Repeating things - the key to writing nice code in R

Materials: If you have not already done so, please download the lesson materials for this bootcamp, unzip, then go to the folder repeating, and open (double click) on the file repeating.Rproj to open Rstudio.

Previously we looked at how you can use functions to simplify your code. Ideally you have a function that performs a single operation, and now you want to use it many times to do the same operation on lots of different data. The naive way to do that would be something like this:

  res1 <-  f(input1)
  res2 <-  f(input2)
  res10 <-  f(input10)

But this isn't very nice. Yes, by using a function, you have reduced a substantial amount of repetition. That is nice. But there is still repetition. Repeating yourself will cost you time, both now and later, and potentially introduce some nasty bugs. When it comes to repetition in code: Don't.

The nice way of repeating elements of code is to use a loop of some sort. A loop is a coding structure that reruns the same bit of code over and over, but with only small fragments differing between runs. In R there is a whole family of looping functions, each with their own strengths.

The split-apply-combine pattern and plyr package

By now you may have recognised that most operations that involve looping are instances of the split-apply-combine strategy (this term and idea comes from the prolific Hadley Wickham, who coined the term in this paper). You start with a bunch of data. Then you then Split it up into many smaller datasets, Apply a function to each piece, and finally Combine the results back together.

Some data arrives already in its pieces - e.g. output files from from a leaf scanner or temperature machine. Your job is then to analyse each bit, and put them together into a larger data set.

Sometimes the combine phase means making a new data frame, other times it might mean something more abstract, like combining a bunch of plots in a report.

Either way, the challenge for you is to identify the pieces that remain the same between different runs of your function, then structure your analysis around that.

Split apply combine

R's built-in apply library

R has a list of built-in functions for repeating things. This includes a range of functions that allow you to apply some function to a series of objects (eg. vectors, matrices, dataframes or files). This is called the apply family, and includes: lapply, sapply, tapply, aggregate, mapply, apply.

Each repeats a function or operation on a series of elements, but they differ in the data types they accept and return.

The plyr package

While R's built in function do work, we're going to introduce you to another method for repeating things using the package plyr. plyr is an R Package for Split-Apply-Combine workflows. Its functional programming model encourages writing reusable functions which can be called across varied datasets and frees you from needing to manage for loop indices.

You can load plyr as


plyr has functions for operating on lists, data.frames and arrays. Each function performs:

  1. A splitting operation
  2. Apply a function on each split in turn.
  3. Recombine output data as a single data object.

The functions are named based on which type of object they expect as input ([a]rray, [l]ist or [d]ata frame) and which type of data structure should be returned as output. Note here that plyr's use of "array" is different to R's, an array in ply can include a vector or matrix.

This gives us 9 core functions **ply. There are an additional three functions which will only perform the split and apply steps, and not any combine step. They're named by their input data type and represent null output by a _ (see table)

Full apply suite

Understanding xxply

Each of the xxply functions (daply, ddply, llply, laply,...) has the same structure and has 4 key features and structure:

xxply(.data, .variables, .fun)
  • The first letter of the function name gives the input type and the second gives the output type.
  • .data - gives the data object to be processed
  • .variables - identifies the splitting variables
  • .fun - gives the function to be called on each piece


For an example, let's pull up gapminder dataset as before

data <- read.csv("data/gapminder-FiveYearData.csv", stringsAsFactors=FALSE)

Now, what is we want to know is the number of countries by continent. So let's make a function that takes a dataframe as input and returns the number of countries.

Why don't you try - hint, function unique

get.n.countries <- function(x) length(unique(x$country))

So first do it hard way: <- data[data$continent == "Asia",]
Asia.n <- get.n.countries( <- data[data$continent == "Africa",]
Africa.n <- get.n.countries( <- data[data$continent == "Europe",]
Europe.n <- get.n.countries( <- data[data$continent == "Oceania",]
Oceania.n <- get.n.countries( <- data[data$continent == "Americas",]
Americas.n <- get.n.countries(

n.countries <- c(Africa.n, Asia.n, Americas.n, Europe.n, Oceania.n)

Now here's the equivalent in plyr:

daply(data, .(continent), get.n.countries)

Isn't that nice? A single line of code, easy to read.

Let's look at what happened here

  • The daply function feeds in a data.frame (function starts with d) and returns an array (2nd letter is an a)
  • the first argument is the data we are operating on: data
  • the second argument indicates our split criteria continent
  • the third is the function to apply get.n.countries

Instead of daply we could also use ddply of dlply. Which to use? You need to decide which type of output is most useful to you, i.e. a list, array or data.frame

It's also possible to define the function in place as an anonymous function:

ddply(data, .(continent), function(x) length(unique(x$country)) )

Finally, there's several ways we can represent the split argument:

  • using the funky plyr notation: daply(data, .(continent), get.n.countries)
  • as a character: daply(data, "continent", get.n.countries)
  • or as a formula: daply(data, ~continent, get.n.countries). ```

Now let's try another example.

We want to sum total population in a dataframe.

