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Working with Data Using pandas and Python 3

PostedFebruary 23, 2017 6.8k views Python Data Analysis Development


The Python pandas package is used for data manipulation and analysis, designed to let you work with labeled or relational data in an intuitive way.

The pandas package offers spreadsheet functionality, but because you’re working with Python, it is much faster and efficient than a traditional graphical spreadsheet program.

In this tutorial, we’ll go over setting up a large data set to work with, the groupby() and pivot_table() functions of pandas, and finally how to visualize data.

To get some familiarity on the pandas package, you can read our tutorial An Introduction to the pandas Package and its Data Structures in Python 3.


This guide will cover how to work with data in pandas on either a local desktop or a remote server. Working with large datasets can be memory intensive, so in either case, the computer will need at least 2GB of memory to perform some of the calculations in this guide.

For this tutorial, we’ll be using Jupyter Notebook to work with the data. If you do not have it already, you should follow our tutorial to install and set up Jupyter Notebook for Python 3.

Setting Up Data

For this tutorial, we’re going to be working with United States Social Security data on baby names that is available from the Social Security website as an 8MB zip file.

Let’s activate our Python 3 programming environment on our local machine, or on our server from the correct directory:

  • cd environments
  • . my_env/bin/activate

Now let’s create a new directory for our project. We can call it names and then move into the directory:

  • mkdir names
  • cd names

Within this directory, we can pull the zip file from the Social Security website with the curl command:

  • curl -O https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/names.zip

Once the file is downloaded, let’s verify that we have all the packages installed that we’ll be using:

  • numpy to support multi-dimensional arrays
  • matplotlib to visualize data
  • pandas for our data analysis
  • seaborn to make our matplotlib statistical graphics more aesthetic

If you don’t have any of the packages already installed, install them with pip, as in:

  • pip install pandas
  • pip install matplotlib
  • pip install seaborn

The numpy package will also be installed if you don’t have it already.

Now we can start up Jupyter Notebook:

  • jupyter notebook

Once you are on the web interface of Jupyter Notebook, you’ll see the names.zip file there.

To create a new notebook file, select New > Python 3 from the top right pull-down menu:

Create a new Python 3 notebook

This will open a notebook.

Let’s start by importing the packages we’ll be using. At the top of our notebook, we should write the following:

import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as pp
import pandas as pd
import seaborn

We can run this code and move into a new code block by typing ALT + ENTER.

Let’s also tell Python Notebook to keep our graphs inline:

matplotlib inline

Let’s run the code and continue by typing ALT + ENTER.

From here, we’ll move on to uncompress the zip archive, load the CSV dataset into pandas, and then concatenate pandas DataFrames.

Uncompress Zip Archive

To uncompress the zip archive into the current directory, we’ll import the zipfile module and then call the ZipFile function with the name of the file (in our case names.zip):

import zipfile

We can run the code and continue by typing ALT + ENTER.

Now if you look back into your names directory, you’ll have .txt files of name data in CSV format. These files will correspond with the years of data on file, 1881 through 2015. Each of these files follow a similar naming convention. The 2015 file, for example, is called yob2015.txt, while the 1927 file is called yob1927.txt.

To look at the format of one of these files, let’s use Python to open one and display the top 5 lines:


Run the code and continue with ALT + ENTER.

['Emma,F,20355\n', 'Olivia,F,19553\n', 'Sophia,F,17327\n', 'Ava,F,16286\n', 'Isabella,F,15504\n']

The way that the data is formatted is name first (as in Emma or Olivia), sex next (as in F for female name and M for male name), and then the number of babies born that year with that name (there were 20,355 babies named Emma who were born in 2015).

With this information, we can load the data into pandas.

Load CSV Data into pandas

To load comma-separated values data into pandas we’ll use the pd.read_csv() function, passing the name of the text file as well as column names that we decide on. We’ll assign this to a variable, in this case names2015 since we’re using the data from the 2015 year of birth file.

names2015 = pd.read_csv('yob2015.txt', names = ['Name', 'Sex', 'Babies'])

Type ALT + ENTER to run the code and continue.

To make sure that this worked out, let’s display the top of the table:


When we run the code and continue with ALT + ENTER, we’ll see output that looks like this:

names2015.head output

Our table now has information of the names, sex, and numbers of babies born with each name organized by column.

Concatenate pandas Objects

Concatenating pandas objects will allow us to work with all the separate text files within the names directory.

