# brolgar: An R package to BRowse Over Longitudinal Data Graphically and Analytically in R

Longitudinal (panel) data provide the opportunity to examine temporal patterns of individuals, because measurements are collected on the same person at different, and often irregular, time points. The data is typically visualised using a “spaghetti plot”, where a line plot is drawn for each individual. When overlaid in one plot, it can have the appearance of a bowl of spaghetti. With even a small number of subjects, these plots are too overloaded to be read easily. The interesting aspects of individual differences are lost in the noise. Longitudinal data is often modelled with a hierarchical linear model to capture the overall trends, and variation among individuals, while accounting for various levels of dependence. However, these models can be difficult to fit, and can miss unusual individual patterns. Better visual tools can help to diagnose longitudinal models, and better capture the individual experiences. This paper introduces the R package, brolgar (BRowse over Longitudinal data Graphically and Analytically in R), which provides tools to identify and summarise interesting individual patterns in longitudinal data.

Nicholas Tierney https://njtierney.com (Monash University) , Dianne Cook https://dicook.org (Monash University) , Tania Prvan (Macquarie University)
2022-11-11

# 1 Introduction

This paper is about exploring longitudinal data effectively. By “longitudinal data” we specifically mean individuals repeatedly measured through time. This could include panel data, where possibly different samples from a key variable (e.g. country), are aggregated at each time collection. The important component is a key variable with repeated measurements regularly, or irregularly over time. The inherent structure allows us to examine temporal patterns of individuals, shown in Figure 1, of the average height of Australian males over years. The individual component is country, and the time component is year. The variable country along with other variables is measured repeatedly from 1900 to 1970, with irregular intervals between years.

The full dataset of Figure 1 is shown in Figure 2, showing 144 countries from the year 1700. This plot is challenging to understand because there is overplotting, making it hard to see the individuals. Solutions to this are not always obvious. Showing separate individual plots of each country does not help, as 144 plots is too many to comprehend. Making the lines transparent or fitting a simple model to all the data Figure 2B, might be a common first step to see common trends. However, all this seems to clarify is: 1) There is a set of some countries that are similar, and they are distributed around the center of the countries, and 2) there is a general upward trend in heights over time. We learn about the collective, but lose sight of the individuals.

This paper demonstrates how to effectively and efficiently explore longitudinal data, using the R package, brolgar. We examine four problems in exploring longitudinal data:

1. How to sample the data
2. Finding interesting individuals
3. Finding representative individuals
4. Understanding a model

This paper proceeds in the following way: first, a brief review of existing approaches to longitudinal data, then the definition of longitudinal data, then approaches to these four problems are discussed, followed by a summary.

# 2 Background

R provides basic time series, ts, objects, which are vectors or matrices that represent data sampled at equally spaced points in time. These have been extended through packages such as xts, and zoo , which only consider data in a wide format with a regular implied time series. These are not appropriate for longitudinal data, which can have indexes that are not time unit oriented, such as “Wave 1…n”, or may contain irregular intervals.

Other packages focus more directly on panel data in R, focussing on data operations and model interfaces. The pmdplyr package provides “Panel Manoeuvres” in dplyr. It defines the data structure in as a pibble object (panel tibble), requiring an id and group column being defined to identify the unique identifier and grouping. The pmdplyr package focuses on efficient and custom joins and functions, such as inexact_left_join(). It does not implement tidyverse equivalent tools, but instead extends their usecase with a new function, for example mutate_cascade and mutate_subset. The panelr package provides an interface for data reshaping on panel data, providing widening and lengthening functions (widen_panel() and long_panel() ). It also provides model facilitating functions by providing its own interface for mixed effects models. The plm package for panel data econometrics provides methods for estimating models such as GMM for panel data, and testing, for example for model specification or serial correlation. It also provides a data structure, the pdata.frame, which stores the index attribute of the individual and time dimensions, for use within the package’s functions.

These software generally re-implement their own custom panel data class object, as well as custom data cleaning tasks, such as reshaping into long and wide form. They all share similar features, providing some identifying or index variable, and some grouping or key.

# 3 Longitudinal Data Structures

Longitudinal data is a sibling of many other temporal data forms, including panel data, repeated measures, and time series. The differences are many, and can be in data collection, context and even the field of research. Time series are usually long and regularly spaced in time. Panel data may measure different units at each time point and aggregate these values by a categorical or key variable. Repeated measures typically measure before and after treatment effects. We like to think of longitudinal as measuring the same individual (e.g. wage earner) over time, but this definition is not universally agreed on. Despite the differences, they all share a fundamental similarity: they are measurements over a time period.

