Configuring Databases

Databases provide a critical aspect of psiTurk as they store data from experiments and help to prevent the same user from completing your experiment more than once. Databases provide an important function for web-based experiments. Because multiple people can complete your experiment at the same time, you need a system which can simultaneously write/read data. Databases are optimized for this type of environment and are thus very useful for experiments.

Databases can be configured via the command line or by editing the configuration files directly. See the db command documentation for a full list of database commands available in the psiTurk shell. You can also view your current database settings by typing:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db get_config

in the command line shell.

See also

Database parameters
For details on how to configure databases in config.txt.
Local configuration file
For details on the local configuration file config.txt.

Using SQLite

Perhaps the simplest solution is to use SQLite. This is a simple, easy to use database solution that is written to a local file on the same computer as is running the psiTurk shell/server. By default psiTurk will use a local SQLite database.

To use a SQLite data base, simply set the database_url field in your local configuration file (config.txt):

database_url = sqlite:///FILENAME.db

where FILENAME is of your choosing. By default, psiTurk sets this like this:

database_url = sqlite:///participants.db

This will make a SQLite database file in the top-level folder of your project. If you change the database_url and restart psiTurk a new database corresponding to the new filename will be created. If you set it to an existing file name, psiTurk will attempt to connect to this database.

You can also change this setting using the command line:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db use_local_file FILENAME.db

and verify the changes using:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db get_config

It is best to do this while the server is not running (note in this example the “server” status says “off”). If you change this while the server is running you will need to type:

[psiTurk server:on mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ server restart

While great for debugging, SQLite has a number of important downsides for deploying experiments. In particular SQLite does not allow concurrent access to the database, so if the locks work properly, simultaneous access (say, from multiple users submitting their data at the same time) could destabilize your database. In the worst scenario, the database could become corrupted, resulting in data loss.

As a result, we recommend using a more robust database solution when actually running your experiment. Luckily, psiTurk can help you set up such a database (usually for free).

However, SQLite is a good solution particularly for initial testing. It is also possible to try to “throttle” the rate of signups on Mechanical Turk (by only posting one assignment slot at a time) so that database errors are less likely using SQLite.


SQLite database are fine for local testing but more robust databases like MySQL are recommended especially if you plan to run many participants simultaneously.

Obtaining a low-cost (or free) MySQL database on Amazon’s Web Services Cloud

While not terribly difficult, installing and mangaging a MySQL database can be an extra hassle. Interestingly, when you sign up with Amazon Mechanical Turk as a requester, you also are signing up for Amazon’s Web Services a very powerful cloud-based computing platform that is used by many large web companies. One of the services Amazon provides is a fully hosted relational database server (RDS).

According to Amazon, “Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) is a web service that makes it easy to set up, operate, and scale a relational database in the cloud. It provides cost-efficient and resizable capacity while managing time-consuming database administration tasks, freeing you up to focus on your applications and business.”


If you use Amazon’s RDS to host your MySQL database you may incur additional charges. At the present time a small RDS instance is free if you have recently signed up for Amazon Web Services. However, older account have to pay according to the current rates. This does NOT use the pre-paid mechanism that is used on Amazon Mechanical Turk. Thus launching a database server on the cloud and leaving it running run up monthly charges. You are responsible for launching and shutting down your own database instances if you use this approach. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.

The psiTurk command line provides a way to create a small MySQL database on Amazon’s cloud using the RDS service. The command for this are available under the db command. Type:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db help

for a list of sub-commands. The commands that begin with aws_ directly interface with the Amazon cloud.


Of course, you must have valid AWS credentials to use this system. See Getting setup with Amazon Mechanical Turk and Global configuration file.

If you are using psiturk with an IAM user, and if you want to use AWS RDB services via psiturk, add the AmazonRDSFullAccess AWS policy or an equivalent custom policy to your IAM user. See AWS docs here.

AWS Regions

AWS divides their cloud into different “regions” based on the location of the data center. To see a list of available regions type:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_list_regions

This command will also show which region you are currently using. The region is also set in your ~/.psiturkconfig Global configuration file. You can also get the current region by typing:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_get_region

To change your region simply type:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_set_region [<region_name>]

where region_name is one of the options listed by db aws_list_regions.

Why is this important? If you start an instance in one region, then switch regions, it will not show up in your list anymore. The regions are sort of independent from one another. Thus it is important to remember which region your instance was started on (i.e., which data center).


It is probably fine to just keep the region set to a single value perhaps geographically closer to your location. This functionality is just provided in case the default region isn’t working for you.

Creating an RDS Instance

After you have decided on a region, it is fairly easy to create a database instance. Type:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_list_instances

to see all available instances associated with your account in the current region. If you haven’t created any instances in this region yet you should get a message like:

There are no DB instances associated with your AWS account in region  us-east-1

To create a new instance use the db aws_create_instance command:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_create_instance [<instance_id> <size> <username> <password> <dbname>]

The optional arguments allow you to create the database in one command. If you prefer you can use an interactive mode by just typing:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_create_instance

This will print the following message describing the various options you need to specify for your database instance:

Ok, here are the rules on creating instances:

instance id:
  Each instance needs an identifier.  This is the name
  of the virtual machine created for you on AWS.
  Rules are 1-63 alphanumeric characters, first must
  be a letter, must be unique to this AWS account.

