6. Variable Storage & Data Structures

The building blocks of data science in R

Learning objectives


R is an object oriented programming language, which means that it is oriented around objects which can be data (e.g., data.frames, vectors, lists) or code (e.g., functions). We’ve already been using assignment to create variables, or objects. In the previous lesson, we read in csv files and assigned them to a variable using the assignment operator, <- (RStudio shortcut: Alt + -). Avoid using = for assignment which will also work but cause confusion later (here’s a blog post on the history behind <-).

When assigning an object, avoid overly simplistic names (e.g., x, y), and rather, pick concise names that describes the object and improve code interpretability. Let’s read in our groundwater level station data and assign it to the variable name stations.

# read the stations.csv file and assign it to an object "stations"
stations <- read.csv("data/gwl/stations.csv")

Notice that in the Global Environment pane, we have now have a “Data” object stations.

Let’s look at what types of data (classes) these columns currently have. We can use some useful functions that help us explore data a bit more, as well as use RStudio to figure these things out. We’ll talk more about functions later – there’s an entire module on functions coming up.

Let’s look at str() or structure first. The same information can be displayed in RStudio by clicking the blue arrow in the Environment tab.

'data.frame':   43807 obs. of  15 variables:
 $ STN_ID     : int  51445 25067 25068 39833 25069 38479 35592 48699 20460 35590 ...
 $ SITE_CODE  : chr  "320000N1140000W001" "325450N1171061W001" "325450N1171061W002" "325450N1171061W003" ...
 $ SWN        : chr  "" "19S02W05K003S" "19S02W05K004S" "19S02W05K005S" ...
 $ WELL_NAME  : chr  "Bay Ridge" "" "" "" ...
 $ LATITUDE   : num  35.6 32.5 32.5 32.5 32.5 ...
 $ LONGITUDE  : num  -122 -117 -117 -117 -117 ...
 $ WLM_METHOD : chr  "USGS quad" "Unknown" "Unknown" "Unknown" ...
 $ WLM_ACC    : chr  "Unknown" "Unknown" "Unknown" "Unknown" ...
 $ BASIN_CODE : chr  "" "9-033" "9-033" "9-033" ...
 $ BASIN_NAME : chr  "" "Coastal Plain Of San Diego" "Coastal Plain Of San Diego" "Coastal Plain Of San Diego" ...
 $ COUNTY_NAME: chr  "Monterey" "San Diego" "San Diego" "San Diego" ...
 $ WELL_DEPTH : int  NA NA NA NA NA NA NA 280 NA NA ...
 $ WELL_USE   : chr  "Residential" "Unknown" "Unknown" "Unknown" ...
 $ WELL_TYPE  : chr  "Part of a nested/multi-completion well" "Unknown" "Unknown" "Unknown" ...
 $ WCR_NO     : chr  "" "" "" "" ...

This function str() tells us the structure of the data. It gives us:

Basic object classes

Every object in R has a class property, and each property defines what functions will work on it. Many bugs result from functions applied to the wrong object class, so it’s important to know how to check the class of an object and figure out what functions can be applied to it.

There are more base object classes in R, like matrices and arrays, but in this course we will focus on vectors, and devote most of our attention to a special type of list called the data.frame or tibble.

Let’s check the class of the objects we created above with the class() function:

[1] "data.frame"

What about for a single column? Or a value we assign to some text?

[1] "character"
river_name <- "Sacramento River"
[1] "character"

As expected, stations is a data.frame, stations$SITE_CODE is a vector of character, and river_name is a single value of class character. Vectors are objects where every entry in that object is the same type of data. Sometimes, these are called atomic vectors because each part of the vector is the same.

There are 4 major classes of atomic vectors, arranged below in order of complexity.

Use the c() (concatenate or combine) function to create vectors. Let’s use c() to create each of these 4 vector classes for an imaginary data set of river reaches.