This time period has structure - the time component (dates, times, waves, seconds, etc), and the spacing between measurements - unequal or equal. This data structure needs to be respected during analysis to preserve the lowest level of granularity, to avoid for example, collapsing across month when the data is collected every second, or assuming measurements occur at fixed time intervals. These mistakes can be avoided by encoding the data structure into the data itself. This information can then be accessed by analysis tools, providing a consistent way to understand and summarise the data. This ensures the different types of longitudinal data previously mentioned can be handled in the same way.

## Building on a tsibble

Since longitudinal data can be thought of as “individuals repeatedly measured through time”, they can be considered as a type of time series, as defined in Hyndman and Athanasopoulos (2018): “Anything that is observed sequentially over time is a time series”. This definition has been realised as a time series tsibble in . These objects are defined as data meeting these conditions:

1. The index: the time variable
2. The key: variable(s) defining individual groups (or series)
3. The index and key (1 + 2) together determine a distinct row

If the specified key and index pair do not define a distinct row - for example, if there are duplicates in the data, the tsibble will not be created. This helps ensure the data is properly understood and cleaned before analysis is conducted, removing avoidable errors that might have impacted downstream decisions.

We can formally define our heights data from Figure 1 as a tsibble using, as_tsibble:

heights_brolgar <- as_tsibble(heights_brolgar,
index = year,
key = country,
regular = FALSE)

The index is year, the key is country, and regular = FALSE since the intervals in the years measured are not regular. Using a tsibble means that the index and key time series information is recorded only once, and can be referred to many times in other parts of the data analysis by time-aware tools.

In addition to providing consistent ways to manipulate time series data, further benefits to building on tsibble are how it works within the tidyverse ecosystem, as well as the tidy time series packages called “tidyverts”, containing fable , feasts, . For example, tsibble provides modified tidyverse functions to explore implicit missing values in the index (e.g., has_gaps() and fill_gaps()), as well as grouping and partitioning based on the index with index_by(). For full details and examples of use with the tidyverts time series packages, see Wang et al. (2020).

The brolgar package uses tsibble so users can take advantage of these tools, learning one way of operating a data analysis that will work and have overlap with other contexts.

## Characterising Individual Series

### Calculating a feature

We can summarise the individual series by collapsing their many measurements into a single statistic, such as the minimum, maximum, or median, with one row per key. We do this with the features function from the fabletools package, made available in brolgar. This provides a summary of a given variable, accounting for the time series structure, and returning one row per key specified. It can be thought of as a time-series aware variant of the summarise function from dplyr. The feature function works by specifying the data, the variable to summarise, and the feature to calculate. A template is shown below

features(<DATA>, <VARIABLE>, <FEATURE>)

or, with the pipe:

<DATA> %>% features(<VARIABLE>, <FEATURE>)

For example, to calculate the minimum height for each key (country), in heights, we specify the heights data, then the variable to calculate features on, height_cm, then the feature to calculate, min (we write c(min = min) so the column calculated gets the name “min”):

heights_min <- features(.tbl = heights_brolgar,
.var = height_cm,
features = c(min = min))

heights_min
# A tibble: 119 × 2
country       min
<chr>       <dbl>
1 Afghanistan  161.
2 Algeria      166.
3 Angola       159.
4 Argentina    167.
5 Armenia      164.
6 Australia    170
7 Austria      162.
8 Azerbaijan   170.
10 Belgium      163.
# … with 109 more rows

We call these summaries features of the data. We can use this information to summarise these features of the data, for example, visualising the distribution of minimum values (Figure 3A).

We are not limited to one feature at a time, many features can also be calculated, for example:

heights_three <- heights_brolgar %>%
features(height_cm, c(
min = min,
median = median,
max = max
))

heights_three
# A tibble: 119 × 4
country       min median   max
<chr>       <dbl>  <dbl> <dbl>
1 Afghanistan  161.   167.  168.
2 Algeria      166.   169   171.
3 Angola       159.   167.  169.
4 Argentina    167.   168.  174.
5 Armenia      164.   169.  172.
6 Australia    170    172.  178.
7 Austria      162.   167.  179.
8 Azerbaijan   170.   172.  172.
10 Belgium      163.   166.  177.
# … with 109 more rows

These can then be visualised together (Figure 3).

