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Build Status Build Status Coveralls NullableArrays NullableArrays

NullableArrays.jl provides the NullableArray{T, N} type and its respective interface for use in storing and managing data with missing values.

NullableArray{T, N} is implemented as a subtype of AbstractArray{Nullable{T}, N} and inherits functionality from the AbstractArray interface.

NullableArrays.jl is a registered Julia package and currently (v0.0.1) in beta release. It is available through the Pkg.add() command:

julia> Pkg.add("NullableArrays")

As of 01/01/2016, David Gold is the lead maintainer of this package.

Missing Values

The central contribution of NullableArrays.jl is to provide a data structure that uses a single type, namely Nullable{T} to represent both present and missing values. Nullable{T} is a specialized container type that contains precisely either one or zero values. A Nullable{T} object that contains a value represents a present value of type T that, under other circumstances, might have been missing, whereas an empty Nullable{T} object represents a missing value that, under other circumstances, would have been of type T had it been present.

Indexing into a NullableArray{T} is thus "type-stable" in the sense that getindex(X::NullableArray{T}, i) will always return an object of type Nullable{T} regardless of whether the returned entry is present or missing. In general, this behavior more robustly supports the Julia compiler's ability to produce specialized lower-level code than do analogous data structures that use a token NA type to represent missingness.


There are a number of ways to construct a NullableArray object. Passing a single Array{T, N} object to the NullableArray() constructor will create a NullableArray{T, N} object with all present values:

julia> julia> NullableArray(collect(1:5))
5-element NullableArray{Int64,1}:

To indicate that certain values ought to be represented as missing, one can pass an additional Array{Bool, N} argument; any index i for which the latter argument contains a true entry will return an missing value from the resultant NullableArray object:

julia> X = NullableArray([1, 2, 3, 4, 5], [true, false, false, true, false])
5-element NullableArray{Int64,1}:

Note that the sizes of the two Array arguments passed to the above constructor method must be equal.

NullableArrays are designed to look and feel like regular Arrays where possible and appropriate. Thus displaying a NullableArray object prints the values of present entries and #NULL designator for missing entries. It is important to note, however, that there is no such #NULL object, and that indexing into a NullableArray always returns a Nullable object, regardless of whether the entry at the specified index is missing or present:

julia> X[1]

julia> X[2]

One can initialize an empty NullableArray object by calling NullableArray(T, dims), where T is the desired element type of the resultant NullableArray and dims is either a tuple or sequence of integer arguments designating the size of the resultant NullableArray:

julia> NullableArray(Char, 3, 3)
3x3 NullableArray{Char,2}:


Indexing into a NullableArray{T} is just like indexing into a regular Array{T}, except that the returned object will always be of type Nullable{T} rather than type T. One can expect any indexing pattern that works on an Array to work on a NullableArray. This includes using a NullableArray to index into any container object that sufficiently implements the AbstractArray interface:

julia> A = [1:5...]
5-element Array{Int64,1}:

julia> X = NullableArray([2, 3])
2-element NullableArray{Int64,1}:

julia> A[X]
2-element Array{Int64,1}:

Note, however, that attempting to index into any such AbstractArray with a null value will incur an error:

julia> Y = NullableArray([2, 3], [true, false])
2-element NullableArray{Int64,1}:

julia> A[Y]
ERROR: NullException()
 in _checkbounds at /Users/David/.julia/v0.4/NullableArrays/src/indexing.jl:73
 in getindex at abstractarray.jl:424

Working with Nullables

Using objects of type Nullable{T} to represent both present and missing values of type T may present an unfamiliar experience to users who have never encountered such specialized container types. This section of the documentation is devoted to explaining the dynamics of working with and illustrating common use patterns involving Nullable objects.

A central concern is how to extend methods originally defined for non-Nullable arguments to take Nullable arguments.

