Some tools for learning purrr
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See documents/learn_purrr.Rmd for the full version

knitr::opts_chunk$set(echo = TRUE)

theme_update(text =  element_text(family = 'Arial Narrow',
                                  size = 16))

The goal of this workshop and document is to get you familiar with the workings of the purrr package. There's of course a lot more than can be covered here, but hopefully this should get you familiar with

  1. Using purrr as a replacement for apply

  2. Using purrr to wrangle lists

  3. Using purrr for data analysis

Full credit to Jenny Bryan's excellent purrr tutorial for many of the ideas here, along with Hadley Wickham & Garret Grolemund's R for Data Science. My goal is to walk you through some of the concepts outlined in these (much better) resources, and expand on some particular applications that have been useful to me.

What is purrr?

purrr is a part of the tidyverse, taking on the tasks accomplished by the apply suite of functions in base R. It's great at applying operations across many dimensions of your data, improving your ability to keep even complex analyses "tidy". At it's simplest, it's just another way to use apply. At it's most complex, it allows you to easily move around in and manipulate multi-dimensional (and multi-type) data.

There are a whole suite of functions involved with purrr, but the goal of this tutorial is to get the fundamentals down so that you can start incorporating purrr into your own code and explore higher-level abilities on your own.

Key verbs

  • map is the workhorse of the purrr family. It is basically apply
  • The basic syntax:

map("Lists to apply function to","Function to apply across lists","Additional parameters")

map(mtcars, mean, na.rm = T)

map by default returns a list

map_TYPE returns an object of class TYPE

map_lgl returns logical objects

map_df returns data frames, etc.

Specifying type makes it easier to wrangle different types of outputs

map applies a function over one list.

map2 applies a function over combinations of two lists in the form

map2(list1, list2, function, ...)

map2_chr(c('one','two','red','blue'), c('fish'), paste)

Under earlier versions, map3 was for 3 lists, etc.

Now, anything above two lists is handled by pmap

pmap(list(list1,list2,list3), function,...)

This is where things start to improve substantially on apply: instead of having to smash all the things you want to apply a function over into one data frame, you can easily pass multiple named inputs to a function

Let's start with the got_chars data from the repurrrsive package

str(got_chars, list.len = 3)

Suppose we wanted to figure out how many aliases and alliances each character has, as well as where they were born. We can use pmap to apply a function over each of these attributes

got_list <- got_chars %>%
  map(`[`, c('name','aliases','allegiances','born'))

got_list <-  got_chars %>% {
    name = map_chr(.,'name'),
    aliases = map(.,'aliases'),
    allegiances = map(.,'allegiances'),
    born = map_chr(.,'born')

str(got_list, list.len = 3)

got_foo <- function(name, aliases, allegiances,born){

  paste(name, 'has', length(aliases), 'aliases and', length(allegiances),
        'allegiances, and was born in', born)


got_list %>%
  pmap_chr(got_foo) %>%

Getting used to using map is the foundation to working with purrr.

We'll now go into more detail on ways to use this in a practical way.

Functional programming

purrr is designed to help with "functional programming", which you can take broadly as trying to use functions (preferably "pure" ones) to accomplish most of your complex and repetitive tasks (don't copy and paste more then 3 times - H. Wickham)

As a very quick reintroduction to functions:

Functions in R take any number of named inputs, do operations on them, and returns the last thing produced inside the function (or whatever you specify using return)


z <- 10

foo <- function(x,y) {

z <- x + y

return(z) }



Notice that `z` wasn't affected by the `z` inside the function. Operations inside functions happen in the local environment of that function. "What happens in the function, stays in the function (except what you share on Facebook)"

Note though that functions can "see" objects in the global environment


a <- 10

foo <- function(x,y) {

z <- x + y + a



I strongly recommend you avoid relying on global variables inside functions: it can very easily cause unintended and sneaky behavior.

Functions can be as complicated as you want them to be, but a good rule is to try and make sure each function is good at doing one thing. That doesn't mean that that "one thing" can't be a complex series of operation, but the objective of the function should be to produce that one thing well. E.g., write one function to process your data, one function to run your model, one function to diagnose your model, etc.