These sets of features can be pre-specified, for example, brolgar provides a five number summary (minimum, 25th quantile, median, mean, 75th quantile, and maximum) of the data with feat_five_num:

heights_five <- heights_brolgar %>%
features(height_cm, feat_five_num)

heights_five
# A tibble: 119 × 6
country       min   q25   med   q75   max
<chr>       <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl>
1 Afghanistan  161.  164.  167.  168.  168.
2 Algeria      166.  168.  169   170.  171.
3 Angola       159.  160.  167.  168.  169.
4 Argentina    167.  168.  168.  170.  174.
5 Armenia      164.  166.  169.  172.  172.
6 Australia    170   171.  172.  173.  178.
7 Austria      162.  164.  167.  169.  179.
8 Azerbaijan   170.  171.  172.  172.  172.
9 Bangladesh   160.  162.  162.  163.  164.
10 Belgium      163.  164.  166.  168.  177.
# … with 109 more rows

This takes the heights data, pipes it to features, and then instructs it to summarise the height_cm variable, using feat_five_num. There are several handy functions for calculating features of the data that brolgar provides. These all start with feat_, and include:

• feat_ranges(): min, max, range difference, interquartile range;
• feat_spread(): variance, standard deviation, median absolute distance, and interquartile range;
• feat_monotonic(): is it always increasing, decreasing, or unvarying?;
• feat_diff_summary(): the summary statistics of the differences amongst a value, including the five number summary, as well as the standard deviation and variance;
• feat_brolgar(), which will calculate all features available in the brolgar package.
• Other examples of features from the feasts package.

### Feature sets

If you want to run many or all features from a package on your data you can collect them all with feature_set. For example:

library(fabletools)
feat_set_brolgar <- feature_set(pkgs = "brolgar")
length(feat_set_brolgar)
[1] 6

You could then run these like so:

heights_brolgar %>%
features(height_cm, feat_set_brolgar)
# A tibble: 119 × 46
country     min...1 med...2 max...3 min...4 q25...5 med...6 q75...7
<chr>         <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>
1 Afghanistan    161.    167.    168.    161.    164.    167.    168.
2 Algeria        166.    169     171.    166.    168.    169     170.
3 Angola         159.    167.    169.    159.    160.    167.    168.
4 Argentina      167.    168.    174.    167.    168.    168.    170.
5 Armenia        164.    169.    172.    164.    166.    169.    172.
6 Australia      170     172.    178.    170     171.    172.    173.
7 Austria        162.    167.    179.    162.    164.    167.    169.
8 Azerbaijan     170.    172.    172.    170.    171.    172.    172.
9 Bangladesh     160.    162.    164.    160.    162.    162.    163.
10 Belgium        163.    166.    177.    163.    164.    166.    168.
# … with 109 more rows, and 38 more variables: max...8 <dbl>,
#   min...9 <dbl>, max...10 <dbl>, range_diff...11 <dbl>,
#   iqr...12 <dbl>, var...13 <dbl>, sd...14 <dbl>, mad...15 <dbl>,
#   iqr...16 <dbl>, min...17 <dbl>, max...18 <dbl>, median <dbl>,
#   mean <dbl>, q25...21 <dbl>, q75...22 <dbl>, range1 <dbl>,
#   range2 <dbl>, range_diff...25 <dbl>, sd...26 <dbl>,
#   var...27 <dbl>, mad...28 <dbl>, iqr...29 <dbl>, …

To see other features available in the feasts R package run library(feasts) then ?fabletools::feature_set.

To create your own features or summaries to pass to features, you provide a named vector of functions. These can include functions that you have written yourself. For example, returning the first three elements of a series, by writing our own second and third functions.

second <- function(x) nth(x, n = 2)
third <- function(x) nth(x, n = 3)

feat_first_three <- c(first = first,
second = second,
third = third)

These are then passed to features like so:

heights_brolgar %>%
features(height_cm, feat_first_three)
# A tibble: 119 × 4
country     first second third
<chr>       <dbl>  <dbl> <dbl>
1 Afghanistan  168.   166.  167.
2 Algeria      169.   166.  169
3 Angola       160.   159.  160.
4 Argentina    170.   168.  168
5 Armenia      169.   168.  166.
6 Australia    170    171.  170.
7 Austria      165.   163.  162.
8 Azerbaijan   170.   171.  171.
10 Belgium      163.   164.  164
# … with 109 more rows

As well, brolgar provides some useful additional features for the five number summary, feat_five_num, whether keys are monotonically increasing feat_monotonic, and measures of spread or variation, feat_spread. Inside brolgar, the features are created with the following syntax:

feat_five_num <- function(x, ...) {
c(
min = b_min(x, ...),
q25 = b_q25(x, ...),
med = b_median(x, ...),
q75 = b_q75(x, ...),
max = b_max(x, ...)
)
}

Here the functions b_ are functions with a default of na.rm = TRUE, and in the cases of quantiles, they use type = 8, and names = FALSE. What is particularly useful is that these will work on any type of time series data, and you can use other more typical time series features from the feasts package, such as autocorrelation, feat_acf() and Seasonal and Trend decomposition using Loess feat_stl() .

