A Comparative Review of the BlueSky Statistics GUI for R

June 21, 2018
By

(This article was first published on R – r4stats.com, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Introduction

BlueSky Statistics’ desktop version is a free and open source graphical user interface for the R software that focuses on beginners looking to point-and-click their way through analyses.  A commercial version is also available which includes technical support and a version for Windows Terminal Servers such as Remote Desktop, or Citrix. Mac, Linux, or tablet users could run it via a terminal server.

This post is one of a series of reviews which aim to help non-programmers choose the Graphical User Interface (GUI) that is best for them. Additionally, these reviews include a cursory description of the programming support that each GUI offers.

 

Terminology

There are various definitions of user interface types, so here’s how I’ll be using these terms:

GUI = Graphical User Interface using menus and dialog boxes to avoid having to type programming code. I do not include any assistance for programming in this definition. So, GUI users are people who prefer using a GUI to perform their analyses. They don’t have the time or inclination to become good programmers.

IDE = Integrated Development Environment which helps programmers write code. I do not include point-and-click style menus and dialog boxes when using this term. IDE usersare people who prefer to write R code to perform their analyses.

 

Installation

The various user interfaces available for R differ quite a lot in how they’re installed. Some, such as jamovi or RKWard, install in a single step. Others install in multiple steps, such as the R Commander (two steps) and Deducer (up to seven steps). Advanced computer users often don’t appreciate how lost beginners can become while attempting even a simple installation. The HelpDesks at most universities are flooded with such calls at the beginning of each semester!

The main BlueSky installation is easily performed in a single step. The installer provides its own embedded copy of R, simplifying the installation and ensuring complete compatibility between BlueSky and the version of R it’s using. However, it also means if you already have R installed, you’ll end up with a second copy. You can have BlueSky control any version of R you choose, but if the version differs too much, you may run into occasional problems.

 

Plug-in Modules

When choosing a GUI, one of the most fundamental questions is: what can it do for you? What the initial software installation of each GUI gets you is covered in the Graphics, Analysis, and Modeling sections of this series of articles. Regardless of what comes built-in, it’s good to know how active the development community is. They contribute “plug-ins” which add new menus and dialog boxes to the GUI. This level of activity ranges from very low (RKWard, Deducer) through moderate (jamovi) to very active (R Commander).

BlueSky is a fairly new open source project, and at the moment all the add-on modules are provided by the company. However, BlueSky’s capabilities approaches the comprehensiveness of R Commander, which currently has the most add-ons available. The BlueSky developers are working to create an Internet repository for module distribution.

 

Startup

Some user interfaces for R, such as jamovi, start by double-clicking on a single icon, which is great for people who prefer to not write code. Others, such as R commander and JGR, have you start R, then load a package from your library, and call a function. That’s better for people looking to learn R, as those are among the first tasks they’ll have to learn anyway.

You start BlueSky directly by double-clicking its icon from your desktop, or choosing it from your Start Menu (i.e. not from within R itself). It interacts with R in the background; you never need to be aware that R is running.

 

Data Editor

A data editor is a fundamental feature in data analysis software. It puts you in touch with your data and lets you get a feel for it, if only in a rough way. A data editor is such a simple concept that you might think there would be hardly any differences in how they work in different GUIs. While there are technical differences, to a beginner what matters the most are the differences in simplicity. Some GUIs, including jamovi, let you create only what R calls a data frame. They use more common terminology and call it a data set: you create one, you save one, later you open one, then you use one. Others, such as RKWard trade this simplicity for the full R language perspective: a data set is stored in a workspace. So the process goes: you create a data set, you save a workspace, you open a workspace, and choose a data set from within it.

BlueSky starts up by showing you its main Application screen (Figure 1) and prompts you to enter data with an empty spreadsheet-style data editor. You can start entering data immediately, though at first, the variables are simply named var1, var2…. You might think you can rename them by clicking on their names, but such changes are done in a different manner, one that will be very familiar to SPSS users. There are two tabs at the bottom left of the data editor screen, which are labeled “Data” and “Variables.” The “Data” tab is shown by default, but clicking on the “Variables” tab takes you to a screen (Figure 2) which displays the metadata: variable names, labels, types, classes, values, and measurement scale.

Figure 1. The main BlueSky Application screen.

The big advantage that SPSS offers is that you can change the settings of many variables at once. So if you had, say, 20 variables for which you needed to set the same factor labels (e.g. 1=strongly disagree…5=Strongly Agree) you could do it once and then paste them into the other 19 with just a click or two. Unfortunately, that’s not yet fully implemented in BlueSky. Some of the metadata fields can be edited directly. For the rest, you must instead follow the directions at the top of that screen and right click on each variable, one at a time, to make the changes. Complete copy and paste of metadata is planned for a future version.