You can also use "anonymous" functions in R/purrr. This is basically a shortcut for when you don't want to take up the space of writing and saving a whole function somewhere. You make anonymous functions with ~

Say you want the coefficient of variation of each of the variables in mtcars

foo <- function(x){

  sd(x) / mean(x)


map(mtcars, foo)

Can be accomplished using

map(mtcars, ~ sd(.) / mean(.))

Notice the rather confusing . in there. . basically is a marker for whatever data is passed to a function/thing in R.

mtcars %>%  {

The { after the pipe tells R that the things inside the brackets don't take the data passed to it as its first argument

x <- c(1,1,NA,NA)

y <-  c(1, NA, 1, NA)

z <-  data_frame(x = x, y = y)

myfoo <- function(x,y){

out <- ( &


map(z, sum)

z %>%
mutate(both_na = map2_lgl(x,y,myfoo))

z %>%
mutate(both_na = map2_lgl(x,y, ~ &

z %>%
mutate(both_na = pmap_lgl(list(x = x,y = y), myfoo))

Wrangling lists

Let's get back to actually using purrr in practice.

Lists are powerful objects that allow you to store all kinds of information in one place.

They can also be a pain to deal with, since we are no longer in the nice 2-D structure of a traditional data frame.

purrr has all kinds of useful tools for helping you quickly and efficiently deal with parts of lists.

Let's start with the Game of Thrones database in the repurrrsive package.

The str function is a great way to get a first glimpse at a list's structure

str(got_chars, list.len =  3)

For those of you who prefer a more interactive approach, you can also use the jsonedit function in the listviewer package


So, how do we start poking around in this database?

Suppose we wanted only the first 5 characters named


Now, suppose that we jut want to look at the name of the first 5 characters

got_chars[1:5] %>%

If you're like me, the numeric indexing of each of the entries is currently driving you nuts: I'd rather have each element in the list be named by the character it refers to

got_chars[1:5] %>%
  set_names(map_chr(.,'name')) %>%

Much better!

Now, suppose that I want more than just the names

got_chars[1:5] %>%
  set_names(map_chr(.,'name')) %>%
  map(c('name','allegiances')) %>%

Huh, why didn't that work? purrr has some built in helpers for simple operations, but as things get more complicated you need to specify functions

got_chars[1:5] %>%
set_names(map_chr(., 'name')) %>%
map(`[`, c('name', 'allegiances')) %>%

Now, let's say that I want to get all the Lanisters, so I can see which people to hate.

This is where a lot of the power of purrr starts to come in, allowing you to easily apply functions across nested layers of a list

got_chars %>%
  set_names(map_chr(.,'name')) %>%
  map(`[`,c('name','allegiances')) %>%
  keep(~str_detect(.$name, 'Lannister')) %>%

Now, suppose that we want anyone who's allied with the Starks

got_chars[1:4] %>%
set_names(map_chr(.,'name')) %>%
map(`[`,c('name','allegiances')) %>%
map(~str_detect(.$allegiances, 'Stark'))

Hmmm, that doesn't look good, what's up with Will? What happens if I try and use keep (list filter) here?

got_chars %>%
set_names(map_chr(.,'name')) %>%
map(`[`,c('name','allegiances')) %>%
keep(~str_detect(.$allegiances, 'Stark'))

Can fix that with a bit of a hack. There's almost certainly a better way, but this just shows that things get a little more complicated when you're trying to apply functions across list objects; things like dimensions, types, NULLs, can cause problems. If I'm trying something new, I'll usually try and develop the methods on a subset of the list that I know is "ideal", make sure it works there, and then try the operation on progressively more complicated lists. That allows me to separate errors in my functions vs. problems reading in "odd" data types.

got_chars %>%
set_names(map_chr(.,'name')) %>%
map(`[`,c('name','allegiances')) %>%
keep(~ifelse(length(.$allegiances) > 0, str_detect(.$allegiances, 'Stark'),FALSE)) %>%