This demonstrates a workflow that can be used to understand and explore your longitudinal data. The brolgar package builds upon this workflow made available by feasts and fabletools. Users can also create their own features to summarise the data.

# 4 Breaking up the Spaghetti

Plots like Figure 2 are often called, “spaghetti plots”, and can be useful for a high level understanding as a whole. However, we cannot process and understand the individuals when the data is presented like this.

## Sampling

Just how spaghetti is portioned out for consumption, we can sample some of the data by randomly sampling the data into sub-plots with the facet_sample() function (Figure 4).

ggplot(heights_brolgar,
aes(x = year,
y = height_cm,
group = country)) +
geom_line() +
facet_sample() +
scale_x_continuous(breaks = c(1750, 1850, 1950))

This defaults to 12 facets and 3 samples per facet, and provides options for the number of facets, and the number of samples per facet. This means the user only needs to consider the most relevant questions: “How many keys per facet?” and “How many facets to look at?”. The code to change the figure from Figure 2 into 4 requires only one line of code, shown below:

ggplot(heights_brolgar,
aes(x = year,
y = height_cm,
group = country)) +
geom_line() +
facet_sample()

## Stratifying

Extending this idea of samples, we can instead look at all of the data, spread out equally over facets, using facet_strata(). It uses 12 facets by default, controllable with n_strata. The code to do so is shown below, creating Figure 5.

ggplot(heights_brolgar,
aes(x = year,
y = height_cm,
group = country)) +
geom_line() +
facet_strata() +
scale_x_continuous(breaks = c(1750, 1850, 1950))

## Featuring

Figure 4 and Figure 5 only show each key once, being randomly assigned to a facet. We can meaningfully place the keys into facets, by arranging the heights “along” a variable, like year, using the along argument in facet_strata to produce Figure 6:

ggplot(heights_brolgar,
aes(x = year,
y = height_cm,
group = country)) +
geom_line() +
facet_strata(along = -year) +
scale_x_continuous(breaks = c(1750, 1850, 1950))

We have not lost any of the data, only the order in which they are presented has changed. We learn the distribution and changes in heights over time, and those measured from the earliest times appear to be more similar, but there is much wider variation in the middle years, and then for more recent heights measured from the early 1900s, the heights are more similar. The starting point of each of these years seems to increase at roughly the same interval. This informs us that the starting times of the years is approximately uniform.

Together facet_sample() and facet_strata() allow for rapid exploration, by focusing on relevant questions instead of the minutiae. This is achieved by appropriately randomly assigning while maintaining key structure, keeping the correct number of keys per plot, and so on. For example, facet_sample() the questions are: “How many lines per facet” and “How many facets?”, and for facet_strata() the questions are: “How many facets / strata?” and “What to arrange plots along?”.

Answering these questions keeps the analysis in line with the analytic goals of exploring the data, rather than distracting to minutiae. This is a key theme of improving tools for data analysis. Abstracting away the parts that are not needed, so the analyst can focus on the task at hand.

Under the hood, facet_sample() and facet_strata() are powered with sample_n_keys() and stratify_keys(). These can be used to create data structures used in facet_sample() and facet_strata(), and extend them for other purposes.

Using a tsibble stores important key and index components, in turn allowing for better ways to break up spaghetti plots so we can look at many and all sub-samples using facet_sample() and facet_strata().

# 5 Book-keeping

Longitudinal data is not always measured at the same time and at the same frequency. When exploring longitudinal data, a useful first step is to explore the frequency of measurements of the index. We can check if the index is regular using index_regular() and summarise the spacing of the index with index_summary(). These are S3 methods, so for data.frame objects, the index must be specified, however for the tsibble objects, the defined index is used.

index_summary(heights_brolgar)
   Min. 1st Qu.  Median    Mean 3rd Qu.    Max.
1710    1782    1855    1855    1928    2000 
index_regular(heights_brolgar)
[1] TRUE