First write the function: <- function(x) sum(x$pop)

Then apply it using daply, ddply and dlaply:

ddply(data, .(continent),

Anyone notice a problem here? Yes, the total population of the world is about 10 times to big because it's repeated every 5 years. So we need to add year to our list of splitting criteria

ddply(data, .(continent, year),

You try Next we want the maximum gdpPercap on each continent.

ddply(data, .(continent, year), function(x) max(x$gdpPercap))

An example returning a list

Sometimes we want to return something that doesn't fit into a dataframe or vector; in that case you should return a list. so in this case we'll want to use dlply because we're putting a dataframe in and getting a list out.

See if you can write a function that given a dataframe, returns a vector of countries.

get.countries <- function(x) unique(x$country))

Now let's apply it to the whole dataset


And then apply to each continent using dlpy

countries <- dlply(data, .(continent), function(x) unique(x$country))

Feed data into model one-by-one returning fits to a list of models

Ok, now it gets really fun.

In each year, we want to fit a model for each continent on the relationship between life expectancy and gdp per capita (as we did in functions section).

First, see if you can write a function that given a data frame x fits a model to data

model <- function(x){
  lm(lifeExp ~ log10(gdpPercap), data=x)

Now let's try it on a subset of data

fit <- model(data[data$year==1982 & data$continent =="Asia" ,])

Ok, so let's apply it to all continents in all years:

fitted.linear.model <- dlply(data, .(continent, year), model)

The output fitted.linear.model is a list of fitted models, with same structure as fit. We can use the coef function to extract coefficients of a model :

ldply(fitted.linear.model, coef)

You probably want the R2 too right?

ldply(fitted.linear.model, function(x) summary(x)$r.squared)

We could also alter our model function to return the desired output then call ddply to get a summary for models fitted by year and continent:

model <- function(x){
  fit <- lm(lifeExp ~ log10(gdpPercap), data=x)
  data.frame(n=length(x$lifeExp), r2=summary(fit)$r.squared, a=coef(fit)[[1]], b=coef(fit)[[2]])
ddply(data, .(continent,year), model)

As a final extension, we could add the variables we want to fit to the function definition, so that we could fit other combinations.

model <- function(d, x, y) {
  fit <- lm( d[[y]] ~ log10(d[[x]]) )
  data.frame((n=length(d[[y]]), r2=summary(fit)$r.squared,a=coef(fit)[1],b=coef(fit)[2])
ddply(data, .(continent,year), model, y="lifeExp", x="gdpPercap")
ddply(data, .(continent,year), model, y="lifeExp", x="pop")

So there you have it - in just 6 lines we can fit about 120 linear models and return two tables summarising these models. That's why plyr rocks!

Simplifying plots with plyr

We can also exploit plyr's ability to repeat things when generating plots. In the section on functions we used a function to help us add trend lines by continent:

add.trend.line <- function(x, y, d, ...) {
  fit <- lm(d[[y]] ~ log10(d[[x]]))
  abline(fit, ...)

But we still had to run all this code to fit lines to each continent:

data.1982 <- data[data$year == 1982,]

col.table <- c(Asia="tomato", Europe="chocolate4", Africa="dodgerblue2", Americas="darkgoldenrod1", Oceania="green4")

plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=rescale(sqrt(data.1982$pop), c(0.2, 10)), col=$continent, col.table), pch=21)
plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex, col=col, pch=21)
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Asia",], col=col.table["Asia"])
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Africa",], col=col.table["Africa"])
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Europe",], col=col.table["Europe"])
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Americas",], col=col.table["Americas"])
add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", data.1982[data.1982$continent == "Oceania",], col=col.table["Oceania"])

That's a lot of typing that is really very similar, and the sort of thing that is (a) boring to type, (b) prone to errorsm, and (c) hard to change (e.g. if we wanted to run it on a different data set, or change which continents we ran it over etc).

plot of chunk repeating_manual

One way to avoid repetition is to pass the add.trend.line function into d_ply. The underscore in d_ply tells us that we don't want any output, we just want to run the function

plot(lifeExp ~ gdpPercap, data.1982, log="x", cex=cex, col=col, pch=21)
d_ply(data.1982, .(continent), function(x) add.trend.line("gdpPercap", "lifeExp", x, col=col.table[x$continent]))

plot of chunk repeating_ply

Another example Plyr really shines when there are many things to deal with at once. For example, we plotted relative population growth by country for three countries before: <- function(country, data, base.year=1952) {
  dsub <- data[data$country == country, c("year", "pop")]
  dsub$pop.rel <- dsub$pop / dsub$pop[dsub$year == base.year]

plot(pop.rel ~ year,"India", dat), type="o")
lines(pop.rel ~ year,"Australia", dat), type="o", col="green4")
lines(pop.rel ~ year,"China", dat), type="o", col="red")

But if we wanted to do this for, say, all the countries in Asia that'd be a lot of copy and paste. With plyr this is easy. Let's make a function that plot's a growth function for all years within a dataset:

add.growth.line <- function(x, base.year,...){
    lines(x$year,x$pop / x$pop[x$year == base.year], type="o",...)

