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R data.table Tutorial With Examples

If you are looking for fast execution of your r programming code on large datasets, then you must read through this tutorial. Data manipulation tasks such as aggregations, add/remove/update of columns, joins, reading large files, etc., are all very important for any data science-related project. Keeping all these operations into mind, Matt Dowle and Arun Shrinivasan created a package called data.table.


data.table package is an extension of data.frame package in R. It is one of the first choices for data scientists while they work on large datasets. Some of the notable features which makes the data.table a package so popular and easy to learn are:-

  1. Irrespective of what set of operations you like to perform the data.table offers a concise and consistent syntax.
  2. It automatically provides fast primary and secondary indexing of rows.
  3. The package is capable of automatically optimizing the internal operations, leading to fast and memory-efficient code. Especially, tasks like join and group by.

So, if you are looking to reduce the execution and programming time of your r code, then this package named data.table is for you.

Things You Will Master

  1. How to read large datasets - using fread() function
  2. Converting existing R objects to data.table object
  3. Understanding general syntax - an SQL analogy
  4. Data manipulation - Understanding i and j with examples
  5. Aggregations using data.table - Understanding by with examples
  6. Using data.table for joining large tables
  7. Must know functions from data.table package

Reading large datasets

Generally, the performance of R programming is not up to the mark when it comes to working with large datasets as everything is loaded into the RAM. As part of the solution, the data.table package was designed. Lets us see how you can load large datasets using a fread() function from this package.

Below is a code using which we will upload a file containing 22,489,348 rows and 11 columns. The dataset we are using here is UK Housing prices paid. It is an extensive collection of records of all the individual transactions in England and Wales since 1995.

The data can be downloaded from HERE

# Reading a large file using fread() function
ukHousing <- fread("price_paid_records.csv")

When you read a file using fread() function from data.table package the function loads it as a data table object. We will talk about object type in coming sessions. For now its important to note that if an object is not in a datatable format then you must convert it in order to take advantage of data.table package.

Please Note

  1. Apart from reading the csv and text files fread() can also accepts http and https URLs as input.
  2. Unlike read.csv(), the columns of character data types are not converted to factors by default while reading the data file.
  3. data.table never uses row names.
  4. To visually separate the row numbers from the first columns, row numbers are printed with a colon(:).

Below is the comparison of time taken by at least three different functions in R:

# Reading a large file using fread() function
# Time difference of 2.711095 mins

# reading a large file using read.csv() function
#Time difference of 22.23424 mins
> system.time(fread("price_paid_records.csv"))
   user  system elapsed 
  51.04    3.61   40.63 
> system.time(read.csv("price_paid_records.csv"))
   user  system elapsed 
1053.73    9.36 1073.19 

Querying A Data Table

Mostly when we use DT(short form for data table object), we refer to it as “querying DT”. DT is designed to do a lot more than just subjecting the data frames by row and columns. To understand the querying bit, we need to look and understand the general form of data.table syntax. The syntax is given below:

DT[i, j, by]

The above syntax can be compared to an SQL query. Here i inside the square [] brackets is an equivalent for WHERE or ORDER BY. Similarly, j represents SELECT or UPDATE, and finally, by represents the GROUP BY from the SQL. Individuals who are familiar with SQL will now understand why it is referred to as “querying DT”. The above statement can also be read as subset/reorder rows using i, then calculate j, grouped by.


You can use as.data.table() or simply data.table() and setDT() functions to convert any regular R data frame to a data table.

# Using as.data.table() function
dataTableIris = as.data.table(iris)

# Printing top 6 rows
   Sepal.Length Sepal.Width Petal.Length Petal.Width Species
1:          5.1         3.5          1.4         0.2  setosa
2:          4.9         3.0          1.4         0.2  setosa
3:          4.7         3.2          1.3         0.2  setosa
4:          4.6         3.1          1.5         0.2  setosa
5:          5.0         3.6          1.4         0.2  setosa
6:          5.4         3.9          1.7         0.4  setosa

Notice that a data.table prints the row numbers with a colon. This is done to visually separate row numbers from the first column. By using any of the above two functions, one can easily convert existing data.frame object to a data.table object.

