by Robert A. Muenchen
R-Instat is a free and open source graphical user interface for the R software that focuses on people who want to point-and-click their way through data science analyses. Written in Visual Basic, it is currently only available for Microsoft Windows. However, a Linux version is in development using the cross-platform Mono implementation of the .NET framework.This post is one of a series of reviews that aim to help non-programmers choose the Graphical User Interface (GUI) that is best for them. Although I wrote the BlueSky User’s Guide, I hope to remain objective in these reviews. There is no one perfect user interface for everyone; each GUI for R has features that appeal to a different set of people.
There are various definitions of user interface types, so here’s how I’ll be using these terms:GUI = Graphical User Interface using menus and dialog boxes to avoid having to type programming code. I do not include any assistance for programming in this definition. So, GUI users are people who prefer using a GUI to perform their analyses. They don’t have the time or inclination to become good programmers.
IDE = Integrated Development Environment which helps programmers write code. I do not include point-and-click style menus and dialog boxes when using this term. IDE users are people who prefer to write R code to perform their analyses.
The various user interfaces available for R differ quite a lot in how they’re installed. Some, such as jamovi or RKWard, install in a single step. Others, such as Deducer, install in multiple steps (up to seven steps, depending on your needs). Advanced computer users often don’t appreciate how lost beginners can become while attempting even a simple installation. The HelpDesks at most universities are flooded with such calls at the beginning of each semester!
R-Instat is easy to install, requiring only a single step. It provides its own embedded copy of R. This simplifies the installation and ensures complete compatibility between R-Instat and the version of R it’s using. However, it also means if you already have R installed, you’ll end up with a second copy. You can have R-Instat control any version of R you choose, but if the version differs too much, you may run into occasional problems.
When choosing a GUI, one of the most fundamental questions is: what can it do for you? What the initial software installation of each GUI gets you is covered in the Graphics, Analysis, and Modeling sections of this series of articles. Regardless of what comes built-in, it’s good to know how active the development community is. They contribute “plug-ins” that add new menus and dialog boxes to the GUI. This level of activity ranges from very low (RKWard, Rattle, Deducer) through medium (JASP 15) to high (jamovi 43, R Commander 43).
While the R-Instat project welcomes contributions from anyone, there are not any modules to add at this time. All of its capabilities are included in its initial installation.
Some user interfaces for R, such as jamovi or JASP, start by double-clicking on a single icon, which is great for people who prefer to not write code. Others, such as R commander and JGR, have you start R, then load a package from your library, and then finally call a function. That’s better for people looking to learn R, as those are among the first tasks they’ll have to learn anyway.
You start R-Instat directly by double-clicking its icon from your desktop or choosing it from your Start Menu (i.e., not from within R).
A data editor is a fundamental feature in data analysis software. It puts you in touch with your data and lets you get a feel for it, if only in a rough way. A data editor is such a simple concept that you might think there would be hardly any differences in how they work in different GUIs. While there are technical differences, to a beginner what matters the most are the differences in simplicity. Some GUIs, including jamovi, let you create only what R calls a data frame. They use more common terminology and call it a data set: you create one, you save one, later you open one, then you use one. Others, such as RKWard trade this simplicity for the full R language perspective: a data set is stored in a workspace. So the process goes: you create a data set, you save a workspace, you open a workspace, and choose a data set from within it.
R-Instat starts up by showing its screen (Fig. 1). Under Start, I chose “New Data Frame” and it showed me the rather perplexing dialog shown in Fig. 2.
As an R user, I know what expressions are, but what did the R-Instat designers mean by the term?
Clicking the “Construct Examples” button brought up the suggestions shown in Fig. 3. These are standard R expressions, which came as quite a surprise! It seems that the R-Instat designers are wanting to get people to start using R programming code immediately.
Clicking the Help button brings up the advice, “the simplest option is Empty” (the developers say this will become the default in a future version). Clicking that button brings up a simple prompt for the number of rows and columns you would like to create. After that, you’re looking at a basic spreadsheet (Fig. 4) that easily lets you enter data. As you enter data, it determines if it is numeric or character. Scientific notation is accepted, but dates are saved as character variables. Logical values (TRUE, FALSE) are recognized as such and are stored appropriately.
