This tutorial shows you:

Some define Statistics as the field that focuses on turning information into knowledge. The first step in that process is to summarize and describe the raw information - the data. In this tutorial, you will gain insight into public health by generating simple graphical and numerical summaries of a data set collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As this is a large data set, along the way you’ll also learn the indispensable skills of data processing and subsetting.

Note on copying & pasting code from the PDF version of this tutorial: Please note that you may run into trouble if you copy & paste code from the PDF version of this tutorial into your R script. When the PDF is created, some characters (for instance, quotation marks) are converted into non-text characters that R won’t recognize. To use code from this tutorial, please type it yourself into your R script or you may copy & paste code from the source file for this tutorial which is posted on my website.

Getting started

The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) is an annual telephone survey of 350,000 people in the United States. As its name implies, the BRFSS is designed to identify risk factors in the adult population and report emerging health trends. For example, respondents are asked about their diet and weekly physical activity, their HIV/AIDS status, possible tobacco use, and even their level of healthcare coverage. The BRFSS Web site ( contains a complete description of the survey, including the research questions that motivate the study and many interesting results derived from the data.

We will focus on a random sample of 20,000 people from the BRFSS survey conducted in 2000. While there are over 200 variables in this data set, we will work with a small subset.

First, download the dataset from my website and open it in Excel. Here, I provide a smaller version since the dataset we use in this tutorial is rather big. The link to the smaller version is Save this file on your computer, then right-click it and open it in Excel. Have a look at the dataset, identify rows and columns and remember the structure of the dataset. Close the file again and delete it. (We will read the full version of the dataset into R directly from my website, so no need to store it on your computer this time.)

We begin by loading the data set of 20,000 observations into the R workspace. After launching RStudio, create a new working directory (for RPOS 517, Day 2) on your computer. In that directory, create a new script file. Click on File -> New -> R Script. This will open a blank document above the console. As you go along you can copy and paste your code here and save it. This is a good way to keep track of your code and be able to reuse it later. To run your code from this document, highlight the code and hit the Run button, or highlight the code and hit command+enter on a Mac or control+enter on a PC. You’ll also want to save this script. To do so click on the disk icon. The first time you hit save, RStudio will ask for a file name; you can name it anything you like. Once you hit save you’ll see the file appear under the Files tab in the lower right panel. You can reopen this file anytime by simply clicking on it.

Enter the usual meta-information in the script file (purpose of the script, author, etc.), then begin by loading this dataset:

cdc <- read.csv("")

The data set cdc that shows up in your workspace is a data set, with each row representing a case and each column representing a variable. R calls this data format a data frame, which is a term that will be used throughout the tutorials.

To view the names of the variables, type the command

## [1] "genhlth"  "exerany"  "hlthplan" "smoke100" "height"   "weight"  
## [7] "wtdesire" "age"      "gender"

This returns the names genhlth, exerany, hlthplan, smoke100, height, weight, wtdesire, age, and gender. Each one of these variables corresponds to a question that was asked in the survey. For example, for genhlth, respondents were asked to evaluate their general health, responding either excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. The exerany variable indicates whether the respondent exercised in the past month (1) or did not (0). Likewise, hlthplan indicates whether the respondent had some form of health coverage (1) or did not (0). The smoke100 variable indicates whether the respondent had smoked at least 100 cigarettes in her lifetime. The other variables record the respondent’s height in inches, weight in pounds as well as their desired weight, wtdesire, age in years, and gender.

We can have a look at the first few entries (rows) of our data with the command

##     genhlth exerany hlthplan smoke100 height weight wtdesire age gender
## 1      good       0        1        0     70    175      175  77      m
## 2      good       0        1        1     64    125      115  33      f
## 3      good       1        1        1     60    105      105  49      f
## 4      good       1        1        0     66    132      124  42      f
## 5 very good       0        1        0     61    150      130  55      f
## 6 very good       1        1        0     64    114      114  55      f

and similarly we can look at the last few by typing

##         genhlth exerany hlthplan smoke100 height weight wtdesire age
## 19995      good       0        1        1     69    224      224  73
## 19996      good       1        1        0     66    215      140  23
## 19997 excellent       0        1        0     73    200      185  35
## 19998      poor       0        1        0     65    216      150  57
## 19999      good       1        1        0     67    165      165  81
## 20000      good       1        1        1     69    170      165  83
##       gender
## 19995      m
## 19996      f
## 19997      m
## 19998      f
## 19999      f
## 20000      m

You could also look at all of the data frame at once by typing its name into the console, but that might be unwise here. We know cdc has 20,000 rows, so viewing the entire data set would mean flooding your screen. It’s better to take small peeks at the data with head, tail or the subsetting techniques that you’ll learn in a moment.