We can then feed this into d_ply to generate a plot for all countries

plot(NA, type="n", xlim=range(data$year), ylim=c(1, 6), xlab="Year", ylab="Relative population size")
d_ply( data[data$continent =="Asia" ,], .(country), function(x) add.growth.line(x, 1952))

plot of chunk growth_ply

And we could use the same approach to make plots for the entire world, colouring by continent

plot(NA, type="n", xlim=range(data$year), ylim=c(1, 6), xlab="Year", ylab="Relative population size")
d_ply(data, .(country), function(x) add.growth.line(x, 1952, col=col.table[x$continent]))

plot of chunk growth_world


Above we showed you how you can apply a function to your dataframe using the plyr package. But what if you want to apply a whole bunch of functions? For example, what if you want to find the min, max, mean, and var of each group - surely we don't have to run each one of these separately?

There are two options for running multiple functions on a data frame:

  1. The first is to write your own "wrapper" function returning multiple outputs as a data frame, like we did in the the above section fitting models.
  2. The other option is to use the summarise function.

Like ddply, summarise can be used to create a new data frame from another data frame. It's particularly useful when you want multiple outputs.

For summaries of the whole dataset you can call summarise directly:

summarise(data, pop.mean=sum(pop), pop.var=var(pop), pop.max=max(pop))

But if you want to split by groups, need to combine with ddply. All the functions you want to call are simply listed at the end as extra arguments:

ddply(data, .(continent, year), summarise, pop.mean=sum(pop), pop.var=var(pop), pop.max=max(pop))

However, notice that the format of the functions is slightly different to if we were calling each directly with ddply:

ddply(data, .(continent, year),  function(x) sum(x$pop))
ddply(data, .(continent, year),  function(x) var(x$pop))
ddply(data, .(continent, year),  function(x) max(x$pop))

For loops - when the order of operation is important

When you mention looping, many people immediately reach for for. Perhaps that's because they are already familiar with these other languages, like basic, python, perl, C, C++ or matlab. While for is definitely the most flexible of the looping options, we suggest you avoid it wherever you can, for the following two reasons:

  1. It is not very expressive, i.e. takes a lot of code to do what you want.
  2. It permits you to write horrible code, like this example from my earlier work

The main problems with this code are that

  • it is hard to read
  • all the variables are stored in the global scope, which is dangerous.

All it's doing is making a plot! Compare that to something like this

for (i in unique(Raw$SPP))
  makePlot(i, data = Raw)

That's much nicer! It's obvious what the loop does, and no new variables are created. Of course, for the code to work, we need to define the function makePlot which actually makes our plot, but having all that detail off in a function has many benefits:

  • Most of all it makes your code more readable
  • Also more reliable, because cleans up work space --> less chance of mutability bugs.

But as you saw above, plotting can also be handled with the d_ply functions so we'd suggest you use that, as it enforces good habits.

In fact, we'd encourage you to avoid for unless the order of iteration is important. A key feature of all the examples in the plyr section is that order of iteration is not important. This is crucial. If each each iteration is independent, then you can cycle through them in whatever order you like.

One place where for loops shine is in writing simulations; if one iteration depends on the value of a previous iteration, then a for loop is probably the best way of repeating things.

In an (unbiased) random walk, each time step we move left or right with probability 0.5. R has lots of random number generation functions. The runif function generates random numbers uniformly on [0,1] so we can draw random steps directions like this:

for (i in 1:10)
  print(if (runif(1) < 0.5) 1 else -1)
## [1] 1
## [1] 1
## [1] -1
## [1] -1
## [1] 1
## [1] 1
## [1] 1
## [1] -1
## [1] -1
## [1] -1

Or we could take the sign of a standard normal:

for (i in 1:10)
## [1] 1
## [1] -1
## [1] 1
## [1] 1
## [1] -1
## [1] -1
## [1] -1
## [1] 1
## [1] 1
## [1] -1

The implementation does not matter.

random.step <- function() {

We can then use this to step 20 steps:

x <- 0
for (i in 1:20)
  x <- x + random.step()
## [1] 0

which will end up somewhere between -20 and 20, but with a mean of 0.

We want to track the entire trajectory:

nsteps <- 200
x <- numeric(nsteps + 1) # space to store things in
x[1] <- 0 # start at 0
for (i in seq_len(nsteps)) {
  x[i+1] <- x[i] + random.step()
plot(x, type="l", xlab="Step number", ylab="Position")

plot of chunk random_walk1

We might want to run that lots of times, so put it into a function:

random.walk <- function(nsteps, x0=0) {
  x <- numeric(nsteps + 1)
  x[1] <- x0
  for (i in seq_len(nsteps)) {
    x[i+1] <- x[i] + random.step()

which is now much easier to use:

plot(random.walk(200), type="l", xlab="Step number", ylab="Position")

plot of chunk random_walk2

nsteps <- 200
nrep <- 40
cols <- rainbow(nrep)
plot(NA, xlim=c(1, nsteps+1), ylim=c(-30, 30), xlab="Step number", ylab="Position")
for (i in 1:nrep)
  lines(random.walk(200), col=cols[i])

plot of chunk random_walks


This material was developed by Daniel Falster and Rich FitzJohn based on material prepared by Karthik Ram and Hadley Wickam.