Probably the most important part of learning R is figuring out how to access the elements of a database. In this post, we’ll play with some financial data from US public corporations. I’ll show you the quick way to access data using indexes. Then I’ll show you some better options that are ‘human readable’.
Read in the data
Every R analysis starts by reading in the data you want. Here, we’ll read in data from the following url:
url = "https://sciencedesk.economicsfromthetopdown.com/2022/11/r-access-elements/data/fdata.csv"
We’ll import the data using the
read.csv command and dump it into a variable called
fdata = read.csv(url)
What’s in my data?
Alright, we’ve got some data contained in a variable called
fdata. The first thing we’ll do is look at what’s there.
We have many options. The simplest approach is to just type our variable name (
fdata) in the console and hit enter: This option is fine for small datasets. But it’s unwieldy if the dataset is large. The data dump will completely clog your terminal.
A better option is to use the
head function. By default, it will dump the first 6 lines of the data:
Here’s what I get back:
year ticker profit sales 1 2010 AIR 69.826 1775.782 2 2010 ADCT.1 62.000 1156.600 3 2010 AAL -471.000 22170.000 4 2010 CECE 2.105 140.602 5 2010 AVX 244.003 1653.176 6 2010 PNW 350.053 3263.645
Alright, it looks like we have four columns of data:
sales. If you haven’t already guessed, we’re looking at financial data for individual companies, organized by year and the stock ticker of the company.
How much data do I have?
Once I’ve read in a dataset, usually the first thing I do is see how much data I have. For that, I use the
nrow function, which tells us how many rows are in our database:
Here’s what I get back:
So our database has just over 9 thousand rows.
If we want to know how many columns we have, we can use the
R will return:
So our database has 4 columns (which we already knew).
Accessing data by index
Now that we’ve got our database, let’s talk about how we access its elements. One option is to use row and column indexes. The syntax looks like this:
fdata[ row_number, column_number ]
For example, to access the data in the first row and first column of
fdata, I’d type:
fdata[ 1, 1 ]
I get back the first entry in the
Another example. Let’s get data from the 3rd row and 4th column:
fdata[ 3, 4 ]
I get back the third entry in the
Accessing whole rows by index
If we want all of the data in a particular row, we leave the column entry blank. For example, here’s how to get all of the data in the second row of
fdata[ 2, ]
Here’s what we get back:
year ticker profit sales 2 2010 ADCT.1 62 1156.6
Accessing whole columns by index
If we want all of the data in a particular column, we leave the row entry blank. Here’s all the data in the third column of
fdata[ , 3 ]
R will dump out several thousand entries that begin like this:
 69.826 62.000 -471.000 2.105 244.003 350.053 118.376 4626.172
Don’t hardcode indexes
It’s good to understand how indexes work, because they are the most basic way of accessing data. That said, you want to avoid hard coding them into your analysis. Here’s why.
Suppose my code contains the following entry:
p = fdata[ 5, 3 ]
What does this code do? Well, it takes data from the 5th row and 3rd column of
fdata and dumps it into a variable called
p. But what is this data? Our code doesn’t tell us.
That’s a problem. Remember, when you write R code, the goal is to both analyze data and document what you’ve done. Sure, hard-coded indexes are a quick and easy way to analyze data. But since they contain no metadata, they lead to code that is horribly opaque.
Fortunately, R has many ‘human readable’ ways to access data. The most basic is probably the column operator,
Accessing columns by name
To understand the
$ operator, we need to back up a bit and look at how R imports data. By default, R assumes that the first row of your dataset contains column names — names that describe the data below. When R reads in this data, it applies these names to each column of the imported data frame.
We can access these column names using the
 "year" "ticker" "profit" "sales"
$ operator allows us to access columns by name.
For example, if I wanted all of the data in the
year column of
fdata, I’d type:
Note that I could access the same data using indexes. The
year data is in the first column, so I’d enter:
fdata[ , 1 ]
To R, the two operations are identical. But to humans,
fdata$year is far more descriptive.
Accessing rows by condition
To review, the
$ allows us to access columns by name. Is there a similar way to access rows by name?
The answer is no. Unlike columns, R does not (by default) attach names to each row of data. The assumption is that column names describe the data, and then everything that follows is part of the dataset. So instead of accessing rows by ’name’, we access them by ‘condition’.
Here’s an example. Suppose we want to find data for Apple. How would we do it? Well, the obvious option is to search the
ticker column for Apple’s stock ticker “AAPL”.
R has many options for this type of search, but here we’ll use the
subset function. Its syntax works like this:
subset( dataset, contition )
Here, our dataset is
fdata. And the condition is that the data in the
ticker column should equal
"AAPL". To write this condition, we use the
== symbol. The full request is:
subset( fdata, ticker == "AAPL" )
(Note: If you use the single equals sign (as in
ticker = "AAPL"), R will throw an error. That’s because it thinks you’re defining the
ticker variable, rather than searching for equality.)
Here’s what I get back from our subset request:
year ticker profit sales 96 2010 AAPL 14013 65225
So it looks like there’s one line of
AAPL data, which happens to be in row 96.
Getting Apple’s profit
Suppose that I want to get profit data for Apple. Here’s one way to do it. From the example above, I know that Apple’s data is in row 96. And profit data is in column 3. So I can get Apple’s profit by hard coding those indexes:
apple_profit = fdata[ 96, 3 ]
The code is succinct, but opaque. And if the database changed, my code would give me the wrong result.
Here’s a better way to get Apple’s profit data. First, I ask R to subset the data on the condition that the
ticker column equals “AAPL”. Let’s call that result
apple = subset( fdata, ticker == "AAPL" )
Then I use the
$ operator to access the
profit column of our
apple_profit = apple$profit
Let’s see what we found:
> apple_profit  14013
If all went well, it’s the same data as
fdata[ 96, 3]. Let’s check:
> fdata[ 96, 3]  14013
Yep, it’s the same.
The coding payoff
At first, it may seem annoying to take the long, descriptive route to accessing elements of your data. But as you learn to use R, you’ll realize the advantages. First, your code will be self-documenting. Second, your code will ‘scale’ with ease. By ‘scale’, I mean that you can use the same code, regardless of the size of your database.
In our example, there was one line of Apple data. But the same code (using the
subset function) would work if there were a million lines of Apple data. That’s the beauty of a coding language like R. For simple analysis, the code may seem cumbersome compared to what you’d do in a spreadsheet. But that same code will work on a enormous database — one that Excel couldn’t even load.
Because accessing elements of your data is such a basic part of analysis, R provides many many ways to do it. But that’s a topic for the future. For now, I recommend that you play with the
subset function to see what you can do.
Here’s some examples to try:
# data with positive profit subset( fdata, profit > 0 ) # data with negative profit subset( fdata, profit < 0 ) # data in which sales are less than profit subset( fdata, sales < profit )