Summaries and tables

The BRFSS questionnaire is a massive trove of information. A good first step in any analysis is to distill all of that information into a few summary statistics and graphics. As a simple example, the function summary returns a numerical summary: minimum, first quartile, median, mean, second quartile, and maximum. For weight this is

##    Min. 1st Qu.  Median    Mean 3rd Qu.    Max. 
##    68.0   140.0   165.0   169.7   190.0   500.0

Notice here that there are no missing observations for any of the variables. This means that we don’t have to think about how to deal with missing data. In other (applied) cases, this will be different, and you need to give some thought to missing data in your R commands and your data analysis.

R also functions like a very fancy calculator. If you wanted to compute the interquartile range for the respondents’ weight, you would look at the output from the summary command above and then enter

190 - 140
## [1] 50

R also has built-in functions to compute summary statistics one by one. For instance, to calculate the mean, median, and variance of weight, type

## [1] 169.683
## [1] 1606.484
## [1] 165

While it makes sense to describe a continuous variable like weight in terms of these statistics, what about categorical data? We would instead consider the sample frequency or relative frequency distribution. The function table does this for you by counting the number of times each kind of response was given. For example, to see the number of people who have smoked 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, type

##     0     1 
## 10559  9441

or instead look at the relative frequency distribution by dividing the table by the total number of observations in the dataset. You can obtain the number of observations (remember: observations are rows) by using the command nrow(), which extracts the number of rows of the object you give to it:

table(cdc$smoke100) / nrow(cdc)
##       0       1 
## 0.52795 0.47205

Notice how R automatically divides all entries in the table by 20,000 in the command above. This is similar to something we observed in the last tutorial; when we multiplied or divided a vector with a number, R applied that action across entries in the vectors. As we see above, this also works for tables. Next, we make a bar plot of the entries in the table by putting the table inside the barplot command.


Notice what we’ve done here! We’ve computed the table of cdc$smoke100 and then immediately applied the graphical function, barplot. This is an important idea: R commands can be nested. You could also break this into two steps by typing the following:

smoke <- table(cdc$smoke100)


Here, we’ve made a new object, a table, called smoke (the contents of which we can see by typing smoke into the console) and then used it in as the input for barplot. The special symbol <- performs an assignment, taking the output of one line of code and saving it into an object in your workspace. This is another important idea that we’ll return to later.

The table command can be used to tabulate any number of variables that you provide. For example, to examine which participants have smoked across each gender, we could use the following.

table(cdc$gender, cdc$smoke100)
##        0    1
##   f 6012 4419
##   m 4547 5022

Here, we see column totals of 0 and 1. Recall that 1 indicates a respondent has smoked at least 100 cigarettes. The rows refer to gender. To create a mosaic plot of this table, we would enter the following command.

mosaicplot(table(cdc$gender, cdc$smoke100))

We could have accomplished this in two steps by saving the table in one line and applying mosaicplot in the next (see the table/barplot example above).

What does the mosaic plot reveal about smoking habits and gender?

We could also create a table with percentages if we need more precise numbers. Here, we continue using the table() command, but wrap it in another command: prop.table. This command allows us to express the cells of the table as percentages. We can display each cell as a percentage of all observations, or as the row percentage (using the option margin = 1) or as the column percentage (using the option margin = 2). Note that R usually thinks in the order “rows, then columns” - hence rows are coded as 1 in this function and columns as 2. Here, we may be interested in the percentage of males and females that are smokers or non-smokers:

prop.table(table(cdc$gender, cdc$smoke100), margin = 1)
##             0         1
##   f 0.5763589 0.4236411
##   m 0.4751803 0.5248197

Interlude: How R thinks about data

We mentioned that R stores data in data frames, which you might think of as a type of spreadsheet. Each row is a different observation (a different respondent) and each column is a different variable (the first is genhlth, the second exerany and so on). We can see the size of the data frame next to the object name in the workspace or we can type

## [1] 20000     9

which will return the number of rows and columns. Now, if we want to access a subset of the full data frame, we can use row-and-column notation. For example, to see the sixth variable of the 567th respondent, use the format

cdc[567, 6]
## [1] 160

which means we want the element of our data set that is in the 567th row (meaning the 567th person or observation) and the 6th column (in this case, weight). We know that weight is the 6th variable because it is the 6th entry in the list of variable names

## [1] "genhlth"  "exerany"  "hlthplan" "smoke100" "height"   "weight"  
## [7] "wtdesire" "age"      "gender"

To see the weights for the first 10 respondents we can type

cdc[1:10, 6]
##  [1] 175 125 105 132 150 114 194 170 150 180

In this expression, we have asked just for rows in the range 1 through 10. R uses the : to create a range of values, so 1:10 expands to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. You can see this by entering

