Keep trying that api call with purrr::possibly()

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Sometimes you need to call an api to get some result from a web service, but sometimes this call might fail. You might get an error 500 for example, or maybe you’re making too many calls too fast. Regarding this last point, I really encourage you to read Ethics in Web Scraping.

In this blog post I will show you how you can keep trying to make this api call using purrr::possibly().

For this, let’s use this function that will simulate an api call:

get_data = function(){
  number = rbinom(1, 1, 0.9)
  ifelse(number == 0, "OK", stop("Error: too many calls!"))

This function simply returns a random draw from a binomial distribution. If this number equals 0 with probability 0.1, the function returns “OK”, if not, it throws an error. Because the probability of success is only 10%, your api call might be unsuccessful:

Error in ifelse(number == 0, "OK", stop("Error: too many calls!")) :
  Error: too many calls!

How to keep trying until it works? For this, we’re going to use purrr::possibly(); this function takes another function as argument and either returns the result, or another output in case of error, that the user can define:

possibly_get_data = purrr::possibly(get_data, otherwise = NULL)

Let’s try it:


With set.seed(12), the function returns a number different from 0, and thus throws an error: but because we’re wrapping the function around purrr::possibly(), the function now returns NULL. The first step is done; now we can use this to our advantage:

definitely_get_data = function(func, n_tries, sleep, ...){

  possibly_func = purrr::possibly(func, otherwise = NULL)

  result = NULL
  try_number = 1

  while(is.null(result) && try_number <= n_tries){
    print(paste("Try number: ", try_number))
    try_number = try_number + 1
    result = possibly_func(...)


definitely_get_data() is a function that takes any function as argument, as well as a user provided number of tries (as well as ... to pass further arguments to func()). Remember, if func() fails, it will return NULL; the while loop ensures that while the result is NULL, and the number of tries is below what you provided, the function will keep getting called. I didn’t talk about sleep; this argument is provided to Sys.sleep() which introduces a break between calls that is equal to sleep seconds. This ensures you don’t make too many calls too fast. Let’s try it out:

definitely_get_data(get_data, 10, 1)
## [1] "Try number:  1"
## [1] "Try number:  2"
## [1] "Try number:  3"
## [1] "Try number:  4"
## [1] "Try number:  5"
## [1] "OK"

It took 5 tries to get the result! However, if after 10 tries get_data() fails to return what you need it will stop (but you can increase the number of tries…).

If you found this blog post useful, you might want to follow me on twitter for blog post updates.

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