We can explore how many observations per country by counting the number of observations with features, like so:

heights_brolgar %>% features(year, n_obs)
# A tibble: 119 × 2
country     n_obs
<chr>       <int>
1 Afghanistan     5
2 Algeria         5
3 Angola          9
4 Argentina      20
5 Armenia        11
6 Australia      10
7 Austria        18
8 Azerbaijan      7
10 Belgium        10
# … with 109 more rows

This can be further summarised by counting the number of times there are a given number of observations:

heights_brolgar %>% features(year, n_obs) %>% count(n_obs)
# A tibble: 24 × 2
n_obs     n
<int> <int>
1     5    11
2     6    11
3     7    13
4     8     5
5     9    12
6    10    12
7    11     9
8    12     4
9    13     7
10    14     6
# … with 14 more rows

Because we are exploring the temporal patterns, we cannot reliably say anything about those individuals with few measurements. The data used, heights_brolgar has less than 5 measurements. This was done using add_n_obs(), which adds the number of observations to the existing data. Overall this drops 25 countries, leaves us with 119 out of the original 144 countries.

heights_brolgar <- heights %>%
filter(n_obs >= 5)

We can further explore when countries are first being measured using features to find the first year for each country number of starting years with the first function from dplyr, and explore this with a visualisation (Figure 7).

heights_brolgar %>%
features(year, c(first = first))
# A tibble: 119 × 2
country     first
<chr>       <dbl>
1 Afghanistan  1870
2 Algeria      1910
3 Angola       1790
4 Argentina    1770
5 Armenia      1850
6 Australia    1850
7 Austria      1750
8 Azerbaijan   1850
10 Belgium      1810
# … with 109 more rows
heights_brolgar %>%
features(year, c(first = first)) %>%
ggplot(aes(x = first)) +
geom_bar()

We can explore the variation in first year using feat_diff_summary. This combines many summaries of the differences in year.

heights_diffs <- heights_brolgar %>%
features(year, feat_diff_summary)

heights_diffs
# A tibble: 119 × 10
country     diff_…¹ diff_…² diff_…³ diff_…⁴ diff_…⁵ diff_…⁶ diff_…⁷
<chr>         <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>   <dbl>
1 Afghanistan      10      10      30    32.5    55.8      60   692.
2 Algeria          10      10      10    22.5    39.2      60   625
3 Angola           10      10      10    17.5    10        70   450
4 Argentina        10      10      10    11.6    10        40    47.4
5 Armenia          10      10      10    15      20.8      30    72.2
6 Australia        10      10      10    13.3    10        40   100
7 Austria          10      10      10    13.5    10        40    74.3
8 Azerbaijan       10      10      10    25      25.8      90  1030
9 Bangladesh       10      10      10    18.8    15.8      70   441.
10 Belgium          10      10      10    16.7    23.3      40   125
# … with 109 more rows, 2 more variables: diff_sd <dbl>,
#   diff_iqr <dbl>, and abbreviated variable names ¹​diff_min,
#   ²​diff_q25, ³​diff_median, ⁴​diff_mean, ⁵​diff_q75, ⁶​diff_max,
#   ⁷​diff_var

This is particularly useful as using diff on year would return a very wide dataset that is hard to explore:

heights_brolgar %>%
features(year, diff)
# A tibble: 119 × 30
country  ...1  ...2  ...3  ...4  ...5  ...6  ...7  ...8  ...9 ...10
<chr>   <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl> <dbl>
1 Afghan…    10    50    60    10    NA    NA    NA    NA    NA    NA
2 Algeria    10    10    60    10    NA    NA    NA    NA    NA    NA
3 Angola     10    10    70    10    10    10    10    10    NA    NA
4 Argent…    10    10    10    10    10    10    10    10    10    10
5 Armenia    10    30    10    10    30    20    10    10    10    10
6 Austra…    10    10    10    10    10    10    10    40    10    NA
7 Austria    20    10    10    30    10    10    10    10    10    10
8 Azerba…    10    90    10    10    10    20    NA    NA    NA    NA
9 Bangla…    10    10    10    70    10    20    10    10    NA    NA
10 Belgium    10    10    10    10    10    10    30    40    20    NA
# … with 109 more rows, and 19 more variables: ...11 <dbl>,
#   ...12 <dbl>, ...13 <dbl>, ...14 <dbl>, ...15 <dbl>, ...16 <dbl>,
#   ...17 <dbl>, ...18 <dbl>, ...19 <dbl>, ...20 <dbl>, ...21 <dbl>,
#   ...22 <dbl>, ...23 <dbl>, ...24 <dbl>, ...25 <dbl>, ...26 <dbl>,
#   ...27 <dbl>, ...28 <dbl>, ...29 <dbl>

We can then look at the summaries of the differences in year by changing to long form and facetting (Figure 8), we learn about the range of intervals between measurements, the smallest being 10 years, the largest being 125, and that most of the data is measured between 10 and 30 years.