Right-clicking on any column allows you to convert variables to be a factor, ordered factor, numeric, logical, or character. These changes are recorded as function calls to a custom “convert_column_to_type” function for reproducibility. Such interactive changes are not usually recorded by other R GUIs. Date/time conversion is not available on that menu, as that process is trickier. Those conversions are on the “Prepare> Column Date” menu item. Other things you can do from the right-click menu are: rename, duplicate, reorder, set levels/labels, sort, and filter/remove filter.
The class of each variable is indicated by a character code that follows each variable name in parenthesis: (C) for character, (F) for factor, (O.F) for ordered factor, (D) for date, (L) for logical. When no code follows a variable name, it is numeric.
The name of the dataset appears on a tab at the bottom of the Data View window. This lets you easily manage multiple datasets, an ability that is popular among professionals, but which is rarely offered in R GUIs (BlueSky and R Commander are the only others that offer it).
Once the dataset is saved, to add rows or columns you choose, “Prepare > Data Frame > Insert rows/columns” to add new rows or columns at any position in the data frame. New columns can be added with a specified default value, which can be a big time-saver when entering blocks of related data.
There is a quicker method that works for inserting new rows. You right-click the row numbers and a pop-up menu will allow you to insert rows above or below, and the number of rows selected is the number of rows added – like in Excel.
When editing data, R-Instat lets you type new values on top of the old. As soon as you press the Enter key, it generates R code to execute the change. For example, in a language variable, when changing the value “English” to “Spanish,” it wrote,
Replace Value in Data
data_book$replace_value_in_data(data_name="wakefield", col_name="Language", rows="78", new_value="Spanish")
This is important for reproducibility, but R-Instat is the only GUI reviewed here that tracks such important manual changes. In fact, even among expensive proprietary software, Stata is the only one that I’m aware of that keeps track of such changes using code.
If you have another data set to enter, you can restart the process by choosing “File> New Data…” again. You can change data sets simply by clicking on its tab, and its window will pop to the front for you to see. When doing analyses, or saving data, the data set that is displayed in the editor does not influence what appears in dialog boxes. That means that you can be looking at one dataset while analyzing another! Since each dialog allows you to choose the dataset to use, that is technically not a problem, but if you have several datasets that contain the same variable names, remember that what you see may not be what you get! That’s the opposite of BlueSky Statistics, which automatically analyzes the dataset you see. R-Instat’s ability to work with multiple datasets in a single instance of the software is not a feature found in all R GUIs. For example, jamovi and JASP can only work with a single dataset at a time.
Saving the data is done with a fairly standard “File> Save As> Save Dataset As” menu. By default it will save all open datasets, filters, graphs, and models to a single file called a “data book.” That makes working with complex projects much easier to open and close.
R-Instat supports the following file formats, most of which are automatically opened using “File> Import from File”. The ODK and NetCDF file formats have their own Import menus. R-Instat’s ability to open many formats related to climate science hints at what the software excels at. For details, see the Analysis Methods section below.
- Comma Separated Values (.csv)
- Plain text files (.txt)
- Excel (old and new xls file types)
- xBASE database files (dBase, etc.)
- SPSS (.sav)
- SAS binary files (sas7bdat and *.xpt)
- Standard R workspace files (RData, but it just opens one dataframe of its choosing)
- Open Data Kit (ODK)
- Network Common Data Form (NetCDF)
- SST Sea Surface Temperature formatted files
- IRI Data Library (API download)
- Climate Data Store (CDS) (API download)
- Climsoft (Climatic database)
- .dly (ASCII files)
- .dat (ASCII files)
- Tab Separated Values (.tsv)
- Stata (.dta)
- JSON (.json)
- epiinfo (.rec)
- Minitab (.mtb)
- Systat (.syd).
- CSV with a YAML metadata header (.csvy)
- Feather R/Python interchange format (.feather)
- Pipe separated files (.psv)
- YAML (.yml)
- Weka Attribute-Relation File Format (.arff)
- Data Interchange Format (.dif)
- OpenDocument Spreadsheet (*.ods)
- Shallow XML documents (*.xml)
- Single-table HTML documents (*.html)