now we need to make a release, which looks like this. Before we go on, we need to answer an important question: How should releases be made? Making a release on every single push is noisy, and really not helpful. For this particular case, I opted to make a release based on git tagging. The idea is that whenever we make some significant progress worth reviewing, we create a tag; and whenever I push that tag to the main repository, a release is made. Tags would look like: v0.0.1-intro-wip, v0.0.1-intro-final, etc. Naming Conventions is something we can agree on as a group later. The snippet responsible for making a release based on a tag is:

    - name: Release
      uses: softprops/[email protected]
      if: startsWith(github.ref, 'refs/tags/')
      with:
        files: main.pdf

Finally, we upload the work to Slack. For this, note the we store our tokens using encrypted secrets; and that looks like:

    - name: Slack upload
      uses: adrey/[email protected]
      if: startsWith(github.ref, 'refs/tags/')
      with:
        token: ${{ secrets.SLACK_TOKEN }}
        path: main.pdf
        channel: netflix

And there you have it! We make contributions in one central place, and we automate the pdf generation and slack upload. Extra steps, depending on how active people are, would be to ping the lecturer on Slack after every release.

Finally, the full configuration file:

name: Generate pdf

# Run actions when pushing to the main branch or when you create a
# PR against it
on: push

jobs:
  build_latex:
    runs-on: ubuntu-latest
    steps:
    - name: Set up Git repo
      uses: actions/[email protected]

    - name: Compile LaTex document
      uses: xu-cheng/[email protected]
      with:
        root_file: main.tex

    - name: Upload artifact
      uses: actions/[email protected]
      with:
        name: PDF
        path: main.pdf

    - name: Release
      uses: softprops/[email protected]
      if: startsWith(github.ref, 'refs/tags/')
      with:
        files: main.pdf

    - name: Slack upload
      uses: adrey/[email protected]
      if: startsWith(github.ref, 'refs/tags/')
      with:
        token: ${{ secrets.SLACK_TOKEN }}
        path: main.pdf
        channel: netflix