# 6 Finding Waldo

Looking at a spaghetti plot, it can be hard to identify which lines are the most interesting, or unusual. A workflow to identify interesting individuals to start with is given below:

1. Decide upon an interesting feature (e.g., maximum)
2. This feature produces one value per key
3. Examine the distribution of the feature
4. Join this table back to the data to get all observations for those keys
5. Arrange the keys or filter, using the feature
6. Display the data for selected keys

This workflow is now demonstrated. Firstly, we decide on an interesting feature, “maximum height”, and whether height is always increasing. We calculate our own “feature”, calculating maximum height, and whether a value is increasing (with brolgar’s increasing function) as follows:

heights_max_in <- heights_brolgar %>%
features(height_cm, list(max = max,
increase = increasing))

heights_max_in
# A tibble: 119 × 3
country       max increase
<chr>       <dbl> <lgl>
1 Afghanistan  168. FALSE
2 Algeria      171. FALSE
3 Angola       169. FALSE
4 Argentina    174. FALSE
5 Armenia      172. FALSE
6 Australia    178. FALSE
7 Austria      179. FALSE
8 Azerbaijan   172. FALSE
10 Belgium      177. FALSE
# … with 109 more rows

This returns a dataset of one value per key. Figure 9 examines the distribution of the features, showing us the distribution of maximum height, and the number of countries that are always increasing.

We can now join this table back to the data to get all observations for those keys to move from one key per row to all many rows per key.

heights_max_in_full <- heights_max_in %>%
left_join(heights_brolgar,
by = "country")

heights_max_in_full
# A tibble: 1,406 × 9
country       max incre…¹  year n_obs conti…² heigh…³ year0 count…⁴
<chr>       <dbl> <lgl>   <dbl> <int> <chr>     <dbl> <dbl> <fct>
1 Afghanistan  168. FALSE    1870     5 Asia       168.   160 Afghan…
2 Afghanistan  168. FALSE    1880     5 Asia       166.   170 Afghan…
3 Afghanistan  168. FALSE    1930     5 Asia       167.   220 Afghan…
4 Afghanistan  168. FALSE    1990     5 Asia       167.   280 Afghan…
5 Afghanistan  168. FALSE    2000     5 Asia       161.   290 Afghan…
6 Algeria      171. FALSE    1910     5 Africa     169.   200 Algeria
7 Algeria      171. FALSE    1920     5 Africa     166.   210 Algeria
8 Algeria      171. FALSE    1930     5 Africa     169    220 Algeria
9 Algeria      171. FALSE    1990     5 Africa     171.   280 Algeria
10 Algeria      171. FALSE    2000     5 Africa     170.   290 Algeria
# … with 1,396 more rows, and abbreviated variable names ¹​increase,
#   ²​continent, ³​height_cm, ⁴​country_fct

We can then arrange the keys or filter, using the feature, for example, filtering only those countries that are only increasing:

heights_increase <- heights_max_in_full %>% filter(increase)
heights_increase
# A tibble: 22 × 9
country    max increase  year n_obs continent heigh…¹ year0 count…²
<chr>    <dbl> <lgl>    <dbl> <int> <chr>       <dbl> <dbl> <fct>
1 Honduras  168. TRUE      1950     6 Americas     164.   240 Hondur…
2 Honduras  168. TRUE      1960     6 Americas     164.   250 Hondur…
3 Honduras  168. TRUE      1970     6 Americas     165.   260 Hondur…
4 Honduras  168. TRUE      1980     6 Americas     165.   270 Hondur…
5 Honduras  168. TRUE      1990     6 Americas     165.   280 Hondur…
6 Honduras  168. TRUE      2000     6 Americas     168.   290 Hondur…
7 Moldova   174. TRUE      1840     5 Europe       165.   130 Moldova
8 Moldova   174. TRUE      1950     5 Europe       172.   240 Moldova
9 Moldova   174. TRUE      1960     5 Europe       173.   250 Moldova
10 Moldova   174. TRUE      1970     5 Europe       174.   260 Moldova
# … with 12 more rows, and abbreviated variable names ¹​height_cm,
#   ²​country_fct

