Ok. Here’s an ugly secret of that data world: lots of your work will be prep work.

Of course, any maker, artist, or craftsman has the same issue: chefs have their mise en place. Carpenters spend a heck of a lot of time measuring vs. cutting. Etcetera.

So, you just need to be prepared that once you become a data scientist, 80% of your work will be data manipulation.

Getting data, aggregating data, subsetting data, cleaning it, and merging various datasets together: this constitutes a large percent of the day-to-day work of an analyst.

When you’re just starting out with analytics and data science, you can get away with doing only minimal data manipulation. In the beginning, your datasets are likely to be txt, csv, or simple Excel files.

And if you do need to do some basic data formatting, for simple datasets you can do your data manipulation in Excel. (actually, Excel is a good tool in your workflow for basic data manipulation tasks.)

As you progress though, you’ll eventually reach a bottleneck. You’ll start doing more sophisticated data visualizations or machine learning techniques, and you will need to put your data in the right format. And you’ll need a better toolset.


By most accounts, the best toolset for data manipulation with R is dplyr.

dplyr: the essential data manipulation toolset

In data wrangling, what are the main tasks?

– Filtering rows (to create a subset)
– Selecting columns of data (i.e., selecting variables)
– Adding new variables
– Sorting
– Aggregating

dplyr gives you tools to do these tasks, and it does so in a way that streamlines the analytics workflow. It’s not an exaggeration to say that dplyr is almost perfectly suited to real analytics work, as it is actually performed.

To be clear, these aren’t just the “basics.” They are the essentials. These are tasks that you’ll be doing every. single. day. You really need to master these.

Again though, dplyr makes them extremely easy. It’s the toolset that I wish I had years ago.

Moreover, once you combine dplyr verbs with “chaining” (covered below) it becomes even more streamlined and more powerful. Not to mention, chaining together the data wrangling tools of dplyr with the data visualization tools of ggplot. Once you start combining these together, you will have a powerful toolset for rapid data exploration and analysis.

dplyr verbs

dplyr has 5 main “verbs” (think of “verbs” as commands).


Row selection from your data.

filter() subsets your data by keeping rows that meet specified conditions.




df.diamonds_ideal <- filter(diamonds, cut=="Ideal")

Here, we’re subsetting (i.e., filtering) the diamonds dataset and keeping only the rows where cut==”Ideal”.


Select allows you to select specific columns from your data.

In the following code, we’re going to first inspect the df.diamonds_ideal dataframe to see what’s inside of it. Then, we’ll modify our dataframe, selecting only the columns we want.

# - select specific columns from your data

# Examine the data first
#  carat    cut     color clarity depth table price    x      y    z
#  0.23     Ideal     E     SI2   61.5    55   326    3.95  3.98  2.43
#  0.23     Ideal     J     VS1   62.8    56   340    3.93  3.90  2.46
#  0.31     Ideal     J     SI2   62.2    54   344    4.35  4.37  2.71
#  0.30     Ideal     I     SI2   62.0    54   348    4.31  4.34  2.68
#  0.33     Ideal     I     SI2   61.8    55   403    4.49  4.51  2.78
#  0.33     Ideal     I     SI2   61.2    56   403    4.49  4.50  2.75

df.diamonds_ideal <- select(df.diamonds_ideal, carat, cut, color, price, clarity)

# carat   cut     color price clarity
# 0.23    Ideal     E   326     SI2
# 0.23    Ideal     J   340     VS1
# 0.31    Ideal     J   344     SI2
# 0.30    Ideal     I   348     SI2
# 0.33    Ideal     I   403     SI2
# 0.33    Ideal     I   403     SI2

Notice that now df.diamonds_ideal only has our selected columns: carat, cut, color, price, and clarity.


Mutate allows you to add variables to your dataset. Obviously, this is a really common task in any programming environment.

# - Add variables to your dataset
df.diamonds_ideal <- mutate(df.diamonds_ideal, price_per_carat = price/carat)

# carat   cut     color price clarity   price_per_carat
# 0.23    Ideal     E   326     SI2        1417.391
# 0.23    Ideal     J   340     VS1        1478.261
# 0.31    Ideal     J   344     SI2        1109.677
# 0.30    Ideal     I   348     SI2        1160.000
# 0.33    Ideal     I   403     SI2        1221.212
# 0.33    Ideal     I   403     SI2        1221.212

Using mutate(), we’ve successfully added a new variable: price_per_carat.


Arrange sorts your data. In base R, this is commonly done with order, and the syntax is a bit of a pain.

Here, we’re not going to use the diamonds dataset, because it’s too large to properly see order at work.

So, we’ll create a simple dataframe with a numeric variable. This numeric variable has the numbers out of order and we’ll use arrange to reorder the numbers.

