Introducing SQL for Lightweight Data Manipulation

October 8, 2011 in Technical

This post introduces the SQL language as a tool for people interested in using data to create visualisations and other forms of data analysis.

About the data

I wanted to learn about logistic regression. So, I thought that I should get myself some data. Where to get housing price data in New Zealand? Well, what about auction sites? If you’re overseas, you use Ebay. Here, you use Trademe. So I’ve used Trademe’s API to pull out data from a few thousand properties on the market. Unfortunately, the terms of the API restrict redistribution.

Getting the workable data out of the database

Now that we have all of the data at our disposal, we need a way to extract it. We can use the SQL language to easily manipulate the data we need. My data is stored in the SQLite3 database. . SQLite3 has its own command line shell that that’s very easy to install on Ubuntu:

$ sudo apt-get install sqlite3

Invoking it is trivial:

$ sqlite housing-data.db

First touch of SQL

Now, let’s count up how many houses we were able to extract data from*:

sqlite> SELECT count(*) FROM residentialproperty;

Great. Now, how many of those houses are actually useful for us? Unfortunately, far fewer. Take a look at this query:

sqlite> SELECT count(*) 
   ...> FROM residentialproperty 
   ...> WHERE rateable_value > 0;

The addition of WHERE clauses allows us to filter the result. While the fact that we’ve lost half of our data wont affect the training exercise, it does demonstrate some of the issues of using real-world data. The effect is magnified as we ask for even cleaner data

sqlite> SELECT count(*)
   ...> FROM residentialproperty 
   ...> WHERE rateable_value > 0 AND area > 0;

We’re only doing univariate logistic regression in this example, so a single variable is fine. It’s about the extent of the calculus that I can take for the moment.

Let’s take a look at the data itself, just so you can get a feel for what’s happening.

sqlite> SELECT rateable_value, area, land_area
   ...> FROM residentialproperty
   ...> WHERE rateable_value > 0 AND area > 0
   ...> LIMIT 10;

It’s hard to make out, but there seems to be a correlation between these variables. On the left is the government’s valuation (known here as the rateable value, as land taxes are known as rates here in New Zealand). The middle column is the reported surface area of the dwelling. The right-hand column displays the size of the land.

Sidebar: Syntax

SQL uses a semicolon as a full stop.

The language is quite relaxed when it comes to whitespace. You will see a few variations of indentation in this article. Feel free to experiment with what suits you best.

I tend to use capital letters for SQL keywords, but that is not required. Some people may look down on it as formal and stuffy. But, I tend to find the formality is a feature, not a bug.

Tidying up output

We can improve how this looks, by the way. The sqlite3 utility is somewhat intimidating, but it’s simple once you spend a few moments getting used to it. Here are a few useful commands:

sqlite> .help
sqlite> .prompt "> " ". "
> .mode column
> .headings on
> .width 14 10 10 8 9

Now, if we call up another query, we’ll see a much more readable output:

> SELECT rateable_value AS `rateable value`, 
.        area AS `floor area`,
.        land_area AS `land area`, 
.        bedrooms, 
.        bathrooms
. FROM residentialproperty
. WHERE rateable_value > 0 AND area > 0
. LIMIT 10;
rateable value  floor area  land area   bedrooms  bathrooms
--------------  ----------  ----------  --------  ---------
360000          183         993         4         1        
235000          100         738         3         1        
435000          140         725         4         1        
510000          180         759         3         2        
142000          100         675         3         1        
370000          210         1346        4         1        
325000          46          0           2         1        
385000          100         371         2         1        
205000          100         991         3         1        
465000          181         1130        4         2  


As well as displaying data in raw form, databases also include power to provide you summaries of the data:

> SELECT max(area), avg(area), min(area)
. FROM residentialproperty WHERE area > 0;
2100            156.927513015619  20

As always with numeric data manipulation, be careful of values like 0 or 99999. Either of those can be a placeholder for an unknown quantity. They will really ruin your values. Consider the difference between these two queries:

> SELECT avg(rateable_value) FROM residentialproperty;

> SELECT avg(rateable_value) FROM residentialproperty
. WHERE rateable_value > 0;

Databases support a wide range of functions out of the box. Check your database’s documentation for details.

Categorical Data

If we are looking at categorical data, there are a few handy operations worth knowing about. Let’s try to find the number of suburbs that are represented in our sample:

> SELECT count(DISTINCT suburb) FROM residentialproperty;

Functions that take a single argument are allowed to include a DISTINCT keyword. Very cunning.

Now, what if we would like to see which regions are selling the most houses. We can introduce the GROUP BY clause:

> SELECT suburb, count(*)
. FROM residentialproperty
. GROUP BY suburb;
suburb              count(*)
------------------  ------------------
Akatarawa           9
Alicetown           11
Aotea               30
Aro Valley          7
Wallaceville 8 Waterloo 20 Wellington Central 130 Whitby 77 Whitemans Valley 4 Wilton 4 Woburn 20 Woodridge 3 York Bay 1

We can combine this with what we have already learned to create useful reports:

> .width 20 3 8 10 10
> SELECT suburb, 
.        count(*) AS n,
.        min(rateable_value) AS min ($), 
.        avg(rateable_value) AS avg ($), 
.        max(rateable_value) AS max ($), 
.        max(rateable_value) - min(rateable_value) AS range ($)
. FROM residentialproperty
. WHERE rateable_value > 0
. GROUP BY suburb;
suburb              n     min ($)   avg ($)     max ($)     range ($) 
------------------  ---  --------  ----------  ----------  ----------
Akatarawa           8    180000    470625.0    850000      670000
Alicetown           4    360000    421250.0    475000      115000
Aotea               9    180000    443888.888  595000      415000
Aro Valley          4    390000    577500.0    670000      280000
Wallaceville        6    120000    217500.0    330000      210000
Waterloo            7    295000    427142.857  590000      295000
Wellington Central  69   106000    520188.405  4135000     4029000
Whitby              45   76000     419155.555  900000      824000
Whitemans Valley    1    550000    550000.0    550000      0
Wilton              3    440000    500000.0    565000      125000
Woburn              10   390000    582000.0    760000      370000
Woodridge           2    500000    565000.0    630000      130000
York Bay            1    510000    510000.0    510000      0


Databases also generally know quite a bit about dates. For example, the following function tries to see how current the listing date is.

.           strftime('%s', datetime('now')) - 
.            strftime('%s', start_date)
.        ) / 60 / 60 / 24
. FROM residentialproperty
. WHERE start_date > datetime(1, 'unixepoch')
.   AND end_date > datetime(1, 'unixepoch'); 

This example is a little bit messier than the others. That’s probably because of the strftime function that’s inserted there. strftime is a function that take a string and formats it to time. We are using '%s' as the format, telling the function to convert things to seconds.

The SELECT clause is converting the current time and the auction’s listing date into seconds. It then divides this into days. I’ve left this as multiple divide operations for readability. The WHERE clause is similar to asking for greater than zero. A quirk of my processing was that empty dates were sent to the database as 1 Jan 1970, which is second 0 of the UNIX epoch. Omitting this would really skew the results.

Knowing about dates could be handy if we wanted to model data that is no more than 90 days old. To do that, move our “dates from today” function to the WHERE clause and add a comparison.

> SELECT suburb, rateable_value, bedrooms, bathrooms
. FROM residentialproperty
. WHERE start_date > datetime(1, 'unixepoch')
.   AND end_date > datetime(1, 'unixepoch')
.   AND (
.         strftime('%s', datetime('now')) - 
.         strftime('%s', start_date)) / 
.         60 / 60 / 24 
.       ) <= 90
. LIMIT 5; 
suburb              rateable_value      bedrooms   bathrooms
------------------  ------------------  ---------  ---------
Paekakariki         360000              4          1        
Porirua East        235000              3          1        
Waikanae Beach      0                   3          1        
Raumati South       0                   3          2        
Berhampore          0                   4          2        
Waiwhetu            435000              4          1        
Kaiwharawhara       0                   0          0        
Thorndon            0                   6          2        
Ngaio               0                   3          2        
Maoribank           0                   2          1        

Now, I guess your first reaction is “Wow, Wellington has some strange place names.” I’ll let you look into Wikipedia for the appropriate pronunciation. Hopefully your next thought is, “Wow, that’s a pretty complex set of operations without for loops or nested if statements.” I know that programming can be intimidating. However, for ad-hoc data analysis, SQL can provide a lot of benefit.

I have put the computationally intensive operation at the end of the WHERE clause. This is so that this processing only needs to occur on those rows which have passed the suitability test.

Exporting Data

Sending data to your application is probably one of the easiest things that you can do. Once you have your query in the way that you want it, you just set the mode to CSV output to a file:

> .mode csv
> .output results.csv
> SELECT ... ;
> .output stdout

Why use this approach

Programming is reproducible. While it’s convenient to work away at data in a spreadsheet program, sometimes it can be hard to retrace your steps. It’s sometimes even harder to describe to other people how you’ve come to a result.

No loops! Once you get the hang of it, programming in SQL can be a lot easier than preforming similar operations in languages. You no longer need to spend a great deal of time worrying about complex control structures.

Databases are everywhere. While NoSQL databases are increasingly being used, relational data are all around us. SQL is the interface to all of that data. For example, the tens of millions of records extracted by the ScraperWiki community is stored in SQLite.

Emailability. A SQLite file can be shared with anyone or stored anywhere. It doesn’t need software to be installed for it to work perfectly well.

When not to use this approach

SQL does not tolerate messy data. When data are irregular, use something like Google Refine to clean it up.

Take some time to understand the behaviour of NULL. It is the placeholder for missing values. We have ignored talking about the complexities of NULL in this article.

Further Reading

I have left out a fews things which are really important. Most importantly, how to deal with multiple relations/tables. I’ve also omitted string functions. These two resources go over these points really well:

5 responses to Introducing SQL for Lightweight Data Manipulation

  1. Very nice summary Tim – sqlite3 is very versatile and I particular like using it as a temporary in-memory sql db when running test suites.

    • Thanks Joel :) Yeah, me too. It’s very handy.

      One thing I didn’t realise until researching this article was how complete SQLite’s implementation of the SQL language is. Nor did I know that it has over 100 keywords. No wonder people get scared off.

  2. @Tim: nice post. I think it would be great to add this to All you need to do is fork the repo, add your section and submit a pull request :-)

  3. Great article Tim, very well written and an excellent little how-to. I’ve been using SQL for years and have never thought to use it as a data processing tool like that. Very good indeed!

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