Data manipulation - Common Tasks

In data.table columns are referred to as if they are variable, much like SQL. This means that when we pass column names for extracting the information from a data.table object, we need not add data table names as prefix(e.g. matcars$ ). Nevertheless, using mtcars$mpg and mtcars$cyl would work just fine. Below we have provided the list of some of the everyday tasks related to data manipulation.

Get first 10 rows of Uk Housing data

# Getting the top 10 rows

We passed row indices in the i, and as there are no conditions, the code returns the top 10 rows from the row indices. You can also use a head() to get the top 10 rows.

Sorting data in data.table

1.Sorting data by single variable - For example, sorting house price in descending order - This task can be achieved using multiple functions. We can use either order() from {base} package or setorder() function from {data.table} package to achieve this task.

# Sorting data by using order()
sort1 <- ukHousing[order(-Price)] # (-)ve sign is used to get data in descending order

# Sorting data by using setorder()
sort2 <- setorder(ukHousing, -Price) # For Acsending order remove (-)ve sign

2.Sorting data by multiple variables - For example, sort house price data by duration and price. To add various variables, just pass column names separated by comma(,) in both the functions.

# Sorting data by using order()
sort1 <- ukHousing[order(Duration, -Price, )]

# Sorting data by using setorder()
sort1 <- setorder(ukHousing, Duration, -Price)

Subsetting data by column(s) in data.table using j

As mentioned earlier, we can directly use column(s) names for subsetting in data.table. Also, if you want all the rows, then you can skip i as a section.

1.Select single column - When we select a single column, the output returned is a vector. In case you wish to keep the structure as data.table, you need to wrap the variable name within list() function. If you find list() to boring you can instead use .(), it is an alias list() in data.table package. Most people prefer using .() instead of list() and going forward we will be continue to use .(), hereafter.

# Subsetting  data.table by selecting one column
singleColumn <- ukHousing[ , County]

# Output
[1] "GREATER MANCHESTER" "THURROCK"           "SOMERSET"          

# Subsetting  data.table by selecting one column keeping structure as data.table
singleColumn <- ukHousing[ , list(County)]

# Output
2:           THURROCK
3:           SOMERSET
6:          WILTSHIRE

2.Select multiple columns - This task is easy, and all we need to do is pass the column names separated by comma(,) inside the .().


You must pass the column names inside list alias to avoid the second column going into by section.
# Subsetting  data.table by selecting one column
multiColumn <- ukHousing[ , .(County, Price)]

# Output

                      County  Price
       1: GREATER MANCHESTER  25000
       2:           THURROCK  42500
       3:           SOMERSET  45000
       4:       BEDFORDSHIRE  43150
       5:     WEST YORKSHIRE  18899
22489344:     WEST YORKSHIRE 175000
22489345:     WEST YORKSHIRE 586945
22489346:     WEST YORKSHIRE 274000
22489347:     WEST YORKSHIRE  36000
22489348:     WEST YORKSHIRE 145000

3.Creating new columns using expressions - You can use := operator to create new variables by applying operations on rows. In the below example, we are creating a new variable c, which is a sum of a and b variable. This is also called as Assignment by reference.

df <- data.table(a  = c(1,2,3), b = c(4,5,6))
df[, c := a + b]

# Output
   a b c
1: 1 4 5
2: 2 5 7
3: 3 6 9

Rename column in data.table

As column names n data.table is passed inside list, we can rename columns as we would do while creating list. In below renaming country and price columns to A_Country and A_Price.

# Renaming Columns in data.table
renameColumn <- ukHousing[ , .(A_Country = County, A_Price = Price)]

# Output
[1] "A_Country" "A_Price"

Using expressions with columns in data.table

The in j in data.table can handle much more than just selecting columns, and it can also be used for computing on columns, also referred to as using expressions. Let’s say; you want to combine country and district variables separated by “_“.