To concatenate these, we’ll first need to initialize a list by assigning a variable to an unpopulated list data type:

all_years = []

Once we’ve done that, we’ll use a for loop to iterate over all the files by year, which range from 1880-2015. We’ll add +1 to the end of 2015 so that 2015 is included in the loop.

all_years = []

for year in range(1880, 2015+1):

Within the loop, we’ll append to the list each of the text file values, using a string formatter to handle the different names of each of these files. We’ll pass those values to the year variable. Again, we’ll specify columns for Name, Sex, and the number of Babies:

all_years = []

for year in range(1880, 2015+1):
                                 names = ['Name', 'Sex', 'Babies']))

Additionally, we’ll create a column for each of the years to keep those ordered. This we can do after each iteration by using the index of -1 to point to them as the loop progresses.

all_years = []

for year in range(1880, 2015+1):
                                 names = ['Name', 'Sex', 'Babies']))
    all_years[-1]['Year'] = year

Finally, we’ll add it to the pandas object with concatenation using the pd.concat() function. We’ll use the variable all_names to store this information.

all_years = []

for year in range(1880, 2015+1):
                                 names = ['Name', 'Sex', 'Babies']))
    all_years[-1]['Year'] = year

all_names = pd.concat(all_years)

We can run the loop now with ALT + ENTER, and then inspect the output by calling for the tail (the bottom-most rows) of the resulting table:


all_names.tail outputl

Our data set is now complete and ready for doing additional work with it in pandas.

Grouping Data

With pandas you can group data by columns with the .groupby() function. Using our all_names variable for our full dataset, we can use groupby() to split the data into different buckets.

Let’s group the dataset by sex and year. We can set this up like so:

group_name = all_names.groupby(['Sex', 'Year'])

We can run the code and continue with ALT + ENTER.

At this point if we just call the group_name variable we’ll get this output:

<pandas.core.groupby.DataFrameGroupBy object at 0x1187b82e8>

This shows us that it is a DataFrameGroupBy object. This object has instructions on how to group the data, but it does not give instructions on how to display the values.

To display values we will need to give instructions. We can calculate .size(), .mean(), and .sum(), for example, to return a table.

Let’s start with .size():


When we run the code and continue with ALT + ENTER, our output will look like this:

Sex Year F 1880 942 1881 938 1882 1028 1883 1054 1884 1172 ...

This data looks good, but it could be more readable. We can make it more readable by appending the .unstack function:


Now when we run the code and continue by typing ALT + ENTER, the output looks like this:

group_name.size().unstack() output

What this data tells us is how many female and male names there were for each year. In 1889, for example, there were 1,479 female names and 1,111 male names. In 2015 there were 18,993 female names and 13,959 male names. This shows that there is a greater diversity in names over time.

If we want to get the total number of babies born, we can use the .sum() function. Let’s apply that to a smaller dataset, the names2015 set from the single yob2015.txt file we created before:


Let’s type ALT + ENTER to run the code and continue:

names2015.groupby(['Sex']).sum() output

This shows us the total number of male and female babies born in 2015, though only babies whose name was used at least 5 times that year are counted in the dataset.

The pandas .groupby() function allows us to segment our data into meaningful groups.

Pivot Table

Pivot tables are useful for summarizing data. They can automatically sort, count, total, or average data stored in one table. Then, they can show the results of those actions in a new table of that summarized data.

In pandas, the pivot_table() function is used to create pivot tables.

To construct a pivot table, we’ll first call the DataFrame we want to work with, then the data we want to show, and how they are grouped.

In this example, we’ll work with the all_names data, and show the Babies data grouped by Name in one dimension and Year on the other:

pd.pivot_table(all_names, 'Babies', 'Name', 'Year')

When we type ALT + ENTER to run the code and continue, we’ll see the following output:

pd.pivot_table(all_names, 'Babies', 'Name', 'Year') output

Because this shows a lot of empty values, we may want to keep Name and Year as columns rather than as rows in one case and columns in the other. We can do that by grouping the data in square brackets:

pd.pivot_table(all_names, 'Babies', ['Name', 'Year'])

Once we type ALT + ENTER to run the code and continue, this table will now only show data for years that are on record for each name:

Name Year Aaban 2007 5.0 2009 6.0 2010 9.0 2011 11.0 2012 11.0 2013 14.0 2014 16.0 2015 15.0 Aabha 2011 7.0 2012 5.0 2014 9.0 2015 7.0 Aabid 2003 5.0 Aabriella 2008 5.0 2014 5.0 2015 5.0

Additionally, we can group data to have Name and Sex as one dimension, and Year on the other, as in:

pd.pivot_table(all_names, 'Babies', ['Name', 'Sex'], 'Year')

When we run the code and continue with ALT + ENTER, we’ll see the following table:

pd.pivot_table(all_names, 'Babies', ['Name', 'Sex'], 'Year') output

Pivot tables let us create new tables from existing tables, allowing us to decide how we want that data grouped.

