Before You Start

  • Make a new RStudio project for Lab 3, and put it in a sensible place within your stat209 folder.
  • Save a copy of this .Rmd file (use Save As…) in that project folder
  • Fill in your name in the author field, and today’s date in the Date.
  • Before doing anything else, save the file, and make sure you can Knit it

RMarkdown Reference

  • Create headings and subheadings with #, ##, ###, etc. One # for a main heading, two for a subheading, three for a sub-subheading, etc.
  • Bold text with two *s on either side
  • Italicized text with _ on either side
  • Create blocks of R code with Insert > R (or use a keyboard shortcut). Chunks begin and end with a line containing three backticks (on the tilde key on most keyboards).
  • Lines between the ``` lines are interpreted as code
  • Can run individual chunks, or all chunks prior to a chunk, using the buttons in the top right of the chunk region
  • “Compile” the document to HTML with “Knit > Knit to HTML”
  • The opening line of a code chunk has curly braces with some chunk options separated by commas.
    • Use message = FALSE in the braces to suppress info from R as when loading packages
    • Use warning = FALSE if you are getting a warning that you’re convinced isn’t a problem, and you don’t want it to be displayed (but be sure first!)
    • Use echo = FALSE if you don’t want the code to show up in the output
    • Use eval = FALSE if you want the code to be displayed but not run
    • Use results = 'hide' if you want the code to be run but don’t want the results to be displayed
    • Use cache = TRUE for time-consuming chunks so they don’t re-run every time


With Markdown documents: When Knitting the entire document (unlike when running individual chunks), the process does not have access to objects in your environment: only objects defined within the document are available.

This is useful, since if you left something undefined you’ll usually get an error. But you will not always want to Knit the entire document, since this can take time; be careful when running one chunk at a time, since this can use objects in your environment.

Graphics with ggplot2

Goal: By the end of this lab, you will be able to use ggplot2 to build some basic data graphics

Setting up

Before we can use a library like ggplot2, we have to load it. In this case, we load the tidyverse package, which automatically loads ggplot2 for us (since it depends on it).

  1. Make a new code chunk to load the tidyverse package using the library() function. Adjust the chunk options to suppress messages. Knit the document.

Note: Remember, you shouldn’t copy and paste code directly from the web. Type it out yourself so that you slow yourself down a bit to process what you’re reading, and to develop your muscle memory.


Click the “Code” button on the Knitted version of this lab on the course website to see my solution, but not until after you’ve written yours!

Why ggplot2?

Advantages of ggplot2:

  • Consistent underlying grammar of graphics (Wilkinson, 2005)
  • Is a mature and complete graphics system
  • Plot specification is at a high level of abstraction
  • Flexible
  • Has a theme system to polish plot appearance (more on this later)
  • Used by many, many people

What is The Grammar Of Graphics?

The big idea: independenly specify plot building blocks and combine them to create just about any kind of graphical display you want. Building blocks of a graph include:

  • data (data=)
  • aesthetic mappings (aes())
  • geometric objects (geom_*())
  • statistical transformations
  • scales
  • coordinate systems
  • position adjustments
  • faceting

Using ggplot2, we can specify different parts of the plot, and combine them together using the + operator.

Example: Housing prices

Let’s start by looking at some data on housing prices:

## Rows: 7,803
## Columns: 11
## $ State            <chr> "AK", "AK", "AK", "AK", "AK", "AK", "AK", "AK", …
## $ region           <chr> "West", "West", "West", "West", "West", "West", …
## $ Date             <dbl> 2010.25, 2010.50, 2009.75, 2010.00, 2008.00, 200…
## $ Home.Value       <dbl> 224952, 225511, 225820, 224994, 234590, 233714, …
## $ Structure.Cost   <dbl> 160599, 160252, 163791, 161787, 155400, 157458, …
## $ Land.Value       <dbl> 64352, 65259, 62029, 63207, 79190, 76256, 72906,…
## $ Land.Share..Pct. <dbl> 28.6, 28.9, 27.5, 28.1, 33.8, 32.6, 31.3, 29.9, …
## $ Home.Price.Index <dbl> 1.481, 1.484, 1.486, 1.481, 1.544, 1.538, 1.534,…
## $ Land.Price.Index <dbl> 1.552, 1.576, 1.494, 1.524, 1.885, 1.817, 1.740,…
## $ Year             <dbl> 2010, 2010, 2009, 2009, 2007, 2008, 2008, 2008, …
## $ Qrtr             <dbl> 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, …