As Cersei likes to remind us, anyone who's not a Lannister is an enemy to the Lannisters. Let's look at all the POV characters that aren't allied to the Lannisters

got_chars %>%
  set_names(map_chr(.,'name'))  %>%
  map(`[`,c('name','allegiances')) %>%
  discard(~ifelse(length(.$allegiances) > 0, str_detect(.$allegiances, 'Lannister'),FALSE)) %>%

Things obviously get a lot more complicated than this, but hopefully that gives you an idea of how to manipulate lists using purrr

The last thing we might want to go over is converting to and from data frames and lists. Life is obviously easier with data frames, and a lot of the time we can massage aspects of lists that we care about into data frames (especially using list columns).

got_chars %>%
  set_names(map_chr(.,'name'))  %>%
  map(`[`,c('name','allegiances')) %>%

Basic loops

How to move around in lists effectively

  • Manipulating independent lists

Analysis with purrr and modelr

So far, purrr has basically helped us use tidy operations on lists. That's nice, but its real power comes in helping with analysis. Let's look at the gapminder data set


gapminder::gapminder %>%
  ggplot(aes(year,lifeExp, color = country)) +
  geom_line(show.legend = F) +
  facet_wrap(~continent) +
  labs(title = 'Life expectancy across continents')

Now, suppose we want to build up a model trying to predict life expectancy as a function of covariates, starting with a simple one: life expectancy as a function of population and per capita GDP

gapminder <- gapminder %>%
  set_names( colnames(.) %>% tolower())

life_mod <- lm(lifeexp ~ pop + gdppercap, data = gapminder)

stargazer::stargazer(life_mod, type = 'html')

Not bad for a simple model, but how do we know if this is the model we want to use? Let's use AIC to compare a few different model structures (note, this is not an endorsement for AIC mining!)

m1 <- 'lifeexp ~ pop + gdppercap'

m2 <- 'lifeexp ~ pop + gdppercap + continent + year'

m3 <- 'lifeexp ~ pop + gdppercap + country + year'

m4 <- 'lifeexp ~ pop + gdppercap + year*country'

Now, since this is a simple three model example, we could just use a loop, or even copy and paste a few times. But, let's see how we can use purrr to help us do some diagnostics on these models.

Let's start by getting our models and data into a data frame, using list-columns

model_frame <- data_frame(model = c(m1, m2, m3,m4)) %>%
mutate(model = map(model, as.formula))

First, let's use purrr to convert each of these character strings into a model

model_frame <- data_frame(model_name = c('simple','medium','more', 'woah'),model = list("simple" = m1, 'medium' = m2, 'more' = m3, 'woah' = m4)) %>%
  mutate(model = map(model, as.formula))


model_frame <- model_frame %>%
  mutate(fit = lm(model, data = gapminder))

Hmmm, why didn't that work? mutate by itself doesn't know how to evaluate this, but map can help us out

model_frame <- model_frame %>%
  mutate(fit = map(model, ~lm(., data = gapminder)))


We're now going to start integrating some methods from the modelr package to diagnose our regression

model_frame <- model_frame %>%
mutate(r2 = map_dbl(fit, ~rsquare(., data = gapminder)),
aic = map_dbl(fit, ~AIC(.)))


So, AIC tells us that our über complicated model is still the most parsimonious. Let's dig into this a bit further, by explicitly testing the out of sample predictive ability of each of the models. "Overfit" models are commonly really good at describing the data that they are fit to, but perform poorly out of sample.

We'll start by using the modelr package to create a bunch of training-test combination data sets

validate <- gapminder %>%
crossv_mc(20, test = 0.25)

test_data <- list(test_training = list(validate), model = model_frame$model)

test_data <- cross_d(test_data) %>%
unnest(test_training, .drop = F, .id = 'model_number') %>%
mutate(model_number = as.numeric(model_number)) %>%
left_join(data_frame(model_number = c(1:4), model_name = c('simple','medium', 'more','woah')), by = 'model_number')


In a few lines of code, we now have "tidy" cross validation routine across multiple models, not bad.