# logical: is the river dry at the time of measurement
dry <- c(TRUE, FALSE, FALSE)

# flow measured at each reach in cfs
flow <- c(0, 57, 128)

# month the measurement was taken
date <- factor(c("July", "January", "February"), levels = month.name)

# reach name
reach <- c("Dry Creek", "Raging Waters", "Wild Rapids")

Each vector above has 3 entries, also called elements. We can check the class of each of these vectors:

[1] "logical"
[1] "numeric"
[1] "factor"
[1] "character"

logical (boolean)

Logical vectors (also called booleans) are the most simple type of atomic vectors, and can take one of three values: TRUE, FALSE, or NA. Logical vectors are output as the result of logical tests.

# Is the character string "Merced River" in the character vector "reach"?
"Merced River" %in% reach
# Is the character string "Raging Waters" in the character vector "reach"?
"Raging Waters" %in% reach
[1] TRUE


Imagine you wanted to transform the numeric flow data you have from cubic feet per second (cfs) to gallons per minute (gpm). R is a “vectorized” language and allows transformations over an entire vector with relative ease.

# convert each element of "flow" from cfs to gpm by multiplying by 448.83
flow_gpm <- flow * 448.83

# print the result
[1]     0.00 25583.31 57450.24


If our factor variable month was an ordinary character vector, it would not sort meaningfully.

date_character <- c("July", "January", "February")
sort( date_character )
[1] "February" "January"  "July"    

The above is out of order, but if we define the levels that these ordinal variables should follow, we can store the vector as a factor and get meaningful sorting behavior. R defaults to alphabetic order with character vectors.

# create a factor by specifying the levels (order) of the variable
date <- factor(c("July", "January", "February"), levels = month.name)
[1] January  February July    
12 Levels: January February March April May June July ... December

character (string)

Character vectors can store arbitrary strings. There are many ways to work with strings from basic string manipulation, all the way to natural language processing that we don’t have time to cover in this course, but you should know that they exist.

Create strings by enclosing them with quotation marks. It doesn’t matter if you use single (’) or double quotes (“), just be sure to use the same quote style for a single character string!

# create a character vector of length 1 using single quotes
hello <- 'Why helloooo'

# create a character vector of length 2 using double quotes
instructors <- c("Rich", "Ryan")

# paste the vectors together
paste(hello, instructors)
[1] "Why helloooo Rich" "Why helloooo Ryan"

Notice that when we pasted together a vector of length 1 with a vector of length 2, we got an output character vector of length 2. This concept is called “recycling” (because the shorter length vector was used twice, or recycled) and will come back later in this module.

Challenge 1

  1. Create an character vector called meals and assign it a string with what you plan to have for for breakfast, lunch, and dinner today.
  2. Create a numeric vector called cost with the approximate cost in dollars of each meal.
  3. Calculate the cost each meal if you ate that and only that for 365 days a year (Hint: multiply cost by 365, then take the sum()).
  4. Bonus: Paste together a string that announces this cost.

Click for Answers!
# create a string of three meals
meals <- c("eggs, toast and coffee", "pizza", "tacos and salad")

# cost of each meal in dollars
cost <- c(2.25, 5.50, 8.95)

# annual cost
annual_cost <- cost * 365
[1] 6095.5
# bonus
paste("Three meals a day costs", sum(annual_cost), "per year.")
[1] "Three meals a day costs 6095.5 per year."

Basic data structures

Vectors are the building blocks of more useful data structures, especially the data.frame and tibble that will be the focus of subsequent modules.


Above, we covered atomic vectors, which have one and only one class (logical, factor, numeric, character). All vectors have a property of length greater than 1.

[1] 3
[1] 3


A special type of non-atomic vector called the list can contain many different types of data. Lists can contain any types of data structures, even other lists!

l <- list(dry, reach, flow, "a random string")
[1] 4

We can access list elements with double bracket notation [[ and the index (think row number) of the element we want.

# access first element of the list
# access second element
[1] "Dry Creek"     "Raging Waters" "Wild Rapids"  
# access third element
[1]   0  57 128

We can also name a list, and then access list elements with double-bracket notation and name instead of index, like so:

names(l) <- c("dry", "reach", "flow", "string")

data.frame and tibble

The data.frame is perhaps the most common form of data you will encounter in R, and the focus of most of the rest of the modules in the course. The data frame is a set of named vectors arranged as columns all of a common length, typically atomic vectors, but they can host general vectors or lists as well1.