# ARRANGE: sort your data

# create simple data frame
#  containing disordered numeric variable
df.disordered_data <- data.frame(num_var = c(2,3,5,1,4))


# these are out of order

# 2
# 3
# 5
# 1
# 4

# now we'll order them with arrange()
arrange(df.disordered_data, num_var)

# 1
# 2
# 3
# 4
# 5

# we can also put them in descending order
arrange(df.disordered_data, desc(num_var))

# 5
# 4
# 3
# 2
# 1

This might not seem useful, but quite a bit of data-inspection involves sorting and ordering your data. This is more useful than it might seem at first blush.


Summarize allows you to compute summary statistics.

Again: the following (simple) example might not seem useful, but summarize() becomes extremely useful when combined with group_by().

#  aggregate your data

summarize(df.diamonds_ideal, avg_price = mean(price, na.rm = TRUE) )

#   avg_price
#   3457.542


“Chaining” in dplyr

Moving beyond the simple examples above, the real power of dplyr begins to show itself when you start to “chain” different verbs together (or, chain different dplyr verbs together with commands and functions from other packages).

The %>% operator

In the dplyr syntax, we “chain” commands together using the %>% operator. This is very similar to the “pipe” operator in Unix.

We use the %>% operator to connect one command to another. The output of one command becomes the input for the next command.

Here’s an example:

# Subset the diamonds dataset to 'Ideal' cut diamonds
# THEN, keep (select) the variables: carat, cut, color, price, clarity
# THEN, add new variable called price_per_carat (mutate)

df.diamonds_ideal_chained <- diamonds %>%
                              filter(cut=="Ideal") %>%
                              select(carat, cut, color, price, clarity) %>%
                              mutate(price_per_carat = price/carat)

# carat   cut     color price clarity   price_per_carat
# 0.23    Ideal     E   326     SI2        1417.391
# 0.23    Ideal     J   340     VS1        1478.261
# 0.31    Ideal     J   344     SI2        1109.677
# 0.30    Ideal     I   348     SI2        1160.000
# 0.33    Ideal     I   403     SI2        1221.212
# 0.33    Ideal     I   403     SI2        1221.212

Here we’ve created a new, reshaped dataset in 4 streamlined lines of code.

To be more specific, we’ve “chained” together multiple commands and directed the output of that set of commands into a new dataframe called df.diamonds_ideal_chained.

Let’s also review how we read this code.

We read the %>% operator as “then.” So, you can read the code out-loud to yourself, saying:

– “Take the diamonds dataset’ ”
– “Then filter it, keeping only the rows where ‘cut’ equals ‘Ideal’ ”
– “Then select specific variables, ‘carat’, ‘cut’, ‘color’, ‘price, ‘clarity’ ”
– “Then create a new variable, ‘price_per_carat’ using ‘mutate()’ ”

Rapid Data Exploration with dplyr and ggplot

To be honest, the above example is somewhat simple. Where this begins to be more useful is creating much longer chains where you filter, aggregate, select, add variables, and visualize, all in one fell swoop.

Chaining commands from dplyr and ggplot2 creates a powerful tool for rapid data exploration.

Example 1: Boxplot, dplyr + ggplot

# dplyr + ggplot
# PRICE DISTRIBUTION, Ideal-cut diamonds
diamonds %>%                                        # Start with the 'diamonds' dataset
  filter(cut == "Ideal") %>%                        # Then, filter down to rows where cut == Ideal
  ggplot(aes(x=color,y=price)) +                     # Then, plot using ggplot
    geom_boxplot()                                  #  with and create a boxplot

dplyr + ggplot boxplot

This should give you a sample of what’s possible: using dplyr “chained” together with ggplot to perform rapid data exploration.

Example 2: Small Multiple Histogram, dplyr + ggplot

Next, we’ll create a histogram of ‘ideal cut’ diamonds, in a ‘small multiple’ layout.

(Small multiples are called ‘facets’ in ggplot. They are also sometimes called a ‘trellis charts’.)

# dplyr + ggplot
# HISTOGRAM of price, ideal cut diamonds
diamonds %>%                                        # Start with the 'diamonds' dataset
  filter(cut == "Ideal") %>%                        # Then, filter down to rows where cut == Ideal
  ggplot(aes(price)) +                            # Then, plot using ggplot
    geom_histogram() +                              # and plot histograms
    facet_wrap(~ color)                             # in a 'small multiple' plot, broken out by 'color' 

dplyr + ggplot histogram small multiple

Here, in only 5 lines of code, we’ve subsetted our data and created a fairly decent looking ‘small multiples’ chart. If we wanted, we could add a few more lines of code to format this and make it look more presentable (but, we won’t do that here).

This should give you a minor sense of how powerful dplyr and ggplot are when used together. I wrote this code in well under 5 minutes. It could have taken hours to do in Excel.

dplyr: part of ‘foundational’ data science

If you’re just getting started with data science, I recommend that you master the following (assuming you’re starting with R. Which you should.):
– the 5 dplyr verbs
– the “big 3” visualizations: the line chart, the bar chart, and the scatterplot
The small multiple design (i.e., faceting)
– chaining, using the %>% operator

These skills form the foundation for more sophisticated work. And, they’re really easy to learn in R.

For another take on dplyr, I’d highly recommend the following tutorial as well, at Getting Genetics Done.