Or tallest country

heights_top <- heights_max_in_full %>% top_n(n = 1, wt = max)
heights_top
# A tibble: 16 × 9
country   max increase  year n_obs continent height…¹ year0 count…²
<chr>   <dbl> <lgl>    <dbl> <int> <chr>        <dbl> <dbl> <fct>
1 Denmark  183. FALSE     1820    16 Europe        167.   110 Denmark
2 Denmark  183. FALSE     1830    16 Europe        165.   120 Denmark
3 Denmark  183. FALSE     1850    16 Europe        167.   140 Denmark
4 Denmark  183. FALSE     1860    16 Europe        168.   150 Denmark
5 Denmark  183. FALSE     1870    16 Europe        168.   160 Denmark
6 Denmark  183. FALSE     1880    16 Europe        170.   170 Denmark
7 Denmark  183. FALSE     1890    16 Europe        169.   180 Denmark
8 Denmark  183. FALSE     1900    16 Europe        170.   190 Denmark
9 Denmark  183. FALSE     1910    16 Europe        170    200 Denmark
10 Denmark  183. FALSE     1920    16 Europe        174.   210 Denmark
11 Denmark  183. FALSE     1930    16 Europe        174.   220 Denmark
12 Denmark  183. FALSE     1940    16 Europe        176.   230 Denmark
13 Denmark  183. FALSE     1950    16 Europe        180.   240 Denmark
14 Denmark  183. FALSE     1960    16 Europe        180.   250 Denmark
15 Denmark  183. FALSE     1970    16 Europe        181.   260 Denmark
16 Denmark  183. FALSE     1980    16 Europe        183.   270 Denmark
# … with abbreviated variable names ¹​height_cm, ²​country_fct

We can then display the data by highlighting it in the background, first creating a background plot and overlaying the plots on top of this as an additional ggplot layer, in Figure 10.

Figure 10: Interactive plot to explore longnostics of maximum height and slope from a simple linear fit, relative to the profiles. Click on either plot to select countries. For example, the country with the most negative slope, that is people are getting shorter is Eritrea.

# 7 Dancing with Models

These same workflows can be used to interpret and explore a model. As the data tends to follow a non linear trajectory, we use a general additive model (gam) with the mgcv R package using the code below:

heights_gam <- gam(
height_cm ~ s(year0, by = country_fct) + country_fct,
data = heights_brolgar,
method = "REML"
)

This fits height in centimetres with a smooth effect for year for each country, with a different intercept for each country. It is roughly equivalent to a random intercept varying slope model. Note that this gam model took approximately 8074 seconds to fit. We add the predicted and residual values for the model below, as well as the residual sums of squares for each country.

library(mgcv)
library(modelr)
heights_aug <- heights_brolgar %>%
group_by_key() %>%
ungroup()

We can use the previous approach to explore the model results. We can take a look at a sample of the predictions along with the data, by using sample_n_keys. This provides a useful way to explore some set of the model predictions. In order to find those predictions that best summarise the best, and worst, and in between, we need to use the methods in the next section, “Stereotyping”.

heights_aug %>%
sample_n_keys(12) %>%
ggplot(aes(x = year,
y = pred,
group = country)) +
geom_line(colour = "steelblue") +
geom_point(aes(y = height_cm)) +
facet_wrap(~country)

# 8 Stereotyping

To help understand a population of measurements over time, it can be useful to understand which individual measurements are typical (or “stereotypical”) of a measurement. For example, to understand which individuals are stereotypical of a statistic such as the minimum, median, and maximum height. This section discusses how to find these stereotypes in the data.

Figure 12 shows the residuals of the simple model fit to the data in the previous section. There is an overlaid five number summary, showing the minimum, 1st quantile, median, 3rd quantile, and maximum residual value residuals, as well as a rug plot to show the data. We can use these residuals to understand the stereotypes of the data - those individuals in the model that best match to this five number summary.

We can do this using keys_near() from brolgar. By default this uses the 5 number summary, but any function can be used. You specify the variable you want to find the keys nearest, in this case rss, residual sums of squares for each key:

keys_near(heights_aug, var = rss)
# A tibble: 62 × 5
<chr>   <dbl> <fct>      <dbl>     <dbl>
1 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
2 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
3 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
4 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
5 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
6 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
7 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
8 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
9 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
10 Denmark  9.54 med         9.54         0
# … with 52 more rows

To plot the data, they need to be joined back to the original data, we use a left join, joining by country.

heights_near_aug <- heights_aug %>%
left_join(heights_aug,
by = c("country"))