# concatinating two Columns in data.table
expressionExample1 <- ukHousing[ , .(paste(County, District, sep = "_"))]
# Output
2:               THURROCK_THURROCK
3:              SOMERSET_SEDGEMOOR

Subsetting data using i and applying expressions using j

While using data.table you can actually subject the data using i IE identify rows on which you want to perform your further data analysis. This could also be phrased as subset in i and do in j.

1.Calculate and compare the average price of houses in OLDHAM District

In the below code, we first subset the data and get row where District is “OLDHAM”. We then take these rows and apply the mean function in the j part of the syntax.

# Avg house prices in OLDHAM
ans <- ukHousing[ District == "OLDHAM", .(Avg_Price = mean(Price))]

# Output
1:  91258.15

2.How many houses do we have in OLDHAM

Here we need to count the total number of rows in the subject. To achieve this, we can use two different functions. One we can use length() and another we can use is .N() function. Please note, length() will require us to pass the argument. This could be any variable name. However, .N does not require a function to be passed.

# Total number of rows where Dristrict is OLDHAM
ans <- ukHousing[ District == "OLDHAM", length(District)]

# Output
[1] 76576

# Total number of rows where Dristrict is OLDHAM
ans <- ukHousing[ District == "OLDHAM", .N]

# Output
[1] 76576

The special symbol .N is a built-in variable that saves the total number of observations in the current group. In the next section, we will see how we can combine .N with the by. But before we move ahead, let us see how to refer to columns by name in j.

Referring columns by name in j (just like data.frame)

If you are explicitly calling out the names, then you can follow the data.frame way of calling the column names. However, if you have stored the column names in a vector than there are two options -

A. **Using .. prefix ** - The .. prefix requests the data.table to look for the selected colNames by going “up-one-level,” I.E., in the global environment. If you are familiar with the Unix terminal, you should be able to connect to the .. command, which also means “up-on-level”.

# Calling multimple column names using `..` prefix
colNames = c("Duration", "County", "Price")
head(ukHousing[ , ..colNames])

# Output

   Duration             County Price
1:        F GREATER MANCHESTER 25000
2:        F           THURROCK 42500
3:        F           SOMERSET 45000
4:        F       BEDFORDSHIRE 43150
5:        F     WEST YORKSHIRE 18899
6:        F          WILTSHIRE 81750

B. **Using with argument ** - By default the with argument is set as TRUE. This allows the data.table to refer to the columns as variables, Setting with = FALSE actually disables this property thereby restoring the data.frame mode.

# Calling multimple column names using `with` argumnet
colNames = c("Duration", "County", "Price")
head(ukHousing[ , colNames, with = FALSE])

# Output

   Duration             County Price
1:        F GREATER MANCHESTER 25000
2:        F           THURROCK 42500
3:        F           SOMERSET 45000
4:        F       BEDFORDSHIRE 43150
5:        F     WEST YORKSHIRE 18899
6:        F          WILTSHIRE 81750



How to summarize larger list of variables

To summarise a large list of variables in data.table you can use .SD and .SDCols operators. Here SD stands for subset of data.

In the below code snippet, we will see how to get the following:

1.Mean of multiple variables

ukHousing[, lapply(.SD, mean), .SDcols = c("Price", "var2")]

2.Getting summary statistics of all the numeric variable

ukHousing[, lapply(.SD, mean)]

3.using UDF for calculating different statistics

ukHousing[, lapply(.SD, function(x) c(mean = median(x), mode(x)))]

Aggregations using by in data.table

Now that we have learned how to usei as WHERE or ORDER BY and j as SELECT or UPDATE from data.table its time to learn how we can combine these two with by to perform data operations by groups.