Suppose for instance that I have a method

f(x::Float64, y::Float64) = exp(x * y)

that I wish to map over the two columns of X::NullableArray{Float64, 2}:

julia> X = NullableArray(rand(10, 2), rand(Bool, 10, 2))
10x2 NullableArray{Float64,2}:
     0.0962217      0.057771 
 #NULL              0.655217 
 #NULL          #NULL        
 #NULL              0.691814 
     0.219243       0.197571 
 #NULL              0.948356 
 #NULL              0.601794 
 #NULL          #NULL        
 #NULL              0.0927559
 #NULL          #NULL  

As one may expect, simply calling map(f, X[:,1], X[:,2]) incurs a MethodError:

julia> map(f, X[:,1], X[:,2])
ERROR: MethodError: `f` has no method matching f(::Nullable{Float64}, ::Nullable{Float64})
 [inlined code] from /Users/David/.julia/v0.4/NullableArrays/src/map.jl:93
 in _F_ at /Users/David/.julia/v0.4/NullableArrays/src/map.jl:124
 in map at /Users/David/.julia/v0.4/NullableArrays/src/map.jl:172

Let v, w be two Nullable{Float64} objects. If both v, w are non-null, the convention is to have f(v, w) return a similarly non-null Nullable{Float64} object whose value field agrees with f(v.value, w.value). If either of v, w is null, the convention is to return an empty Nullable{Float64} object, i.e. to propogate the uncertainty introduced by the null argument. Providing a systematic means of extending f to Nullable arguments in such a way that satisfies the above behavior is sometimes called lifting f over Nullable arguments.

Arguably, the best way to lift existing methods over Nullable arguments is to use multiple dispatch. That is, one can very easily extend f to handle Nullable{Float64} arguments by simply defining an appropriate method:

function f(x::Nullable{Float64}, y::Nullable{Float64})
    if isnull(x) | isnull(y)
        return Nullable{Float64}()
        return Nullable(f(x.value, y.value))

Now broadcast works as one would expect:

julia> broadcast(f, X[:,1], X[:,2])
10-element NullableArray{Float64,1}:

The convention is not to support signatures of mixed Nullable and non Nullable arguments for solely the purposes of lifting. This reflects both conceptual concerns as well practical limitations -- in particular, to cover all possible combinations of Nullable and non-Nullable arguments for a signature of length N would require 2^N method definitions. If one finds that one is calling a function f on both Nullable and non-Nullable arguments, it is typically best to wrap the non-Nullable arguments into Nullable arguments and invoke the lifted version. Alternatively, one can instead pass their respective value fields to f -- HOWEVER, this approach is both less safe and less general and should only be used if one is certain that the Nullable arguments are non-null.

The present package also offers means of lifting a function f over the entries of a NullableArray X when the two are passed as arguments to methods such as map, broadcast or mapreduce. The former two (and their mutating variants) offer the lift keyword argument that will lift f over X without requiring the user to define a new method for f:

julia> g(x::Float64) = 2x
g (generic function with 1 method)

julia> map(g, X; lift=true)
10x2 NullableArray{Float64,2}:
     0.192443      0.115542
 #NULL             1.31043 
 #NULL         #NULL       
 #NULL             1.38363 
     0.438486      0.395142
 #NULL             1.89671 
 #NULL             1.20359 
 #NULL         #NULL       
 #NULL             0.185512
 #NULL         #NULL  

mapreduce and reduce both offer the skipnull keyword argument, which directs the method to skip over the null entries of the argument NullableArray when reducing. Because the null entries are disregarded, setting skipnull=true is taken to be an implicit request to lift the supplied method f over X:

julia> mapreduce(g, +, X[:,1]; skipnull=true)

NullableArray Implementation Details

Under the hood of each NullableArray{T, N} object are two fields: a values::Array{T, N} field and an isnull::Array{Bool, N} field:

julia> fieldnames(NullableArray)
2-element Array{Symbol,1}:

The isnull array designates whether indexing into an X::NullableArray at a given index i ought to return a present or missing value.