Figure 13 shows those countries closest to the five number summary. Observing this, we see that the minimum RSS for Moldova fits a nearly perfectly straight line, and the maximum residuals for Myanmar have wide spread of values.

ggplot(heights_near_aug,
aes(x = year,
y = pred,
group = country,
colour = country)) +
geom_line(colour = "orange") +
geom_point(aes(y = height_cm)) +
scale_x_continuous(breaks = c(1780, 1880, 1980)) +
facet_wrap(~stat + country,
labeller = label_glue("Country: {country} \nNearest to \n{stat} RSS"),
nrow = 1) +
theme(legend.position = "none",
aspect.ratio = 1)

We can also look at the highest and lowest 3 residual sums of squares:

heights_near_aug_top_3 <- heights_aug %>%
top_n(n = 3,

heights_near_aug_bottom_3 <- heights_aug %>%
top_n(n = -3,

heights_near_top_bot_3 <- bind_rows(highest_3 = heights_near_aug_top_3,
lowest_3 = heights_near_aug_bottom_3,
.id = "rank") %>%
left_join(heights_aug,
by = c("country", "rss"))

Figure 14 shows the same information as the previous plot, but with the 3 representative countries for each statistic. This gives us more data on what the stereotypically “good” and “poor” fitting countries to this model.

# 9 Getting Started

The brolgar R package can be installed from CRAN using

# From CRAN
install.packages("brolgar")
# Development version
remotes::install_github("njtierney/brolgar")

The functions are all designed to build upon existing packages, but are predicated on working with tsibble. The package extends upon ggplot2 to provide facets for exploration: facet_sample() and facet_strata(). Extending dplyr’s sample_n() and sample_frac() functions by providing sampling and stratifying based around keys: sample_n_keys(), sample_frac_keys(), and stratify_keys(). New functions are focussed around the use of key, for example key_slope() to find the slope of each key, and keys_near() to find those keys near a summary statistic. Finally, feature calculation is provided by building upon the existing time series feature package, feasts.

To get started with brolgar you must first ensure your data is specified as a tsibble - discussed earlier in the paper, there is also a vignette “Longitudinal Data Structures”, which discusses these ideas. The next step we recommend is sampling some of your data with facet_sample(), and facet_strata(). When using facet_strata(), facets can be arranged in order of a variable, using the along argument, which can reveal interesting features.

To further explore longitudinal data, we recommend finding summary features of each variable with features, and identifying variables that are near summary statistics, using keys_near to find individuals stereotypical of a statistical value.

# 10 Concluding Remarks

The brolgar package facilitates exploring longitudinal data in R. It builds upon existing infrastructure from tsibble, and feasts, which work within the tidyverse family of R packages, as well as the newer, tidyverts, time series packages. Users familiar with either of these package families will find a lot of similarity in their use, and first time users will be able to easily transition from brolgar to the tidyverse or tidyverts.

Visualizing categorical or binary data over a time period can be difficult as the limited number of values on the y axis leads to overplotting. This can conceal the number of values present at a given value. The tools discussed in brolgar facilitate this in the form of facet_sample, and facet_strata. Some special methods could be developed to add jitter or noise around these values on the y axis, while still maintaining the graphical axis and tick marks.

Future work will explore more features and stratifications, and stereotypes, and generalise the tools to work for data without time components, and other data types.

# 11 Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Stuart Lee, Mitchell O’Hara Wild, Earo Wang, and Miles McBain for their discussion on the design of brolgar. We would also like to thank Rob Hyndman, Monash University and ACEMS for their support of this research.

# 12 Paper Source

The complete source files for the paper can be found at https://github.com/njtierney/rjournal-brolgar. The paper is built using rmarkdown, targets and capsule to ensure R package versions are the same. See the README file on the github repository for details on recreating the paper.

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### Reuse

Text and figures are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 4.0. The figures that have been reused from other sources don't fall under this license and can be recognized by a note in their caption: "Figure from ...".

### Citation

Tierney, et al., "brolgar: An R package to BRowse Over Longitudinal Data Graphically and Analytically in R", The R Journal, 2022

BibTeX citation

@article{RJ-2022-023,
author = {Tierney, Nicholas and Cook, Dianne and Prvan, Tania},
title = {brolgar: An R package to BRowse Over Longitudinal Data Graphically and Analytically in R},
journal = {The R Journal},
year = {2022},
note = {https://doi.org/10.32614/RJ-2022-023},
doi = {10.32614/RJ-2022-023},
volume = {14},
issue = {2},
issn = {2073-4859},
pages = {6-25}
}