How to Count Unique Values by Group in R

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Data analysis often involves grouping data by a certain variable and then performing operations on the grouped data. One common operation is to count the number of unique values in each group. In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore various ways to count unique values by group in R using functions from the base R, dplyr, data.table, and plyr packages.

1. Understanding Grouped Data

In the context of R and data analysis, grouping data means dividing the data into sets such that the elements in each set share a common attribute. For instance, consider the following simple data frame:

# Create a data frame
df <- data.frame(Name = c("Alice", "Bob", "Alice", "Bob", "Charlie", "Charlie"),
                 Age = c(25, 32, 25, 32, 22, 22),
                 Score = c(90, 85, 95, 86, 92, 90))

In this data frame, the Name column could be a grouping variable, as it separates the data into groups based on the individual’s name. The goal is to find unique values, say in the Score column, within each of these groups.

2. Using tapply( ) and length( ) from Base R

One way to count unique values by group in R is to use the tapply() function in conjunction with the length() and unique() functions from base R.

The tapply() function applies a function to subsets of a vector, with subsets defined by another vector (the grouping variable). Here, tapply() applies the length() function to subsets of the Score vector, with subsets defined by the Name vector.

The unique() function returns a vector of unique values from the input vector.

# Count unique scores by name
unique_counts <- tapply(df$Score, df$Name, function(x) length(unique(x)))


3. Using dplyr

The dplyr package is a popular package in R for data manipulation, and it provides a more readable and efficient way to count unique values by group.

The group_by() function groups the data by one or more variables, and the summarise() function creates a new data frame that summarises the grouped data.

The n_distinct() function counts the number of distinct values in a vector.

# Load the dplyr package

# Group by name and count unique scores
df %>%
  group_by(Name) %>%
  summarise(Unique_Scores = n_distinct(Score))

4. Using data.table

The data.table package in R provides high-performance and memory-efficient data manipulation functions. This can be beneficial when working with large datasets.

The uniqueN() function counts the number of unique values in a vector, and the .N operator counts the number of rows in a group.

# Load the data.table package

# Convert the data frame to a data.table
dt <-

# Group by name and count unique scores
dt[, .(Unique_Scores = uniqueN(Score)), by = Name]

5. Using plyr

The plyr package is another popular package for data manipulation in R. The ddply() function splits the data into subsets (based on a grouping variable), applies a function to each subset, and then combines the results.

# Load the plyr package

# Group by name and count unique scores
ddply(df, .(Name), summarise, Unique_Scores = length(unique(Score)))

6. Counting Unique Values by Multiple Groups

In practice, you might need to group data by multiple variables. All the methods discussed above can be adapted to handle multiple grouping variables.

For example, using dplyr:

# Group by name and age, and count unique scores
df %>%
  group_by(Name, Age) %>%
  summarise(Unique_Scores = n_distinct(Score))

7. Conclusion

Counting unique values by group is a common operation in data analysis, and R provides several methods to achieve this. The tapply() function in base R, the dplyr package, the data.table package, and the plyr package all offer ways to group data and count unique values within each group.

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