Figure 2. The Variables screen in the data editor. The “Variables” tab in the lower left is selected, letting us see the metadata for the same variables as shown in Figure 1.

You can enter numeric or character data in the editor right after starting BlueSky. The first time you enter character data, it will offer to convert the variable from numeric to character and wait for you to approve the change. This is very helpful as it’s all too easy to type the letter “O” when meaning to type a zero “0”, or the letter “I” instead of number one “1”.

To add rows, the Data tab is clearly labeled, “Click here to add a new row”. It would be much faster if the Enter key did that automatically.

To add variables you have to go to the Variables tab and right-click on the row of any variable (variable names are in rows on that screen), then choose “Insert new variable at end.”

To enter factor data, it’s best to leave it numeric such as 1 or 2, for male and female, then set the labels (which are called values using SPSS terminology) afterwards. The reason for this is that once labels are set, you must enter them from drop-down menus. While that ensures no invalid values are entered, it slows down data entry. The developer’s future plans includes automatic display of labels upon entry of numeric values.

If you instead decide to make the variable a factor before entering numeric data, it’s best to enter the numbers as labels as well. It’s an oddity of R that factors are numeric inside, while displaying labels that may or may not be the same as the numbers they represent.

To enter dates, enter them as character data and use the “Data> Compute” menu to convert the character data to a date. When I reported this problem to the developers, they said they would add this to the “Variables” metadata tab so you could set it to be a date variable before entering the data.

If you have another data set to enter, you can start the process again by clicking “File> New”, and a new editor window will appear in a new tab. You can change data sets simply by clicking on its tab and its window will pop to the front for you to see. When doing analyses, or saving data, the data set that’s displayed in the editor is the one that will be used. That approach feels very natural; what you see is what you get.

Saving the data is done with the standard “File > Save As” menu. You must save each one to its own file. While R allows multiple data sets (and other objects such as models) to be saved to a single file, BlueSky does not. Its developers chose to simplify what their users have to learn by limiting each file to a single data set. That is a useful simplification for GUI users. If a more advanced R user sends a compound file containing many objects, BlueSky will detect it and offer to open one data set (data frame) at a time.

Figure 3. Output window showing standard journal-style tables. Syntax editor has been opened and is shown on right side.

 

Data Import

The open source version of BlueSky supports the following file formats, all located under “File> Open”:

  • Comma Separated Values (.csv)
  • Plain text files (.txt)
  • Excel (old and new xls file types)
  • Dbase’s DBF
  • SPSS (.sav)
  • SAS binary files (sas7bdat)
  • Standard R workspace files (RData) with individual data frame selection

The SQL database formats are found under the “File> Import Data” menu. The supported formats include:

  • Microsoft Access
  • Microsoft SQL Server
  • MySQL
  • PostgreSQL
  • SQLite

 

Data Management

It’s often said that 80% of data analysis time is spent preparing the data. Variables need to be transformed, recoded, or created; strings and dates need to be manipulated; missing values need to be handled; datasets need to be stacked or merged, aggregated, transposed, or reshaped (e.g. from wide to long and back). A critically important aspect of data management is the ability to transform many variables at once. For example, social scientists need to recode many survey items, biologists need to take the logarithms of many variables. Doing these types of tasks one variable at a time can be tedious. Some GUIs, such as jamovi and RKWard handle only a few of these functions. Others, such as the R Commander, can handle many, but not all, of them.

BlueSky offers one of the most comprehensive sets of data management tools of any R GUI. The “Data” menu offers the following set of tools. Not shown is an extensive set of character and date/time functions which appear under “Compute.”

  1. Missing Values
  2. Compute
  3. Bin Numeric Variables
  4. Recode (able to recode many at once)
  5. Make Factor Variable (able to covert many at once)
  6. Transpose
  7. Transform (able to transform many at once)
  8. Sample Dataset
  9. Delete Variables
  10. Standardize Variables (able to standardize many at once)
  11. Aggregate (outputs results to a new dataset)
  12. Aggregate (outputs results to a printed table)
  13. Subset (outputs to a new data et)
  14. Subset (outputs results to a printed table)
  15. Merge Datasets
  16. Sort (outputs results to a new dataset)
  17. Sort (outputs results to a printed table)
  18. Reload Dataset from File
  19. Refresh Grid
  20. Concatenate Multiple Variables (handling missing values)
  21. Legacy (does same things but using base R code)
  22. Reshape (long to wide)
  23. Reshape (wide to long)

Continued here…

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