9.4. Transformations and Timestamps#

Sometimes a feature is not in a form well-suited for analysis, and so we transform it. There are many reasons a feature might need a transformation: the value codings might not be useful for analysis; we may want to apply a mathematical function to a feature; or we might want to pull information out of a feature and create a new feature. We describe these three basic kinds of transformations: type conversions, mathematical transformations, and extractions.

Type conversion

This kind of transformation occurs when we convert the data from one format to another to make the data more useful for analysis. We might convert information stored as a string to another format. For example, we would want to convert prices reported as strings to numeric (like changing the string "$2.17" to the number 2.17) so that we can compute summary statistics. Or we might want to convert a time stored as a string, such as "1955-10-12", to a pandas Timestamp object. Yet another example occurs when we lump categories together, such as reducing the 11 categories for age in DAWN to 5 groupings.

Mathematical transformation

One kind of mathematical transformation is when we change the units of a measurement from, say, pounds to kilograms. We might make unit conversions so that statistics on our data can be directly compared to statistics on other datasets. Yet another reason to transform a feature is to make its distribution more symmetric (this notion is covered in more detail in Chapter 10). The most common transformation for handling asymmetry is the logarithm. Lastly, we might want to create a new feature from arithmetic operations. For example, we can combine heights and weights to create body mass indexes by calculating \(\text{height} / \text{weight}^2\).


Sometimes we want to create a feature by extraction, where the new feature contains partial information taken from another feature. For example, the inspection violations consist of strings with descriptions of violations, and we may only be interested in whether the violation is related to, say, vermin. We can create a new feature that is True if the violation contains the word vermin in its text description and False otherwise. This conversion of information to logical values (or 0-1 values) is extremely useful in data science. The upcoming example in this chapter gives a concrete use-case for these binary features.

We cover many other examples of useful transformations in Chapter 10. For the rest of this section, we explain one more kind of transformation related to working with dates and times. Dates and times appear in many kinds of data, so it’s worth learning how to work with these data types.

9.4.1. Transforming Timestamps#

A timestamp is a data value that records a specific date and time. For instance, a timestamp could be recorded like Jan 1 2020 2pm or 2021-01-31 14:00:00 or 2017 Mar 03 05:12:41.211 PDT. Timestamps come in many different formats! This kind of information can be useful for analysis, because it lets us answer questions like, “What times of day do we have the most website traffic?” When we work with timestamps, we often need to parse them for easier analysis.

Let’s take a look at an example. The inspections dataframe for the San Francisco restaurants includes the date when restaurant inspections happened:

business_id score date type
0 19 94 20160513 routine
1 19 94 20171211 routine
2 24 98 20171101 routine
3 24 98 20161005 routine

By default, however, pandas reads in the date column as an integer:


This storage type makes it hard to answer some useful questions about the data. Let’s say we want to know whether inspections happen more often on weekends or weekdays. To answer this question, we want to convert the date column to the pandas Timestamp storage type and extract the day of the week.

The date values appear to come in the format YYYYMMDD, where YYYY, MM, and DD correspond to the four-digit year, two-digit month, and two-digit day, respectively. The pd.to_datetime() method can parse the date strings into objects, where we can pass in the format of the dates as a date format string:

date_format = '%Y%m%d'

insp_dates = pd.to_datetime(insp['date'], format=date_format)
0   2016-05-13
1   2017-12-11
2   2017-11-01
Name: date, dtype: datetime64[ns]

We can see that the insp_dates now has a dtype of datetime64[ns], which means that the values were successfully converted into pd.Timestamp objects.1


The pd.to_datetime() method tries to automatically infer the timestamp format if we don’t pass in the format= argument. In many cases, pandas will parse the timestamps properly. However, sometimes the parsing doesn’t output the correct timestamps (as in this case), so we must explicitly specify the format.

pandas has special methods and properties for Series objects that hold timestamps using the .dt accessor. For instance, we can easily pull out the year for each timestamp:

0    2016
1    2017
2    2017
Name: date, dtype: int32

The pandas documentation has the complete details on the .dt accessor. By looking at the documentation, we see that the .dt.day_of_week attribute gets the day of the week for each timestamp (Monday = 0, Tuesday = 1, …, Sunday = 6). So let’s assign new columns to the dataframe that contain both the parsed timestamps and the day of the week:

insp = insp.assign(timestamp=insp_dates,
business_id score date type timestamp dow
0 19 94 20160513 routine 2016-05-13 4
1 19 94 20171211 routine 2017-12-11 0
2 24 98 20171101 routine 2017-11-01 2

Now we can see whether restaurant inspectors favor a certain day of the week by grouping on the day of the week:

dow count
0 2 3281
1 1 3264
2 3 2497
3 0 2464
4 4 2101
5 6 474
6 5 141
day = ['Mon', 'Tue', 'Wed', 'Thu', 'Fri', 'Sat', 'Sun']
fig = px.bar(insp['dow'].value_counts().reset_index(),
             x='dow', y='count',
             labels={'dow':'Inspection day'},
             height=250, width=350)
fig.update_xaxes(ticktext=day, tickvals=np.arange(0, 7, 1))

As expected, inspections rarely happen on the weekend. We also find that Tuesday and Wednesday are the most popular days for an inspection.

We have performed many wranglings on the inspections table. One approach to tracking these modifications is to pipe these actions from one to the next. We describe the idea of piping next.

9.4.2. Piping for Transformations#

In data analyses, we typically apply many transformations to the data, and it is easy to introduce bugs when we repeatedly mutate a dataframe, in part because Jupyter notebooks let us run cells in any order we want. As a good practice, we recommend putting transformation code into functions with helpful names and using the DataFrame.pipe() method to chain transformations together.

Let’s rewrite the earlier timestamp parsing code into a function and add the timestamps back into the dataframe as a new column, along with a second column containing the year of the timestamp:

date_format = '%Y%m%d'

def parse_dates_and_years(df, column='date'):
    dates = pd.to_datetime(df[column], format=date_format)
    years = dates.dt.year
    return df.assign(timestamp=dates, year=years)

Now we can pipe the insp dataframe through this function using .pipe():

insp = (pd.read_csv("data/inspections.csv")

We can chain many .pipe() calls together. For example, we can extract the day of the week from the timestamps:

def extract_day_of_week(df, col='timestamp'):
    return df.assign(dow=df[col].dt.day_of_week)

insp = (pd.read_csv("data/inspections.csv")
business_id score date type timestamp year dow
0 19 94 20160513 routine 2016-05-13 2016 4
1 19 94 20171211 routine 2017-12-11 2017 0
2 24 98 20171101 routine 2017-11-01 2017 2
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...
14219 94142 100 20171220 routine 2017-12-20 2017 2
14220 94189 96 20171130 routine 2017-11-30 2017 3
14221 94231 85 20171214 routine 2017-12-14 2017 3

14222 rows × 7 columns

There are several key advantages of using pipe(). When there are many transformations on a single dataframe, it’s easier to see what transformations happen since we can simply read the function names. Also, we can reuse transformation functions for different dataframes. For instance, the viol dataframe, which contains restaurant safety violations, also has a date column. This means we can use .pipe() to reuse the timestamp parsing function without needing to write extra code. Convenient!

viol = (pd.read_csv("data/violations.csv")
business_id date description timestamp year
0 19 20171211 Inadequate food safety knowledge or lack of ce... 2017-12-11 2017
1 19 20171211 Unapproved or unmaintained equipment or utensils 2017-12-11 2017

A different sort of transformation changes the shape of a dataframe by dropping unneeded columns, taking a subset of the rows, or rolling up the rows to a coarser granularity. We describe these structural changes next.


This dtype means that pandas uses 64 bits of memory for each value and that each datetime is accurate to the nanosecond (or ns, for short).