(Data originally from, via Jordan Crouser at Smith College)

Geometric Objects and Aesthetics

Geometric Objects (geom)

Geometric objects or geoms are the actual marks we put on a plot. Examples include:

  • points (geom_point(), for scatter plots, dot plots, etc.)
  • lines (geom_line(), for time series, trend lines, etc.)
  • boxplot (geom_boxplot(), for, um…)

among others

A plot must have at least one geom, but you can combine multiple geoms in a single plot. Remember that you can add elements to an existing plot using the + operator (elements can be chained together in a single command, or intermediate plots can be assigned to a variable and added to later).

You can see a list of the geom_*() functions in ggplot2 using the following command:

In RStudio, if you simply type geom_ and then press the tab key, you will see a dropdown list of possible ways to complete the text. This is a useful trick generally, to save repetitive typing. Once you have completed a function name and typed the open paren (, tab will also show you a list of valid argument names for that function.

Aesthetic Mappings (aes)

In ggplot2, aesthetic means “something you can see”. Each aesthetic is a mapping between a visual cue and a variable. For example, we can map variables to the following cues:

  • position (i.e., on the x and y axes)
  • color (the “outside” color of a geometric object)
  • fill (the “inside” color of a geometric object)
  • shape (of points)
  • line type
  • size

Each type of geom accepts only a subset of all aesthetics — refer to the help pages of individual geom_() functions to see what mappings each geom accepts. Aesthetic mappings are set with the aes() function.


Now that we know about geometric objects and aesthetic mapping, we’re ready to make out first ggplot: a scatterplot. We’ll use geom_point to do this, which requires aes mappings for x and y. Other mappings (such as color) are optional.


The “pipe” (%>%) operator

In the filter() command above, the function filter takes the existing dataset called housing, and extracts only those cases where the entry in the Date column is equal to "2013.25", returning the result in a new dataset object, which we give the label hp2013Q1.

The function took two arguments: the dataset, and a logical condition that serves as the “filter”; only letting through cases that meet a certain criterion, and returned a dataset.

Often times we will perform operations like this, which take a dataset as an argument, and return a modified dataset, in sequence, “chaining” them together. One of the packages in the tidyverse augments the R language itself with an additional operator called the pipe operator (written as %>%).

Instead of writing

as we did above, we can instead “pipe” the data into the filter, writing the command as follows.

What’s happening here is the housing dataset is “fed through the pipe”, and passed on to the filter() function as its first argument. This whole expression then returns the 2013 Q1 subset of the data.

  1. Create a scatterplot of the value of each home in the first quarter of 2013 as a function of the value of the land. Try to write the plot command using the pipe operator to pass the data to the ggplot function.


Plot objects

The output of the ggplot() function is an object. Since we want to modify the plot that we created above, it’s helpful to store the plot object in a named variable.

To actually show the plot, we just print it, as we would print the value of a numeric value or a data frame.

Notice that although the axes are set up and labeled, there’s no data being depicted. That’s because we haven’t specified any geoms – in other words, we haven’t told R what we actually want it to draw. However, the aesthetic mapping is defined, and if we take this base plot and add geoms to it, the resulting plots will use the mapping that we defined in base_plot.

Let’s add some points!

  1. We have a lovely scatterplot now, but we haven’t stored it. Store the scatterplot you created in the previous exercise as an object called home_value_plot.



A plot constructed with ggplot can have more than one geom. For example, we could connect all of the points using geom_line(). By default, the aesthetic mapping defined in the base plot is carried over to any new geoms that we add. Note that now we see both points and lines.

  1. Does it make sense to connect the observations with geom_line() in this case? Do the lines help us understand the connections between the observations? What do the lines represent?


(this one’s text, not code)


Not all geometric objects are simple shapes – geom_smooth() includes both a line and a “ribbon”, where the line is a “smoothed” moving average of the y variable, and the band is a 95% confidence band, represent our uncertainty about what the moving average actually would be if we had infinite data.

Other smoothing methods and band definitions are available too. You can find out more about the various options by looking at the documentation page for geom_smooth().


Each geom accepts a particular set of aesthetics (i.e., mappings) – for example, geom_text() accepts a labels mapping. This mapping wasn’t defined in the base plot, so we can add it here.

