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My Favorite data.table Feature

My favorite R data.table feature is the “by” grouping notation when combined with the := notation.

Let’s take a look at this powerful notation.

First, let’s build an example data.frame.

d <- wrapr::build_frame(
   "group"  , "value" |
     "a"    , 1L      |
     "a"    , 2L      |
     "b"    , 3L      |
     "b"    , 4L      )

group value
a 1
a 2
b 3
b 4

The data is some sort of value with a grouping column telling us which rows are related.

With the data.table:=,by” notation we can add the per-group totals into each row of the data as follows (the extra [] at the end is just the command to also print the results in addition to adding the column in-place).

dt <-

dt[, group_sum := sum(value), by = "group"][]

#    group value group_sum
# 1:     a     1         3
# 2:     a     2         3
# 3:     b     3         7
# 4:     b     4         7

The “by” signals we are doing a per-group calculation, and the “:=” signals to land the results in the original data.table. This sort of window function is incredibly useful in computing things such as what fraction of a group’s mass is in each row. For example.

# build a fresh copy as last command altered dt in place
dt <- 

dt[, fraction := value/sum(value), by = "group"][]

#    group value  fraction
# 1:     a     1 0.3333333
# 2:     a     2 0.6666667
# 3:     b     3 0.4285714
# 4:     b     4 0.5714286

In base R (or in a more purely relational data system) the obvious way to solve this requires two steps: computing the per-group summaries and then joining them back into the original table rows. This can be done as follows.

sums <- tapply(d$value, d$group, sum)
d$fraction <- d$value/sums[d$group]

#   group value  fraction
# 1     a     1 0.3333333
# 2     a     2 0.6666667
# 3     b     3 0.4285714
# 4     b     4 0.5714286

We called the transform a “window function”, as that is the name that SQL uses for the concept. The SQL code to perform this calculation would look like the following.

  value/sum(value) OVER (  PARTITION BY group ) AS fraction

And the popular package dplyr uses the following notation for the same problem.

d %>% 
    group_by(group) %>%
    mutate(fraction = value/sum(value)) %>%

And, as always, let’s end with some timings. For a 1000000 row table with 10 additional irrelevant columns, and group ids picked uniformly from 100000 symbols: we see the various solutions take the following times to complete the task.

##            solution  milliseconds 
##      datatable_soln           384
##  base_R_lookup_soln          1476
##          dplyr_soln          3988

All packages are the current CRAN releases as of 2019-06-29. Timings are sensitive to number of row, columns, and groups. Note the data.table time includes the time to convert to the data.table class.Details on the timings can be found here.

2 thoughts on “My Favorite data.table Feature”

  1. I would have thought to use ave() for a base R solution:

    base_R_ave_soln <- function(d) {
      d$fraction <- with(d, ave(value, group, FUN = function(x) x / sum(x)))

    Seems to be slightly slower than the base R lookup solution.

    1. Thanks for the note! ave() is a good “all in one” solution for merging per-group summaries in, and handles multiple grouping columns (or composite keys). But I wanted to show how one gets to a solution from basic ideas (compute summary, merge summary back in). I did not avoid it for speed reasons, and print(ave) is fairly interesting (though a bit hard to work out all the details, such as the assignment back into slice()).

      Actually I just re-ran the timings with ave(). ave() is competitive with the merge solution.

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