1.4 Explore your first datasets

Let’s put everything we’ve learned so far into practice and start exploring some real data! Data comes to us in a variety of formats, from pictures to text to numbers. Throughout this book, we’ll focus on datasets that are saved in “spreadsheet”-type format. This is probably the most common way data are collected and saved in many fields. Remember from Subsection 1.2.1 that these “spreadsheet”-type datasets are called data frames in R. We’ll focus on working with data saved as data frames throughout this book.

Let’s first load all the packages needed for this chapter, assuming you’ve already installed them. Read Section 1.3 for information on how to install and load R packages if you haven’t already.

At the beginning of all subsequent chapters in this book, we’ll always have a list of packages that you should have installed and loaded in order to work with that chapter’s R code.

1.4.1 nycflights13 package

Many of us have flown on airplanes or know someone who has. Air travel has become an ever-present aspect of many people’s lives. If you look at the Departures flight information board at an airport, you will frequently see that some flights are delayed for a variety of reasons. Are there ways that we can understand the reasons that cause flight delays?

We’d all like to arrive at our destinations on time whenever possible. (Unless you secretly love hanging out at airports. If you are one of these people, pretend for a moment that you are very much anticipating being at your final destination.) Throughout this book, we’re going to analyze data related to all domestic flights departing from one of New York City’s three main airports in 2013: Newark Liberty International (EWR), John F. Kennedy International (JFK), and LaGuardia Airport (LGA). We’ll access this data using the nycflights13 R package, which contains five datasets saved in five data frames:

  • flights: Information on all 336,776 flights.
  • airlines: A table matching airline names and their two-letter International Air Transport Association (IATA) airline codes (also known as carrier codes) for 16 airline companies. For example, “DL” is the two-letter code for Delta.
  • planes: Information about each of the 3,322 physical aircraft used.
  • weather: Hourly meteorological data for each of the three NYC airports. This data frame has 26,115 rows, roughly corresponding to the \(365 \times 24 \times 3 = 26,280\) possible hourly measurements one can observe at three locations over the course of a year.
  • airports: Names, codes, and locations of the 1,458 domestic destinations.

1.4.2 flights data frame

We’ll begin by exploring the flights data frame and get an idea of its structure. Run the following code in your console, either by typing it or by cutting-and-pasting it. It displays the contents of the flights data frame in your console. Note that depending on the size of your monitor, the output may vary slightly.

# A tibble: 336,776 x 19
    year month   day dep_time sched_dep_time dep_delay arr_time sched_arr_time
   <int> <int> <int>    <int>          <int>     <dbl>    <int>          <int>
 1  2013     1     1      517            515         2      830            819
 2  2013     1     1      533            529         4      850            830
 3  2013     1     1      542            540         2      923            850
 4  2013     1     1      544            545        -1     1004           1022
 5  2013     1     1      554            600        -6      812            837
 6  2013     1     1      554            558        -4      740            728
 7  2013     1     1      555            600        -5      913            854
 8  2013     1     1      557            600        -3      709            723
 9  2013     1     1      557            600        -3      838            846
10  2013     1     1      558            600        -2      753            745
# … with 336,766 more rows, and 11 more variables: arr_delay <dbl>,
#   carrier <chr>, flight <int>, tailnum <chr>, origin <chr>, dest <chr>,
#   air_time <dbl>, distance <dbl>, hour <dbl>, minute <dbl>, time_hour <dttm>

Let’s unpack this output:

  • A tibble: 336,776 x 19: A tibble is a specific kind of data frame in R. This particular data frame has
    • 336,776 rows corresponding to different observations. Here, each observation is a flight.
    • 19 columns corresponding to 19 variables describing each observation.
  • year, month, day, dep_time, sched_dep_time, dep_delay, and arr_time are the different columns, in other words, the different variables of this dataset.
  • We then have a preview of the first 10 rows of observations corresponding to the first 10 flights. R is only showing the first 10 rows, because if it showed all 336,776 rows, it would overwhelm your screen.
  • ... with 336,766 more rows, and 11 more variables: indicating to us that 336,766 more rows of data and 11 more variables could not fit in this screen.

Unfortunately, this output does not allow us to explore the data very well, but it does give a nice preview. Let’s look at some different ways to explore data frames.