How to get number of rows by District

The below code will return the top 5 and below 5 results. Also, note if you do not pass the name of the column in j it will be named as N.

byExample1 <- ukHousing[, .(Count = .N), by = .(District)]

# Output
              District  Count
  1:             OLDHAM  76576
  2:           THURROCK  69498
  3:          SEDGEMOOR  52762
  5:              LEEDS 299133
450:      CITY OF DERBY  87152
451:             RADNOR     13
452:             BRYHER      1
453:    ISLES OF SCILLY    397
454:        ST MARTIN'S      2

Compare average prices of old and new houses in LEEDS District

To calculate this, we need to do the following things:

  1. Take the subset of data WHERE District == “LEEDS” - This will go in i
  2. Take Average of Price variable and rename it - This will go in j
  3. Finally,a group by on the Old/New Variable - This will go in by
byExample2 <- ukHousing[District == "LEEDS", 
                        .(Average_House_Price = mean(Price)), 
                        by = .(`Old/New`)]

# Output
   Old/New Average_House_Price
1:       N            131776.4
2:       Y            152065.4


byExample3 <- ukHousing[District == "LEEDS", 
                        .(Average_House_Price = mean(Price)), 
                        by = .(`Old/New`, Duration)]
# Outlook

   Old/New Duration Average_House_Price
1:       N        F            133247.2
2:       N        L            120133.6
3:       Y        F            164630.3
4:       Y        L            136957.9
5:       Y        U             98157.0
6:       N        U             56837.5

How to get ordered results by grouping variable in data.table

Although data.table retains the original order of groups by design, at times, you may be required to sort the values by each group. One may be interested in doing so to understand top performers in each group. You can achieve this by changing by to keyby. This will automatically update the values within each group in the ascending order. Below code results can be compared with the previous one, and you will notice that it is not ordered in ascending order.


keyby also sets a key after ordering the values by setting an attribute called sorted.
byExample3 <- ukHousing[District == "LEEDS", 
                        .(Average_House_Price = mean(Price)), 
                        keyby = .(`Old/New`, Duration)]

# Output

   Old/New Duration Average_House_Price
1:       N        F            133247.2
2:       N        L            120133.6
3:       N        U             56837.5
4:       Y        F            164630.3
5:       Y        L            136957.9
6:       Y        U             98157.0

How to write Sub Queries like SQL using Chaining operation

Chaining is a process using which we can avoid intermediate assignments of temporary variables. Here the results of the previous operation are passed directly to the next one.

In the below code, I will order the output of the previous code by Average_House_Price variable but in descending order.

byExample4 <- ukHousing[District == "LEEDS", 
                        .(Average_House_Price = mean(Price)), 
                        keyby = .(`Old/New`, Duration)][order(-Average_House_Price)]

# Output

   Old/New Duration Average_House_Price
1:       Y        F            164630.3
2:       Y        L            136957.9
3:       N        F            133247.2
4:       N        L            120133.6
5:       Y        U             98157.0
6:       N        U             56837.5

Using data.table for joining large tables

Merging tables in data.table is very similar to data.frame. You can merge tables using merge() function. However, in data.table The merging is done based on the common key variable as a primary key. On the other hand, data.frame takes a common variable as a primary key to merge.

For this exercise, we will first define two tables, as given below.

# Defining the tables
data.table1 <- data.table(primaryKey = letters[rep(1:10)], X= 1:10, key = "primaryKey")
data.table2 <- data.table(primaryKey = letters[rep(2:8)], Y= 10:1, key = "primaryKey")

# Printing the output
> data.table1
    A  X
 1: a  1
 2: b  2
 3: c  3
 4: d  4
 5: e  5
 6: f  6
 7: g  7
 8: h  8
 9: i  9
10: j 10

> data.table2
    A  Y
 1: b 10
 2: b  3
 3: c  9
 4: c  2
 5: d  8
 6: d  1
 7: e  7
 8: f  6
 9: g  5
10: h  4

We will now look at how to get the common elements between the two by doing inner join.

merge(data.table1, data.table2, by = "primaryKey")

# Output
    primaryKey X  Y
 1:          b 2 10
 2:          b 2  3
 3:          c 3  9
 4:          c 3  2
 5:          d 4  8
 6:          d 4  1
 7:          e 5  7
 8:          f 6  6
 9:          g 7  5
10:          h 8  4

