Practical Business Python

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Tue 20 February 2018

Intro to pdvega - Plotting for Pandas using Vega-Lite

Posted by Chris Moffitt in articles   

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Much has been made about the multitude of options for visualizing data in python. Jake VanderPlas covered this topic in his PyCon 2017 talk and the landscape has probably gotten even more confusing in the year since this talk was presented.

Jake is also one of the creators of Altair (discussed in this post) and is back with another plotting library called pdvega. This library leverages some of the concepts introduced in Altair but seeks to tackle a smaller subset of visualization problems. This article will go through a couple examples of using pdvega and compare it to the basic capabilities present in pandas today.


Likely sensing the inevitable questions about another plotting library, the pdvega documentation quickly gets to the point about its goals:

pdvega is a library that allows you to quickly create interactive Vega-Lite plots from Pandas dataframes, using an API that is nearly identical to Pandas’ built-in visualization tools, and designed for easy use within the Jupyter notebook.

The basic idea is that pdvega can improve on pandas plot output by adding more interactivity, improving the visual appeal and supporting the declarative Vega-Lite standard. The other nice aspect is that pdvega tries to leverage the existing pandas API so that it is relatively simple to get up and running and produce useful visualizations - especially in the Jupyter notebook environment.


For this example, I decided to use data from FiveThirtyEight’s Ultimate Halloween Candy Power Ranking post. FiveThirtyEight is gracious enough to make all of its data available here. If you are interested in finding fun data sets to analyze, I encourage you to check it out.

All of the code is meant to be run in a notebook. An example one is available on github.

Make sure the code is installed properly:

pip install pdvega
jupyter nbextension install --sys-prefix --py vega3

Get started by importing pandas and pdvega and reading the csv into a dataframe:

import pandas as pd
import pdvega
df = pd.read_csv("")

Here’s what the data looks like:

competitorname chocolate fruity caramel peanutyalmondy nougat crispedricewafer hard bar pluribus sugarpercent pricepercent winpercent
0 100 Grand 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 0 0.732 0.860 66.971725
1 3 Musketeers 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0.604 0.511 67.602936
2 One dime 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.011 0.116 32.261086
3 One quarter 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.011 0.511 46.116505
4 Air Heads 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.906 0.511 52.341465

The data includes voter results on which one of 86 candy options was their favorite. The winpercent column includes how often that candy was the vote winner. The other columns include descriptive characteristics of that candy. The good folks at FiveThirtyEight did lots of analysis, but we’ll do some quick EDA to compare stock pandas plotting vs pdvega.

First, let’s look at the distribution of winning percentages using a histogram.

In pandas:

Pandas histogram

Now in pdvega:

Pandas histogram

There are a couple of key points here:

  • The pdvega API is pretty much the same as pandas plotting. Instead of calling plot you can call vgplot .
  • The actual output looks much cleaner in pdvega
  • The png shown here does not replicated the interactivity you get in a notebook

If we want to plot multiple distributions to look at the sugar and price percentiles, it’s fairly simple:

df[["sugarpercent", "pricepercent"]].plot.hist(alpha=0.5)
Pandas histogram

In pdvega, the syntax is a little cleaner because the alpha parameter is not needed.

df[["sugarpercent", "pricepercent"]].vgplot.hist()
Pandas histogram

pdvega supports most of the standard plot types you would expect. Here’s an example of a horizontal bar chart showing the top 15 winpercentages. This fits in seamlessly with the standard pandas approach of sorting and viewing the top entries:

df.sort_values(by=['winpercent'], ascending=False).head(15).vgplot.barh(x='competitorname', y='winpercent')
Pandas histogram

The one challenge I had was figuring out how to make sure the bars were ordered by winpercent not alphabetically but the name. I’m sure there is a way but I could not figure it out.

If we’re interested in looking at a more complicated analysis, the scatter plotting functionality allows us to control the size and color of the plots based on the values in a column. For instance, if we want to look at the relationship between winning percentages, sugar percentiles, pricing percentiles and candy bar status, we can encode that all in a single vgplot.scatter call:

df.vgplot.scatter(x='winpercent', y='sugarpercent', s='pricepercent', c='bar')
Candy Scatter

Once again, the API is similar to panda’s scatter plot but it natively creates a more useful plot without additional tinkering. The ability to easily encode the size of the plot using the s argument for size and c for color is a simple enhancement that makes scatter plots much more useful.

Finally, pdvega supports statistical visualization with pdvega.plotting. A scatter matrix can be a useful tool to view multiple variable interactions in one chart:

pdvega.scatter_matrix(df[["sugarpercent", "winpercent", "pricepercent"]], "winpercent")
Candy scatter matrix

This API is slightly different in that you pass the actual dataframe to the pdvega function but the basic approach is similar to the rest of the pdvega API. The individual plots are linked together so that zooming in one, interacts with the other plot.

Closing Thoughts

There is no doubt that the python visualization landscape is crowded. However, there is a lot of activity in this space and many powerful tools available. In the end, I think the competition is good but hope that some standards eventually emerge so that new users have a simpler time figuring out which tool is best for them. It’s always a concern in the open source world when resources get spread too thin across competing projects and the barrier for new users to learn is high.

That being said, pdvega is very early in its lifecycle but it shows promise. Some of the primary benefits are that it is easy to pick up, generates very nice visualizations out of the box and is primarily developed by Jake VanderPlas who is extremely active in this space and wants to drive some convergence of solutions. In addition, the library should see improvements in functionality as more people use it and generate feedback. I look forward to seeing how it grows and develops in future releases and where it ultimately lands in the crowded visualization space.

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