1.4.3 Exploring data frames

There are many ways to get a feel for the data contained in a data frame such as flights. We present three functions that take as their “argument” (their input) the data frame in question. We also include a fourth method for exploring one particular column of a data frame:

  1. Using the View() function, which brings up RStudio’s built-in data viewer.
  2. Using the glimpse() function, which is included in the dplyr package.
  3. Using the kable() function, which is included in the knitr package.
  4. Using the $ “extraction operator,” which is used to view a single variable/column in a data frame.

1. View():

Run View(flights) in your console in RStudio, either by typing it or cutting-and-pasting it into the console pane. Explore this data frame in the resulting pop up viewer. You should get into the habit of viewing any data frames you encounter. Note the uppercase V in View(). R is case-sensitive, so you’ll get an error message if you run view(flights) instead of View(flights).

Learning check

(LC1.3) What does any ONE row in this flights dataset refer to?

  • A. Data on an airline
  • B. Data on a flight
  • C. Data on an airport
  • D. Data on multiple flights

By running View(flights), we can explore the different variables listed in the columns. Observe that there are many different types of variables. Some of the variables like distance, day, and arr_delay are what we will call quantitative variables. These variables are numerical in nature. Other variables here are categorical.

Note that if you look in the leftmost column of the View(flights) output, you will see a column of numbers. These are the row numbers of the dataset. If you glance across a row with the same number, say row 5, you can get an idea of what each row is representing. This will allow you to identify what object is being described in a given row by taking note of the values of the columns in that specific row. This is often called the observational unit. The observational unit in this example is an individual flight departing from New York City in 2013. You can identify the observational unit by determining what “thing” is being measured or described by each of the variables. We’ll talk more about observational units in Subsection 1.4.4 on identification and measurement variables.

2. glimpse():

The second way we’ll cover to explore a data frame is using the glimpse() function included in the dplyr package. Thus, you can only use the glimpse() function after you’ve loaded the dplyr package by running library(dplyr). This function provides us with an alternative perspective for exploring a data frame than the View() function:

Rows: 336,776
Columns: 19
$ year           <int> 2013, 2013, 2013, 2013, 2013, 2013, 2013, 2013, 2013, …
$ month          <int> 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, …
$ day            <int> 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, …
$ dep_time       <int> 517, 533, 542, 544, 554, 554, 555, 557, 557, 558, 558,…
$ sched_dep_time <int> 515, 529, 540, 545, 600, 558, 600, 600, 600, 600, 600,…
$ dep_delay      <dbl> 2, 4, 2, -1, -6, -4, -5, -3, -3, -2, -2, -2, -2, -2, -…
$ arr_time       <int> 830, 850, 923, 1004, 812, 740, 913, 709, 838, 753, 849…
$ sched_arr_time <int> 819, 830, 850, 1022, 837, 728, 854, 723, 846, 745, 851…
$ arr_delay      <dbl> 11, 20, 33, -18, -25, 12, 19, -14, -8, 8, -2, -3, 7, -…
$ carrier        <chr> "UA", "UA", "AA", "B6", "DL", "UA", "B6", "EV", "B6", …
$ flight         <int> 1545, 1714, 1141, 725, 461, 1696, 507, 5708, 79, 301, …
$ tailnum        <chr> "N14228", "N24211", "N619AA", "N804JB", "N668DN", "N39…
$ origin         <chr> "EWR", "LGA", "JFK", "JFK", "LGA", "EWR", "EWR", "LGA"…
$ dest           <chr> "IAH", "IAH", "MIA", "BQN", "ATL", "ORD", "FLL", "IAD"…
$ air_time       <dbl> 227, 227, 160, 183, 116, 150, 158, 53, 140, 138, 149, …
$ distance       <dbl> 1400, 1416, 1089, 1576, 762, 719, 1065, 229, 944, 733,…
$ hour           <dbl> 5, 5, 5, 5, 6, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 5, 6, 6, …
$ minute         <dbl> 15, 29, 40, 45, 0, 58, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 59, …
$ time_hour      <dttm> 2013-01-01 05:00:00, 2013-01-01 05:00:00, 2013-01-01 …

Observe that glimpse() will give you the first few entries of each variable in a row after the variable name. In addition, the data type (see Subsection 1.2.1) of the variable is given immediately after each variable’s name inside < >. Here, int and dbl refer to “integer” and “double”, which are computer coding terminology for quantitative/numerical variables. “Doubles” take up twice the size to store on a computer compared to integers.