Visualize Data

By using pandas with other packages like matplotlib we can visualize data within our notebook.

We’ll be visualizing data about the popularity of a given name over the years. In order to do that, we need to set and sort indexes to rework the data that will allow us to see the changing popularity of a particular name.

The pandas package lets us carry out hierarchical or multi-level indexing which lets us store and manipulate data with an arbitrary number of dimensions.

We’re going to index our data with information on Sex, then Name, then Year. We’ll also want to sort the index:

all_names_index = all_names.set_index(['Sex','Name','Year']).sort_index()

Type ALT + ENTER to run and continue to our next line, where we’ll have the notebook display the new indexed DataFrame:


Run the code and continue with ALT + ENTER, and the output will look like this:

all_names_index output

Next, we’ll want to write a function that will plot the popularity of a name over time. We’ll call the function name_plot and pass sex and name as its parameters that we will call when we run the function.

def name_plot(sex, name):

We’ll now set up a variable called data to hold the table we have created. We’ll also use the pandas DataFrame loc in order to select our row by the value of the index. In our case, we’ll want loc to be based on a combination of fields in the MultiIndex, referring to both the sex and name data.

Let’s write this construction into our function:

def name_plot(sex, name):
    data = all_names_index.loc[sex, name]

Finally, we’ll want to plot the values with matplotlib.pyplot which we imported as pp. We’ll then plot the values of the sex and name data against the index, which for our purposes is years.

def name_plot(sex, name):
    data = all_names_index.loc[sex, name]

    pp.plot(data.index, data.values)

Type ALT + ENTER to run and move into the next cell. We can now call the function with the sex and name of our choice, such as F for female name with the given name Danica.

name_plot('F', 'Danica')

When you type ALT + ENTER now, you’ll receive the following output:

Danica Name Plot output

Note that depending on what system you’re using you may have a warning about a font substitution, but the data will still plot correctly.

Looking at the visualization, we can see that the female name Danica had a small rise in popularity around 1990, and peaked just before 2010.

The function we created can be used to plot data from more than one name, so that we can see trends over time across different names.

Let’s start by making our plot a little bit larger:

pp.figure(figsize = (18, 8))

Next, let’s create a list with all the names we would like to plot:

pp.figure(figsize = (18, 8))

names = ['Sammy', 'Jesse', 'Drew', 'Jamie']

Now, we can iterate through the list with a for loop and plot the data for each name. First, we’ll try these gender neutral names as female names:

pp.figure(figsize = (18, 8))

names = ['Sammy', 'Jesse', 'Drew', 'Jamie']

for name in names:
    name_plot('F', name)

To make this data easier to understand, let’s include a legend:

pp.figure(figsize = (18, 8))

names = ['Sammy', 'Jesse', 'Drew', 'Jamie']

for name in names:
    name_plot('F', name)


We’ll type ALT + ENTER to run the code and continue, and then we’ll receive the following output:

Name plot, female names output

While each of the names has been slowly gaining popularity as female names, the name Jamie was overwhelmingly popular as a female name in the years around 1980.

Let’s plot the same names but this time as male names:

pp.figure(figsize = (18, 8))

names = ['Sammy', 'Jesse', 'Drew', 'Jamie']

for name in names:
    name_plot('M', name)


Again, type ALT + ENTER to run the code and continue. The graph will look like this:

Name plot, male names output

This data shows more popularity across names, with Jesse being generally the most popular choice, and being particularly popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

From here, you can continue to play with name data, create visualizations about different names and their popularity, and create other scripts to look at different data to visualize.


This tutorial introduced you to ways of working with large data sets from setting up the data, to grouping the data with groupby() and pivot_table(), indexing the data with a MultiIndex, and visualizing pandas data using the matplotlib package.

Many organizations and institutions provide data sets that you can work with to continue to learn about pandas and data visualization. The US government provides data through data.gov, for example.

You can learn more about visualizing data with matplotlib by following our guides on How to Plot Data in Python 3 Using matplotlib and How To Graph Word Frequency Using matplotlib with Python 3.


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