To perform Left Join, we need to pass all.x = TRUE argument. Below are the code snippet and its output.

merge(data.table1, data.table2, by = "primaryKey", all.x = TRUE)
    primaryKey  X  Y
 1:          a  1 NA
 2:          b  2 10
 3:          b  2  3
 4:          c  3  9
 5:          c  3  2
 6:          d  4  8
 7:          d  4  1
 8:          e  5  7
 9:          f  6  6
10:          g  7  5
11:          h  8  4
12:          i  9 NA
13:          j 10 NA

I am sure with this example, you will be able to figure out how to perform other joins like Right Join, Full Join, and other joins. If not please refer the documentation of data.table package.

Must-know functions from data.table package

Below is the list of some must-know functions from data.table package. For this section, we will not be sharing the output.

How to determine duplicated rows in data.table

There are a couple of functions that we can use from data.table to deal with duplicated rows. The use of a particular function depends on the task you want to achieve.

1.unique() - the function returns a data table with all the duplicated rows removed. The function also can be used to specify a particular column by which you wish to check for duplicated values.

# Removing duplicates considering all variables

# Removing duplicates considering a particular variable(s)
unique(df, by = "var1")

2.duplicated() - The output of this function is a logical vector indicating which rows are duplicates.

# getting logical vectors indicating duplicate rows

3.anyDuplicated() - The function is similar to the duplicated() function. The only difference is that this function returns inter values as output. It returns index i of the first duplicated entry if there is one, and 0 otherwise.

anyDuplicated(df, by=c("Var1"))

How to define range in data.table

between() function can be used to define a range. The range generated includes values of both start and end values. You can use this function to check if the values of a variable lie between a certain range of values.

# Getting houses prices where prices range between 100k and 200k
ukHousing(Price %between% c(100000, 200000))

How to reshape large datasets faster in data.table

dcast.data.table and melt.data.table are two functions which provides a very fast version of reshape2:dcast() and reshape2:melt. These functions can handle very large datasets quite efficiently and are also able to manage memory quite efficiently in comparison to functions from reshape2 package.

dcast(df, time ~ variable, fun=mean)
melt(df, id=1:2, measure="f_1")

How to rank large datasets using data.table

data.table provides a function named frank() to achieve faster ranking over the large datasets. The function is similar to base rank() function but performance-wise it is much faster. You can think of this function as a translation of RANK OVER PARTITION windows function in SQL.

The function is capable of accepting vectors, lists, data.frames, or data.tables as input.

x = c(4, 1, 4, NA, 1, NA, 4)
df = data.table(x, y=c(1, 1, 1, 0, NA, 0, 2))
frank(df, cols="x")

Some essential set of functions

The set functions consists of union, intersect, setdiff and setequal. These functions can be very crucial when working with multiple datasets. The data.table package in R provides a set of these functions which perform these tasks at a super fast speed when it comes to large datasets.

  1. fintersect will return copies of common rows.
  2. fsetdiff will return copies of rows that are not common.
  3. funion will return copies of all the rows.
  4. fsetequal will return FALSE unless all the rows are similar.

How to write large datasets to the local

You can use fwrite() function to quickly write the larger file back to your local system.

How to generate lead/lag values for time series with data.table

To generate lead/lag values, the data.table provides shift() function.

# Shifting data by 1 lag
df <- data.table(x = seq(1, 10, 2))
df[, x1:= shift(x, 1, type = "lag")]

# Output
> df
     x x1
 1:  1 NA
 2:  3  1
 3:  5  3
 4:  7  5
 5:  9  7

To get the leading values in the next column, all you need to do is mention type = “lead”. I encourage you to try it on your local machine.

Closing Note

In this chapter, we learned how to use data.table to deal with very large datasets with efficient memory utilization. This package provides an excellent solution for data wrangling tasks in R. In the next tutorial, we will talk about dplyr package. We understand that data.table can become a bit complicated, and for simplicity, some prefer using dplyr package.
Last updated on 23 Nov 2019
Published on 17 Oct 2017
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