In contrast, chr refers to “character”, which is computer terminology for text data. In most forms, text data, such as the carrier or origin of a flight, are categorical variables. The time_hour variable is another data type: dttm. These types of variables represent date and time combinations. However, we won’t work with dates and times in this book; we leave this topic for other data science books like Introduction to Data Science by Tiffany-Anne Timbers, Melissa Lee, and Trevor Campbell or R for Data Science (Grolemund and Wickham 2017).

Learning check

(LC1.4) What are some other examples in this dataset of categorical variables? What makes them different than quantitative variables?

3. kable():

The final way to explore the entirety of a data frame is using the kable() function from the knitr package. Let’s explore the different carrier codes for all the airlines in our dataset two ways. Run both of these lines of code in the console:

At first glance, it may not appear that there is much difference in the outputs. However, when using tools for producing reproducible reports such as R Markdown, the latter code produces output that is much more legible and reader-friendly. You’ll see us use this reader-friendly style in many places in the book when we want to print a data frame as a nice table.

4. $ operator

Lastly, the $ operator allows us to extract and then explore a single variable within a data frame. For example, run the following in your console

We used the $ operator to extract only the name variable and return it as a vector of length 16. We’ll only be occasionally exploring data frames using the $ operator, instead favoring the View() and glimpse() functions.

1.4.4 Identification and measurement variables

There is a subtle difference between the kinds of variables that you will encounter in data frames. There are identification variables and measurement variables. For example, let’s explore the airports data frame by showing the output of glimpse(airports):

Rows: 1,458
Columns: 8
$ faa   <chr> "04G", "06A", "06C", "06N", "09J", "0A9", "0G6", "0G7", "0P2", …
$ name  <chr> "Lansdowne Airport", "Moton Field Municipal Airport", "Schaumbu…
$ lat   <dbl> 41.1, 32.5, 42.0, 41.4, 31.1, 36.4, 41.5, 42.9, 39.8, 48.1, 39.…
$ lon   <dbl> -80.6, -85.7, -88.1, -74.4, -81.4, -82.2, -84.5, -76.8, -76.6, …
$ alt   <dbl> 1044, 264, 801, 523, 11, 1593, 730, 492, 1000, 108, 409, 875, 1…
$ tz    <dbl> -5, -6, -6, -5, -5, -5, -5, -5, -5, -8, -5, -6, -5, -5, -5, -5,…
$ dst   <chr> "A", "A", "A", "A", "A", "A", "A", "A", "U", "A", "A", "U", "A"…
$ tzone <chr> "America/New_York", "America/Chicago", "America/Chicago", "Amer…

The variables faa and name are what we will call identification variables, variables that uniquely identify each observational unit. In this case, the identification variables uniquely identify airports. Such variables are mainly used in practice to uniquely identify each row in a data frame. faa gives the unique code provided by the FAA for that airport, while the name variable gives the longer official name of the airport. The remaining variables (lat, lon, alt, tz, dst, tzone) are often called measurement or characteristic variables: variables that describe properties of each observational unit. For example, lat and long describe the latitude and longitude of each airport.

Furthermore, sometimes a single variable might not be enough to uniquely identify each observational unit: combinations of variables might be needed. While it is not an absolute rule, for organizational purposes it is considered good practice to have your identification variables in the leftmost columns of your data frame.

Learning check

(LC1.5) What properties of each airport do the variables lat, lon, alt, tz, dst, and tzone describe in the airports data frame? Take your best guess.

(LC1.6) Provide the names of variables in a data frame with at least three variables where one of them is an identification variable and the other two are not. Further, create your own tidy data frame that matches these conditions.

1.4.5 Help files

Another nice feature of R are help files, which provide documentation for various functions and datasets. You can bring up help files by adding a ? before the name of a function or data frame and then run this in the console. You will then be presented with a page showing the corresponding documentation if it exists. For example, let’s look at the help file for the flights data frame.

The help file should pop up in the Help pane of RStudio. If you have questions about a function or data frame included in an R package, you should get in the habit of consulting the help file right away.

Learning check

(LC1.7) Look at the help file for the airports data frame. Revise your earlier guesses about what the variables lat, lon, alt, tz, dst, and tzone each describe.


Grolemund, Garrett, and Hadley Wickham. 2017. R for Data Science. First. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.