test_data <- test_data %>%
mutate(fit = map2(model, train, ~lm(.x, data = .y))) %>%
mutate(root_mean_sq_error = map2_dbl(fit, test, rmse))


test_data %>%
ggplot(aes(root_mean_sq_error, fill = model_name)) +
geom_density(alpha = 0.75) +
labs(x = 'Root Mean Squared Error', title = 'Cross-validated distribution of RMSE')

Miscellaneos purrr

That's a broad tour of the key features of purrr. Here's a few more examples of miscellaneous things you can do with purrr

Check on factors

Factors can creep into your data, especially if you're reading in .csv's using base R. There's lot's of ways to solve this, but you can use purrr to efficiecntly check for factors, and convert them to characters in your dataframe.


Yep, look at that, country and continent are both factors. Useful for regression, but a little dangerous to have in your raw data.

We can use purrr to find all the factors in our data

gapminder %>%

And to convert each column that is a factor into a character

factor_foo <- function(x){

if (class(x) == 'factor'){

y <- as.character(x)

} else {
y <-  x



gapminder %>%

Center and Scale

One problem with our earlier regression: the scales of the different variables are widlly our of proportion

summary(gapminder %>% select(year,lifeexp, pop, gdppercap))

This can can make your regression a little hard to interpret. Hhow do you think about the intercept in this model for example? Or, how do you compare the relative magnitude of coefficients? An increase of 1 year life expectancy is a much bigger shift and an increase in population of 1.

You can "center and scale" you data to resolve this problem, generally by

$$ x^{centered, scaled} = \frac{(x - mean(x))} {2\sigma_{x}} $$ See Gelman & Hill 2007 for a good explanation of this.

Centering and scaling doesn't change the statistics of the model (significance etc.), just helps with interpretation in OLS. But, if you're doing maximum likelihood or Bayesian statistics, centering and scaling can dramatically improve the ability of the model to converge.

Suppose then that we want to center and scale all of the continuous variables in our data

center_scale <- function(x, xname, omit_names = '') {

if (is.numeric(x) & !all(unique(x) %in% c(1, 0)) &
!xname %in% omit_names) {
x <- (x - mean(x)) / (2* sd(x))




gapminder %>%

Looks good, except for the year thing. We're treating year as a continuos variable in our model. Suppose though we want to treat it as a factor, so that there doesn't have to be one slope for year. Remember that we can pass additional parameters through map

gapminder %>%
omit_names = 'year'

Save all plots

Suppose you've got a large project and want to save (or print) all the plots. This often leads to a lot of copy and pasting of save commands, etc.

Here's another solution, using walk

I usually tag all my ggplot objects that I want to save with _plot

life_v_money_plot <- gapminder %>%
ggplot(aes(gdppercap, lifeexp)) +
geom_abline(aes(slope = 1, intercept = 0))  +
geom_point() +
geom_smooth(method = 'lm')


life_v_time_plot <- gapminder %>%
ggplot(aes(year, lifeexp)) +
geom_point() +
geom_smooth(method = 'lm')

Suppose I want to save both of these plots?

plot_files <- (ls()[ str_detect(ls(), '_plot')])

plot_foo <- function(x){

ggsave(paste0(x,'.pdf'), get(x), device = cairo_pdf)


walk(plot_files, plot_foo)


I just really like this one. Suppose you've got something that you are copy and pasting a lot, like getting the upper and lower CI of something

gapminder %>%
    mean_gdp = mean(gdppercap),
    lower_gdp = quantile(gdppercap, 0.25),
    upper_gdp = quantile(gdppercap, 0.75),
    mean_life = mean(lifeexp),
    lower_life = quantile(lifeexp, 0.25),
    upper_life = quantile(lifeexp, 0.75)

Works, and in this case not hard, but still annoying to retype!

lower = partial(quantile, probs = 0.25)

upper = partial(quantile, probs = 0.75)

gapminder %>%
    mean_gdp = mean(gdppercap),
    lower_gdp = lower(gdppercap),
    upper_gdp = upper(gdppercap),
    mean_life = mean(lifeexp),
    lower_life = lower(lifeexp),
    upper_life = upper(lifeexp)