Note that in the following plot we are not using geom_point() or geom_line() – we have only geom_text() since we only want the state labels to be drawn, not points or lines.

Aesthetic Mapping vs. Assignment

Note that the variables are mapped to aesthetics with the aes() function, while stylization that doesn’t express an aspect of the data is set outside the aes() call. This sometimes leads to confusion, as in this example:

The aes() function can also be used outside of a call to a geom. Here we update the base_plot with an additional mapping, assigning the color cue to the home value variable.

  1. In your home_value_plot, map color to the cost of the structure, and show your scatterplot.


Mapping Variables to Other Aesthetics

Other aesthetics are mapped in the same way as x and y in the previous example.

Scales: Controlling Aesthetic Mapping

Aesthetic mapping (i.e., with aes()) only says that a variable should be mapped to an aesthetic. It doesn’t say how that should happen. For example, when mapping a variable (say, z) to shape with aes(shape = z), you don’t say what shapes should be used. Similarly, aes(color = z) doesn’t say what colors should be used. Describing what colors/shapes/sizes, etc. to use is done by modifying the corresponding scale. In ggplot2, scales include:

  • position
  • color, fill, and alpha (these control the “outer” and “inner” colors and the opacity (from transparent at 0 to opaque at 1), respectively, of the geometric objects)
  • size
  • shape
  • linetype

Scales are modified with a series of functions using a scale_<aesthetic>_<type> naming template. Try typing scale_ followed by the tab key to see a list of scale modification functions.

Common Scale Arguments

The following arguments are common to most scales in ggplot2:

  • name: the first argument specifies the axis or legend title
  • limits: the minimum and maximum of the scale
  • breaks: the points along the scale where labels should appear
  • labels: the text that appears at each break

Specific scale functions may have additional arguments; for example, the scale_color_continuous() function has arguments low and high for setting the colors at the low and high end of the scale.

Using different color scales

ggplot2 has a wide variety of color scales; here is an example using scale_color_gradient2() to interpolate between three different colors:

  1. Since a home price index of 1 is an important benchmark, it is worth highlighting as a contextual reference in our plot. Use geom_vline() to add a dotted, black, vertical line to the plot we created above (use the Help page for geom_vline() to figure out its syntax)


  1. Recall that layers in ggplot2 are added sequentially. See if you can figure out how to put the dotted vertical line you created in the previous exercise behind the data values.


Available Scales

Note: In RStudio, you can type scale_ followed by TAB to get the whole list of available scales.


The idea behind faceting is to create separate graphs for subsets of the data, and tile those graphs in a manner that makes it easy to visually compare them.

ggplot2 offers two functions for creating facets:

  • facet_wrap(): define subsets as the levels of a single grouping variable, and tile the resulting plots in one dimension, “wrapping around” as needed.
  • facet_grid(): define subsets as the crossing of two grouping variables

By splitting data into separate subplots it is possible to keep the amount of clutter in a single plot under control, while keeping all the information in easy visual proximity to facilitate comparison among plots.

Example: What is the trend in housing prices in each state?

Let’s start by using a technique we already know: map State to color:

This plot is horrendous. There are two problems: the distinctions among colors are too fine-grained to be able to see them, and the lines obscure each other.

Faceting to the rescue?

We can fix the previous plot by faceting by State rather than mapping State to color:

Notice the tilde (~) syntax before the variable name. This is a convention borrowed from the syntax R uses to define regression models, and which the lattice graphics package (as well as the mosaic package) use to define plots.

The facet_grid() function can be used to create facets that vary according to two grouping variables. Its syntax is

where y and x are the names of grouping variables that define the rows (vertical) and columns (horizontal) of the faceted grid, respectively.

  1. Use a facet_wrap and/or facet_grid to create a data graphic of your choice that illustrates something interesting about home prices. Add some text below the graph describing what it reveals.

Your Graphic and Description

Getting credit

  • Save both your .Rmd and Knitted .html files to the path ~/stat209/turnin/lab3 on the RStudio server.

This lab is based on the “Introduction to R Graphics with ggplot2” workshop, which is a product of the Data Science Services team Harvard University. The original source is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 Unported. This lab was adapted for SDS192: and Introduction to Data Science in Spring 2017 by R. Jordan Crouser at Smith College, and further adapted for STAT209: Data Computing and Visualization by Colin Dawson at Oberlin College.