3.7 join data frames

Another common data transformation task is “joining” or “merging” two different datasets. For example, in the flights data frame, the variable carrier lists the carrier code for the different flights. While the corresponding airline names for "UA" and "AA" might be somewhat easy to guess (United and American Airlines), what airlines have codes "VX", "HA", and "B6"? This information is provided in a separate data frame airlines.

We see that in airlines, carrier is the carrier code, while name is the full name of the airline company. Using this table, we can see that "VX", "HA", and "B6" correspond to Virgin America, Hawaiian Airlines, and JetBlue, respectively. However, wouldn’t it be nice to have all this information in a single data frame instead of two separate data frames? We can do this by “joining” the flights and airlines data frames.

Note that the values in the variable carrier in the flights data frame match the values in the variable carrier in the airlines data frame. In this case, we can use the variable carrier as a key variable to match the rows of the two data frames. Key variables are almost always identification variables that uniquely identify the observational units as we saw in Subsection 1.4.4. This ensures that rows in both data frames are appropriately matched during the join. Hadley and Garrett (Grolemund and Wickham 2017) created the diagram shown in Figure 3.7 to help us understand how the different data frames in the nycflights13 package are linked by various key variables:

Data relationships in nycflights13 from R for Data Science.

FIGURE 3.7: Data relationships in nycflights13 from R for Data Science.

3.7.1 Matching “key” variable names

In both the flights and airlines data frames, the key variable we want to join/merge/match the rows by has the same name: carrier. Let’s use the inner_join() function to join the two data frames, where the rows will be matched by the variable carrier, and then compare the resulting data frames:

Observe that the flights and flights_joined data frames are identical except that flights_joined has an additional variable name. The values of name correspond to the airline companies’ names as indicated in the airlines data frame.

A visual representation of the inner_join() is shown in Figure 3.8 (Grolemund and Wickham 2017). There are other types of joins available (such as left_join(), right_join(), outer_join(), and anti_join()), but the inner_join() will solve nearly all of the problems you’ll encounter in this book.

Diagram of inner join from R for Data Science.

FIGURE 3.8: Diagram of inner join from R for Data Science.

3.7.2 Different “key” variable names

Say instead you are interested in the destinations of all domestic flights departing NYC in 2013, and you ask yourself questions like: “What cities are these airports in?”, or “Is "ORD" Orlando?”, or “Where is "FLL"?”.

The airports data frame contains the airport codes for each airport:

However, if you look at both the airports and flights data frames, you’ll find that the airport codes are in variables that have different names. In airports the airport code is in faa, whereas in flights the airport codes are in origin and dest. This fact is further highlighted in the visual representation of the relationships between these data frames in Figure 3.7.

In order to join these two data frames by airport code, our inner_join() operation will use the by = c("dest" = "faa") argument with modified code syntax allowing us to join two data frames where the key variable has a different name:

Let’s construct the chain of pipe operators %>% that computes the number of flights from NYC to each destination, but also includes information about each destination airport:

# A tibble: 101 x 9
   dest  num_flights airport_name          lat    lon   alt    tz dst   tzone   
   <chr>       <int> <chr>               <dbl>  <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <chr> <chr>   
 1 ORD         17283 Chicago Ohare Intl   42.0  -87.9   668    -6 A     America…
 2 ATL         17215 Hartsfield Jackson…  33.6  -84.4  1026    -5 A     America…
 3 LAX         16174 Los Angeles Intl     33.9 -118.    126    -8 A     America…
 4 BOS         15508 General Edward Law…  42.4  -71.0    19    -5 A     America…
 5 MCO         14082 Orlando Intl         28.4  -81.3    96    -5 A     America…
 6 CLT         14064 Charlotte Douglas …  35.2  -80.9   748    -5 A     America…
 7 SFO         13331 San Francisco Intl   37.6 -122.     13    -8 A     America…
 8 FLL         12055 Fort Lauderdale Ho…  26.1  -80.2     9    -5 A     America…
 9 MIA         11728 Miami Intl           25.8  -80.3     8    -5 A     America…
10 DCA          9705 Ronald Reagan Wash…  38.9  -77.0    15    -5 A     America…
# … with 91 more rows

In case you didn’t know, "ORD" is the airport code of Chicago O’Hare airport and "FLL" is the main airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which can be seen in the airport_name variable.

3.7.3 Multiple “key” variables

Say instead we want to join two data frames by multiple key variables. For example, in Figure 3.7, we see that in order to join the flights and weather data frames, we need more than one key variable: year, month, day, hour, and origin. This is because the combination of these 5 variables act to uniquely identify each observational unit in the weather data frame: hourly weather recordings at each of the 3 NYC airports.

We achieve this by specifying a vector of key variables to join by using the c() function. Recall from Subsection 1.2.1 that c() is short for “combine” or “concatenate.”

Learning check

(LC3.13) Looking at Figure 3.7, when joining flights and weather (or, in other words, matching the hourly weather values with each flight), why do we need to join by all of year, month, day, hour, and origin, and not just hour?

(LC3.14) What surprises you about the top 10 destinations from NYC in 2013?

3.7.4 Normal forms

The data frames included in the nycflights13 package are in a form that minimizes redundancy of data. For example, the flights data frame only saves the carrier code of the airline company; it does not include the actual name of the airline. For example, the first row of flights has carrier equal to UA, but it does not include the airline name of “United Air Lines Inc.”

The names of the airline companies are included in the name variable of the airlines data frame. In order to have the airline company name included in flights, we could join these two data frames as follows:

We are capable of performing this join because each of the data frames have keys in common to relate one to another: the carrier variable in both the flights and airlines data frames. The key variable(s) that we base our joins on are often identification variables as we mentioned previously.

This is an important property of what’s known as normal forms of data. The process of decomposing data frames into less redundant tables without losing information is called normalization. More information is available on Wikipedia.

Both dplyr and SQL we mentioned in the introduction of this chapter use such normal forms. Given that they share such commonalities, once you learn either of these two tools, you can learn the other very easily.

Learning check

(LC3.15) What are some advantages of data in normal forms? What are some disadvantages?


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