  The maximum size of you database in GB.  Enter an
  integer between 5-1024

master username:
  The username you will use to connect.  Rules are
  1-16 alphanumeric characters, first must be a letter,
  cannot be a reserved MySQL word/phrase

master password:
  Rules are 8-41 alphanumeric characters

database name:
  The name for the first database on this instance.  Rules are
  1-64 alphanumeric characters, cannot be a reserved MySQL word

Then you will be prompted to specify values for these fields. If you follow the rules correctly your command will execute successfully:

enter an identifier for the instance (see rules above): mydb
size of db in GB (5-1024): 5
master username (see rules above): UsernameXXXXX
master password (see rules above): PasswordXXXXX
name for first database on this instance (see rules): myexp
  Creating AWS RDS MySQL Instance
    id:  mydb
    size:  5  GB
    username:  UsernameXXXXX
    password:  PasswordXXXXX
    dbname:  myexp
    type: MySQL/db.t1.micro
 Be sure to store this information in a safe place.
 Please wait 5-10 minutes while your database is created in the cloud.
 You can run 'db aws_list_instances' to verify it was created (status
 will say 'available' when it is ready

The instructions mention that it can take a few minutes for you database to “spin up”. If you run db aws_list_instances after a few minutes you should now see your database in the cloud:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_list_instances
Here are the current DB instances associated with your AWS account in region  us-east-1
        Instance ID: mydb
        Status: creating

Notice the status is “creating” (this means the database is not available yet). Just wait a bit longer. It really can take 10-15 minutes! Other possible status messages for an instance include backing-up (AWS automatically backs up your database in case of data loss. At this time psiTurk does not help you access those backups, you’ll have to do that from the AWS web console.)

When your database is ready the message from db aws_list_instances should look like:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_list_instances
Here are the current DB instances associated with your AWS account in region  us-east-1
        Instance ID: mydb
        Status: available

If you have multiple instances they will also appear in this list.


Multiple instances increase the possible charges you’ll incur to Amazon since you are charged per-instance.

Once your instance is created and “available” if you type db get_config you’ll notice that your experiment is still configured to use whatever setting you had previously:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db get_config
Current database setting (database_url):

To actually use your instance you need to tell psiTurk which instance:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db use_aws_instance mydb
Switching your DB settings to use this instance.  Are you sure you want to do this? y
enter the master password for this instance: PasswordXXXXX
AWS RDS database instance mydb selected.
Here are the available database tables
Enter the name of the database you want to use or a new name to create a new one: myexp
Successfully set your current database (database_url) to

And now your experiment will save data to this MySQL database in the Amazon cloud! Notice that Amazon has assigned your computer a random looking hostname/ip ( You can connect using any standard MySQL client (e.g., Sequel Pro) which is running on the same computer as you psiTurk process


psiTurk automatically makes instances so that only the current computer’s ip address can access the database for security reasons. To modify that you can use the Amazon Web Services control panel or simple delete and spin up a new database instance.

To switch back to a local SQLite file:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db use_local_file FILENAME.db
Updated database setting (database_url):

It is important that you delete your instance when you are finished using it. Otherwise you will be charged (usually fractions of a penny per hour). Assuming I wanted to delete my new mydb instance here is an example session:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_list_instances
Here are the current DB instances associated with your AWS account in region  us-east-1
        Instance ID: mydb
        Status: available
[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_delete_instance
Here are the available instances you can delete:
          mydb ( available )
Enter the instance identity you would like to delete: mydb
Deleting an instance will erase all your data associated with the database in that instance. Really quit? y or n: y
AWS RDS database instance mydb deleted.  Run `db aws_list_instances` for current status.
[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_list_instances
Here are the current DB instances associated with your AWS account in region  us-east-1
        Instance ID: mydb
        Status: deleting

After waiting a bit verify that you instance actually has been deleted:

[psiTurk server:off mode:sdbx #HITs:0]$ db aws_list_instances
There are no DB instances associated with your AWS account in region  us-east-1

Overall we think this is pretty cool and nicely leverages the fact that you already got a Amazon Web Services account when you signed up to use Amazon Mechanical Turk! However, remember, this can incur hosting charges. We have set things up so that this process creates very small, very simple RDS instances (which are the cheapest kind). However, leaving an instance running – or multiple instances – for a really long time can incur service charges which will be billed to your account by Amazon at the end of the month (you may not realize the charges until later).

The point is that using a free MySQL database hosted by your university or another provider may be better, but this solution is available for researchers who can afford to pay the hosting fee and would like everything in one place.

Obtaining a free MySQL database via OpenShift

If you are hosting your experiment on OpenShift, if you add a MySQL cartridge to your gear, psiTurk will automatically save data to that db instead of to whatever is specified in your database_url config. OpenShift gears, including using MySQL cartridges, are free unless you change default configuration settings.