Let’s use the vectors we created earlier to make a data.frame called riv.

riv <- data.frame(reach, date, dry, flow)

          reach     date   dry flow
1     Dry Creek     July  TRUE    0
2 Raging Waters  January FALSE   57
3   Wild Rapids February FALSE  128

We can access any column from the data frame as a vector using the $ notation. In RStudio, typing $ also brings up an auto-complete, and we can see all of the columns in the data.frame.

[1] "Dry Creek"     "Raging Waters" "Wild Rapids"  
[1]   0  57 128

We can also use $ to remove a column if we assign an existing column to a value of NULL, or add a new column by entering a new column name not already present, and assigning it a value.

# remove the "Reach" column
riv$reach <- NULL
      date   dry flow
1     July  TRUE    0
2  January FALSE   57
3 February FALSE  128
# Add the reach column back, but called "reach_name" this time
riv$reach_name <- reach
      date   dry flow    reach_name
1     July  TRUE    0     Dry Creek
2  January FALSE   57 Raging Waters
3 February FALSE  128   Wild Rapids

When we assign a vector to a data.frame with length less than the total number of rows of the data.frame, R will try to “recycle” the vector.

# add a vector "tech" for the "field technician" to be recycled
riv$tech <- c("Rich", "Ryan")

Uh oh! This won’t work because the length of the vector we attempted to add (2) to the data.frame isn’t equal to, or a multiple of, the number of rows (3).

nrow(riv) # total rows is 3
[1] 3
nrow(riv) == length(c("Rich", "Ryan"))

However, if we add a vector to the data.frame with length 1 (which is a multiple of 3):

riv$tech <- "Rich"
      date   dry flow    reach_name tech
1     July  TRUE    0     Dry Creek Rich
2  January FALSE   57 Raging Waters Rich
3 February FALSE  128   Wild Rapids Rich

R recycles the string “Rich”, repeating it 3 times. This is convenient, but can also lead to silent bugs, so we advise using the tibble instead of the data.frame.

The tibble is a modern data.frame with stricter recycling rules, R-friendly print behavior (prints only the first 10 rows and shows column types), and a few more features that make them more predictable and less likely to lead to bugs.

To use tibble data types, we need to read our data with one of the {tidyverse} packages,{readr}. When we read stations with read_csv() it reads it in as a tibble, which we can verify with class(stations). We can always convert stations back to just a data.frame and print it to console by running data.frame(stations).

stations <- read_csv("data/gwl/stations.csv")
stations_df <- data.frame(stations)
[1] "data.frame"

tibbles are essentially spreadsheets in R, flat, 2D rectangular data made of rows and columns. We can check the number of rows and columns in a tibble.

[1] 43807    15
[1] 43807
[1] 15

A tibble combines lists into columns, so its length is the same as its number of columns.

[1] 15

Challenge 2

  1. Extract the “LATITUDE” column from stations, assign it to a variable called lat, and calculate the mean latitude.
  2. Assign a column to riv called “depth” with values 1, 2, 3.
  3. Assign another column called “width” with values 10, 10, 10. Take advantage of recycling when creating the “width” column.
  4. Assign a new variable called “area” to riv which is the product of “depth” and “width” (Hint: riv$depth * riv$width).

Click for Answers!
# extract LATITUDE and calculate the mean value
lat <- stations$LATITUDE
[1] 35.95708
# add depth and width to riv
riv$depth <- c(1, 2, 3)
riv$width <- 10 # this vector of length 1 is recycled 

# calculate area and add it to riv
riv$area <- riv$depth * riv$width

A note on NA

NA has a special meaning in R and designates a missing value. Operations on a vector with missing values cannot return a value unless we explicitly tell R to ignore these missing values.

z <- c(2, NA, 4)
[1] NA
[1] NA
mean(z, na.rm = TRUE)
[1] 3
sum(z, na.rm = TRUE)
[1] 6

Lesson adapted from R for Data Science.

Previous module:
5. Data Visualization
Next module:
7. Data Wrangling

  1. List-columns are a special type of data that we will cover elsewhere.↩︎


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Text and figures are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 4.0. Source code is available at https://github.com/r4wrds/r4wrds, unless otherwise noted. The figures that have been reused from other sources don't fall under this license and can be recognized by a note in their caption: "Figure from ...".