Interactive heatmap-barchat with R/highcharts
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Interactive heatmap-barchart with R/highcharts


This document describes the procedure to create an interactive a heatmap-barchart ("heatbar"?) from R. You can a see screenshot under. The interactive examples of such graphic is available here

heatbar screenshot

This chart is fully created in R, leveraging highcharts (a javascript charting library). It takes only about a dozen lines of R code to create such interactive chart.

If you are already proficient with javascript, such as with d3 or Highcharts (not my case), there is probably not much to gain for you from this tutorial. But if you mainly know R and wishes to create such an interactive chart, please read on :-)

About the graphic type

The live example shows all Swiss people's initiatives, each square being a ballot. On one hand, it is a bar/column chart showing the number of ballots over the years. On the other hand, it is a heatmap with each vote coloured according to the % of yes vote. The interactivity with a tooltip showing the title of each vote is a nice explorative feature.

Technically, this graphic is a heatmap coerced into a column chart. One could achieve something similar with an interactive dot chart.

Create the chart

Getting started

You will need to have installed the R package rCharts, a wonderful wrapper for numerous javascript charting libraries. For that, you need devtools installed. In R:

install_github('rCharts', 'ramnathv')

# Load the data file
data <- read.csv("citizenInitiatives_ch.csv", stringsAsFactors = F)

Reshape the data

The data file contains 3 columns: the date, the % of yes and the title of the vote. To create a heatmap we will aggregate all the votes by year (x dimension) and count the number of votes each year (y dimension).

# Get only the year from each date (not an elegant solution here, better to use date)
data$year <- as.numeric(substr(data$date,1, 4))

# add the count of the observations (initiatives) per year. The count starts at 0 each year
data <-, by(data, data$year, function(dd) cbind(dd, n = as.numeric(0:(nrow(dd)-1)))))
rownames(data) <- NULL

One can usually easily create an interactive chart with a oneliner in rCharts. However to create a heatmap, the procedure is slightly more complicated since the current version of rCharts 0.4.5 does not include the heatmap extensions yet.

The extra steps for a heatmap involve having some required colnames and converting the data frame to JSON.

# change the names of the data.frame to be highcharts-friendly
colnames(data) <- c('date', 'name', 'value', 'x', 'y')

Plot the heatmap

# Create a new highchart instance
a <- Highcharts$new()
a$chart(zoomType = "x", type = 'heatmap', width = 1000)
# Pass the data as JSON (workaround with rCharts 0.4.5 not supporting heatmap natively)
a$series(name = "", data =  rCharts::toJSONArray2(data, json = F, names = T))

We need then to define the heatmap colour scale. Because the values used for the heatmap are percentages, I set the scale to range from 0 to 100. The list 'stops' contain the colours to use for the different breaks, reds for values less than 50%, greens for 50% onwards.

a$addParams(colorAxis = list(min = 0, max = 100, stops = list(list(0, '#ab3d3f'),
	list(0.499, '#EED8D9'),list(0.5, '#ADC2C2'),list(1, '#336666'))))

Some aesthetic tweaks to get rid of y-axis' grid lines, ticks and labels

a$yAxis(lineWidth = 0, minorGridLineWidth = 0, lineColor = 'transparent', title = list(text = ""),
	labels = list(enabled = FALSE), minorTickLength = 0, tickLength =  0, gridLineWidth =  0, minorGridLineWidth = 0)

One finally needs to add the heatmap javaScript library not yet shipped with rCharts

a$addAssets(js = c(""))

And we are done! We can preview the heatmap-barchart in a browser, by simply calling our chart in R:


Customise the tooltip

At this point, you might notice that the tooltip shows the series name, the x and y values. This is not really helpful because we only have one series here and we wish to have the vote name displayed instead. We can customise the tooltip by defining a formatter callback, returning HTML.

formatter <- "#! function() { return '<div class=\"tooltip\" style=\"color:#686868;font-size:0.8em\">In <b>' +
	this.point.x + ',</b> the initiative:<br><br><i>' + + '<br><br></i>gathered <b>' + this.point.value + '%</b> yes</div>'; } !#"
a$tooltip(formatter = formatter, useHTML = T, borderWidth = 2, backgroundColor = 'rgba(255,255,255,0.8)')
# Finally, to save the interactive chart


Highcharts offers heaps of options. Check its documentation if you wish to do more:

A legal note about Highcharts, it is open-source but free only for non-commercial usage. Please refer to its licence for commercial usage.