##  [1]  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10

Finally, if we want all of the data for the first 10 respondents, type

cdc[1:10, ]
##      genhlth exerany hlthplan smoke100 height weight wtdesire age gender
## 1       good       0        1        0     70    175      175  77      m
## 2       good       0        1        1     64    125      115  33      f
## 3       good       1        1        1     60    105      105  49      f
## 4       good       1        1        0     66    132      124  42      f
## 5  very good       0        1        0     61    150      130  55      f
## 6  very good       1        1        0     64    114      114  55      f
## 7  very good       1        1        0     71    194      185  31      m
## 8  very good       0        1        0     67    170      160  45      m
## 9       good       0        1        1     65    150      130  27      f
## 10      good       1        1        0     70    180      170  44      m

By leaving out an index or a range (we didn’t type anything between the comma and the square bracket), we get all the columns. When starting out in R, this is a bit counterintuitive. As a rule, we omit the column number to see all columns in a data frame. Similarly, if we leave out an index or range for the rows, we would access all the observations, not just the 567th, or rows 1 through 10. Try the following to see the weights for all 20,000 respondents fly by on your screen

cdc[ ,6]

Recall that column 6 represents respondents’ weight, so the command above reported all of the weights in the data set. An alternative method to access the weight data is by referring to the name. Previously, we typed names(cdc) to see all the variables contained in the cdc data set. We can use any of the variable names to select items in our data set.


The dollar-sign tells R to look in data frame cdc for the column called weight. Since that’s a single vector, we can subset it with just a single index inside square brackets. We see the weight for the 567th respondent by typing

## [1] 160

Similarly, for just the first 10 respondents

##  [1] 175 125 105 132 150 114 194 170 150 180

The command above returns the same result as the cdc[1:10,6] command. Both row-and-column notation and dollar-sign notation are widely used, which one you choose to use depends on your personal preference.

A little more on subsetting

It’s often useful to extract all individuals (cases) in a data set that have specific characteristics. We accomplish this through conditioning commands. First, consider expressions like

cdc$gender == "m"


cdc$age > 30

These commands produce a series of TRUE and FALSE values. There is one value for each respondent, where TRUE indicates that the person was male (via the first command) or older than 30 (second command).

Suppose we want to extract just the data for the men in the sample, or just for those over 30. We can use the R function subset to do that for us. For example, the command

mdata <- subset(cdc, cdc$gender == "m")

will create a new data set called mdata that contains only the men from the cdc data set. In addition to finding it in your workspace alongside its dimensions, you can take a peek at the first several rows as usual

##      genhlth exerany hlthplan smoke100 height weight wtdesire age gender
## 1       good       0        1        0     70    175      175  77      m
## 7  very good       1        1        0     71    194      185  31      m
## 8  very good       0        1        0     67    170      160  45      m
## 10      good       1        1        0     70    180      170  44      m
## 11 excellent       1        1        1     69    186      175  46      m
## 12      fair       1        1        1     69    168      148  62      m

This new data set contains all the same variables but just under half the rows. It is also possible to tell R to keep only specific variables, which is a topic we’ll discuss in a future tutorial. For now, the important thing is that we can carve up the data based on values of one or more variables.

As an aside, you can use several of these conditions together with & and |. The & is read “and” so that

m_and_over30 <- subset(cdc, gender == "m" & age > 30)

will give you the data for men over the age of 30. The | character is read “or” so that

m_or_over30 <- subset(cdc, gender == "m" | age > 30)

will take people who are men or over the age of 30 (why that’s an interesting group is hard to say, but right now the mechanics of this are the important thing). In principle, you may use as many “and” and “or” clauses as you like when forming a subset.

As an alternative to the subset command, and as a more flexible option, you can subset using hard brackets and by placing conditions on rows (before the comma). The equivalents to the commands above read like this:

mdata <- cdc[cdc$gender == "m", ]
m_and_over30 <- cdc[cdc$gender == "m" & cdc$age > 30, ]
m_or_over30 <- cdc[cdc$gender == "m" | cdc$age > 30, ]

Continuous data

With our subsetting tools in hand, we’ll now return to the task of the day: making basic summaries of the BRFSS questionnaire. We’ve already looked at categorical data such as smoke and gender so now let’s turn our attention to continuous data. Two common ways to visualize continuous data are with box plots and histograms. We can construct a box plot for a single variable with the following command.


You can compare the locations of the components of the box by examining the summary statistics.

##    Min. 1st Qu.  Median    Mean 3rd Qu.    Max. 
##   48.00   64.00   67.00   67.18   70.00   93.00

Confirm that the median and upper and lower quartiles reported in the numerical summary match those in the graph. The purpose of a boxplot is to provide a thumbnail sketch of a variable for the purpose of comparing across several categories. So we can, for example, compare the heights of men and women with

boxplot(cdc$height ~ cdc$gender)