13 Appendix: Getting up-to-speed with R

As mentioned in Chapter 1, R is a general purpose programming language focussed on data analysis and modelling. This small tutorial aims to teach the basics of R, from the perspective of spatial microsimulation research. It should also be useful to people with existing R skills, to re-affirm their knowledge base and see how it is applicable to spatial microsimulation.

R’s design is built on the idea that everything that exists is an object and everything that happens is a function. It is a vectorised, object orientated and functional programming language (Wickham 2014). This means that R understands vector algebra, all data accessible to R resides in a number of named objects and functions must be used to modify objects. We will look at each of these in some code below.

13.1 R understands vector algebra

A vector is simply an ordered list of numbers (Beezer 2008). Imagine two vectors, each consisting of 3 elements:

\[a = (1,2,3); b = (9,8,6) \]

To say that R understands vector algebra is to say that it knows how to handle vectors in the same way a mathematician does:

\[a + b = (a_1 + b_1, a_2 + b_2, c_3 + c_3 ) = (10,10,9) \]

This may not seem remarkable, but it is. Most programming languages are not vectorised, so they would see \(a + b\) differently. In Python, for example, this is the answer we get:49

a = [1,2,3]
b = [9,8,6]
print(a + b)

## [1, 2, 3, 9, 8, 6]

In R, the operation just works, intuitively:

a <- c(1, 2, 3)
b <- c(9, 8, 6)
a + b
## [1] 10 10  9

This conciseness is clearly very useful in spatial microsimulation, as numeric variables of the same length are common (e.g. the attributes of individuals in a zone) and can be acted on with a minimum of effort.

13.2 R is object orientated

In R, everything that exists is an object with a name and a class. This is useful, because R’s functions know automatically how to behave differently on different objects depending on their class.

To illustrate the point, let’s create two objects, each with a different class and see how the function summarise behaves differently, depending on the type. This behaviour is polymorphism (Matloff 2011):

# Create a character and a vector object
char_obj <- c("red", "blue", "red", "green")
num_obj <- c(1, 4, 2, 532.1)

# Summary of each object
##    Length     Class      Mode 
##         4 character character
##    Min. 1st Qu.  Median    Mean 3rd Qu.    Max. 
##       1       2       3     135     136     532
# Summary of a factor object
fac_obj <- factor(char_obj)
##  blue green   red 
##     1     1     2

In the example above, the output from summary for the numeric object num_obj was very different from that of the character vector char_obj. Note that although the same information was contained in fac_obj (a factor), the output from summary changes again.

Note that objects can be called almost anything in R with the exceptions of names beginning with a number or containing operator symbols such as -, ^ and brackets. It is good practice to think about what the purpose of an object is before naming it: using clear and concise names can save you a huge amount of time in the long run.

13.3 Subsetting in R

R has powerful, concise and (over time) intuitive methods for taking subsets of data. Using the SimpleWorld example we loaded in Data preparation, let’s explore the ind object in more detail, to see how we can select the parts of an object we are most interested in. As before, we need to load the data:

ind <- read.csv("data/SimpleWorld/ind.csv") 

Now, it is easy from within R to call a single individual (e.g. individual 3) using the square bracket notation:

##   id age sex
## 3  3  35   m

The above example takes a subset of ind all elements present on the 3rd row: for a 2 dimensional table, anything to the left of the comma refers to rows and anything to the right refers to columns. Note that ind[2:3,] and ind[c(3,5),] also take subsets of the ind object: the square brackets can take vector inputs as well as single numbers.

We can also subset by columns: the second dimension. Confusingly, this can be done in four ways, because ind is an R data.frame50 and a data frame can behave simultaneously as a list, a matrix and a data frame (only the results of the first are shown):

ind$age # data.frame column name notation I
## [1] 59 54 35 73 49
# ind[, 2] # matrix notation
# ind["age"] # column name notation II
# ind[[2]] # list notation
# ind[2] # numeric data frame notation

It is also possible to subset cells by both rows and columns simultaneously. Let us select query the gender of the 4th individual, as an example (pay attention to the relative location of the comma inside the square brackets):

ind[4, 3] # The attribute of the 4th individual in column 3
## [1] f
## Levels: f m

A commonly used trick in R that helps with the analysis of individual level data is to subset a data frame based on one or more of its variables. Let’s subset first all females in our dataset and then all females over 50:

ind[ind$sex == "f", ]
##   id age sex
## 4  4  73   f
## 5  5  49   f
ind[ind$sex == "f" & ind$age > 50, ]
##   id age sex
## 4  4  73   f

In the above code, R uses relational operators of equality (==) and inequality (>) which can be used in combination using the & symbol. This works because, as well as integer numbers, one can also place boolean variables into square brackets: ind$sex == "f" returns a binary vector consisting solely of TRUE and FALSE values.51

13.4 Further R resources

The above tutorial should provide a sufficient grounding in R for beginners to understand the practical examples in the book. However, R is a deep language and there is much else to learn that will be of benefit to your modelling skills. There are many excellent books and tutorials that teach the fundamentals of R for a variety of applications. The following resources, in ascending order of difficulty, are highly recommended:

  • Introduction to visualising spatial data in R (Lovelace and Cheshire 2014) provides an introductory tutorial on handling spatial data in R, including the administrative zone data which often form the building blocks of spatial microsimulation models in R.
  • Introduction to scientific programming and simulation using R (Jones et al. 2014) is an accessible and highly practical course that will form a solid foundation for a range of modelling applications, including spatial microsimulation.
  • An Introduction to R (Venables et al. 2014) is the foundational introductory R manual, written by the software’s core developers and is available on-line for free. It is terse and covers some advanced topics, but provides a useful reference on the fundamentals of R as a language.
  • Advanced R (Wickham 2014) (http://www.crcpress.com/product/isbn/9781466586963) delves into the heart of the R language. It contains many advanced topics, but the introductory chapters are straightforward. Browsing some of the pages on Advanced R’s website (http://adv-r.had.co.nz/) and trying to answer the questions that open each chapter provides a taste of the book and an excellent way of testing and improving one’s understanding of the R language.


Matloff, N. 2011. The Art of R Programming. No Starch Press.

  1. We can get the right answer in Python, by typing the following: import numpy; a=numpy.array([1,2,3]); b=numpy.array([9,8,6]); a+b.

  2. This can be ascertained by typing class(ind). It is useful to know the class of different R objects, so make good use of the class() function.

  3. Thus, yet another way to invoke the 2nd column of ind is the following: ind[c(F, T, F)]! Here, T and F are shorthand for “TRUE” and “FALSE” respectively.