Using R: From gather to pivot

November 17, 2019
By

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Since version 1.0.0, released in September, the tidyr package has a new replacement for the gather/spread pair of functions, called pivot_longer/pivot_wider. (See the blog post about the release. It can do a lot of cool things.) Just what we needed, another pair of names for melt/cast, right?

Yes, I feel like this might just be what we need!

My journey started with reshape2, and after a bit of confusion, I internalised the logic of melt/cast. Look at this beauty:

library(reshape2)
fake_data <- data.frame(id = 1:20,
                        variable1 = runif(20, 0, 1),
                        variable2 = rnorm(20))
melted <- melt(fake_data, id.vars = "id")

This turns a data frame that looks like this …

  id  variable1   variable2
1  1 0.10287737 -0.21740708
2  2 0.04219212  1.36050438
3  3 0.78119150  0.09808656
4  4 0.44304613  0.48306900
5  5 0.30720140 -0.45028374
6  6 0.42387957  1.16875579

… into a data frame that looks like this:

  id  variable      value
1  1 variable1 0.10287737
2  2 variable1 0.04219212
3  3 variable1 0.78119150
4  4 variable1 0.44304613
5  5 variable1 0.30720140
6  6 variable1 0.42387957

This is extremely useful. Among other things it comes up all the time when using ggplot2.

Then, as I detailed in a post two years ago, I switched to tidyr as that became the replacement package. ”Gather” and ”spread” made no sense to me as descriptions of operations on a data frame. To be fair, ”melt” and ”cast” felt equally arbitrary, but by that time I was used to them. Getting the logic of the arguments, the order, what needed quotation marks and not, some starting at examples and a fair bit of trial and error.

Here are some examples. If you’re not used to these functions, just skip ahead, because you will want to learn the pivot functions instead!

library(tidyr)
melted <- gather(fake_data, variable, value, 2:3)
 
## Column names instead of indices
melted <- gather(fake_data, variable, value, variable1, variable2)
 
## Excluding instead of including
melted <- gather(fake_data, variable, value, -1)
 
## Excluding using column name
melted <- gather(fake_data, variable, value, -id)

Enter the pivot functions. Now, I have never used pivot tables in any spreadsheet software, and in fact, the best way to explain them to me was to tell me that they were like melt/cast (and summarise) … But pivot_longer/pivot_wider are definitely friendlier on first use than gather/spread. The naming of both the functions themselves and their arguments feel like a definite improvement.

long <- pivot_longer(fake_data, 2:3,
                     names_to = "variable",
                     values_to = "value")
# A tibble: 40 x 3
      id variable    value
           
 1     1 variable1  0.103 
 2     1 variable2 -0.217 
 3     2 variable1  0.0422
 4     2 variable2  1.36  
 5     3 variable1  0.781 
 6     3 variable2  0.0981
 7     4 variable1  0.443 
 8     4 variable2  0.483 
 9     5 variable1  0.307 
10     5 variable2 -0.450 
# … with 30 more rows

We tell it into what column we want the names to go, and into what column we want the values to go. The function is named after a verb that is associated with moving things about in tables all the way to matrix algebra, followed by an adjective (in my opinion the most descriptive, out of the alternatives) that describes the layout of the data that we want.

Or, to switch us back again:

wide <- pivot_wider(long,
                    names_from = "variable",
                    values_from = "value")
# A tibble: 20 x 3
      id variable1 variable2
             
 1     1    0.103    -0.217 
 2     2    0.0422    1.36  
 3     3    0.781     0.0981
 4     4    0.443     0.483 
 5     5    0.307    -0.450 
 6     6    0.424     1.17  

Here, instead, we tell it where we want the new column names taken from and where we want the new values taken from. None of this is self-explanatory, by any means, but they are thoughtful choices that make a lot of sense.

We’ll see what I think after trying to explain them to beginners a few times, and after I’ve fought warning messages involving list columns for some time, but so far: well done, tidyr developers!

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