Dual Axis Plots

:: racket, data visualization

… in which we explore how to show on the same plot two data series that have different data ranges. The Racket Plot package does not support this functionality directly, but with the help of some data transformation, we can still achieve good results.

The plot below shows the elevation and grade plotted against distance for a hiking activity. Elevation values range between 850 and 1300 meters, and the grade values range from –30% to about 30%, so simply plotting them together would not produce a nice looking result. Instead the data needs to be transformed and some extra plot parameters need to be used to show a correct scale for both data series.

Combined Elevation and Grade Plot

Combined Elevation and Grade Plot

This blog post aims to illustrate a general mechanism for constructing dual axis plots, but since it is difficult to have an abstract discussion, all the examples will show how to plot elevation and grade (slope) data from a hiking activity. However, the same idea can be used for any type of data.

Limitations of the Plot Package

So you have some data recorded for a hiking activity and you would like to plot the elevation profile as well as the grade along the route. The task is simple enough: just load the data in a data frame and use the plot package to display it:

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(define df (df-read/csv "./track-data-1858.csv"))

(list
  (parameterize ([plot-x-label "Distance (km)"]
                 [plot-y-label "Grade (%)"])
    (plot (lines (df-select* df "distance" "grade"))))
  (parameterize ([plot-x-label "Distance (km)"]
                 [plot-y-label "Elevation (meters)"])
    (plot (lines (df-select* df "distance" "calt")))))

Which will produce two plots side-by-side:

Grade and Elevation as Separate Plots

Grade and Elevation as Separate Plots

How can we combine these two plots into a single one? After all, both the elevation and grade data samples are from the same hiking activity and they share the same X axis (distance, in this case). Well, the plot package allows rendering multiple data sets on the same plot, and it does allow defining a “far Y axis”, which is the axis on the right of the plot. So, in the first try, we could write:

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(parameterize ([plot-x-label "Distance (km)"]
               [plot-y-label "Grade (%)"]
               [plot-y-far-label "Elevation (meters)"])
  (plot (list
         (lines (df-select* df "distance" "grade"))
         (lines (df-select* df "distance" "calt")))))

Unfortunately, this does not produce a good result: the elevation data series shows up relatively OK on the plot, but the grade series is barely visible as it hovers around the 0 axis. It does make sense, however: there is a single X axis (distance), but also a single Y axis, which shows both elevation and grade. Since elevation values range between 850 and 1300 meters, and the grade values range from –30% to about 30%, the Y axis will display a data range from –30 to about 1300. This range represents about 33% of the elevation data range, but only about 4% of the grade data range, so neither plots will occupy the entire Y range and the grade plot, using only 4% of the plot area, will be practically useless.

Combined Grade and Elevation Plot, Wrong Scale

Combined Grade and Elevation Plot, Wrong Scale

Dual Axis Plot

The Racket plot package is only able to use a single Y axis for the plot area, and our data series use separate ranges — [–30 .. 30] for the grade data and [850 .. 1300] for elevation — so we will need to transform one of the data series to have the same data range before plotting them.

What is the range of our data series anyway? The data-frame package provides a df-statistics function which returns a statistics object about a data series. This statistics object contains information about the minimum, maximum, average values of the data (plus a few more things). Since we are interested in only the minimum and maximum values for a data series, we will write a helper function, get-low+high, which returns these two values, adjusted to allow for some room at the top and bottom of the plot:

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(define (get-low+high df series [room 0.25])
  (let* ([stats (df-statistics df series)]
         [low (statistics-min stats)]
         [high (statistics-max stats)]
         [adjust (* (statistics-range stats) room)])
    ;; Make the Y range of the plot slightly larger than 
    ;; the min/max values
    (values (- low adjust) (+ high adjust))))

The get-low+high function can be tested directly in DrRacket, to check that it produces reasonable values for our data series. Note that the function does not return the minimum and maximum values of the series, but a slightly larger interval, so there will be an “inset” inside the plot, and the plotted lines will not touch the plot borders.

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> (get-low+high df "grade")
-46.699999999999996
48.099999999999994
> (get-low+high df "calt")
749.0727499999999
1384.21025

The next step is to write a function which transforms values from one data range to another. We could put the above numbers directly in the transform, but it is useful to create a more general function, which takes the two ranges as parameters and constructs the transform:

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(define (make-g->b base-min base-max guest-min guest-max)
  (define base-range (- base-max base-min))
  (define guest-range (- guest-max guest-min))
  (lambda (v)
    (let ([p (/ (- v guest-min) guest-range)])
      (+ base-min (* p base-range)))))

And here is another helper function which transforms an entire data set from one range to another:

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(define (g->b data transform)
  (for/vector ([item data])
    (match-define (vector x y) item)
    (vector x (transform y))))

With the data transformation routines in place, we can now create a plot where we transform one data set to use the data range of another. In the example below, the altitude data series is transformed into the range of the grade series, but this choice is arbitrary, and we could have equally well transformed the grade series into the range of he elevation series with the same result. To do that, the arguments to make-g->b would have to be swapped.

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(let-values ([(alt-min alt-max) (get-low+high df "calt")]
             [(grade-min grade-max) (get-low+high df "grade")])
  (define transform (make-g->b grade-min grade-max alt-min alt-max))
  (parameterize ([plot-x-label "Distance (km)"]
                 [plot-y-label "Grade (%)"]
                 [plot-y-far-label "Elevation (meters)"])
    (plot-pict (list
                (lines (df-select* df "distance" "grade"))
                (lines (g->b (df-select* df "distance" "calt") transform))))))

… and the result is more pleasing:

Combined Grade and Elevation Plot, no Axis Ticks for Elevation

Combined Grade and Elevation Plot, no Axis Ticks for Elevation

Drawing Labels for Both Data Series

The two data series now occupy the entire plot area, but the “guest” series, which in our case is the elevation, has no labels drawn on the right hand axis, creating the appearance that the elevation also ranges from –30 to 30. The plot-y-far-ticks plot parameter can be used to specify the ticks to be drawn, but we will need to scale them as well in order to display values in the appropriate range, which can be done using ticks-scale.

The ticks-scale function requires two parameters: the plot ticks to scale, here we can use linear-ticks which are the default, and something called an invertible-function.

invertible-function is a structure containing two functions used to convert from one range to another and back. The make-g->b function already creates one of these functions, the one which transforms a “guest” data range into a “base” data range, and we will need to define the reverse one which transforms the “base” data range into the “guest” data range. The two functions are similar, with just the parameters reversed, and to avoid confusion, we’ll create the invertible-function in make-guest-transform which will replace make-g->b:

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(define (make-guest-transform base-min base-max guest-min guest-max)
  (define base-range (- base-max base-min))
  (define guest-range (- guest-max guest-min))
  (invertible-function
   (lambda (v)                          ; Transform from base to guest
     (let ([p (/ (- v base-min) base-range)])
       (+ guest-min (* p guest-range))))
   (lambda (v)                          ; Transform from guest to base
     (let ([p (/ (- v guest-min) guest-range)])
       (+ base-min (* p base-range))))))

The invertible function structure contains one of the function to transform the input data, so we can use the result of make-guest-transform to guest->base which does the data transform (again, to avoid confusion, we didn’t update g->b):

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(define (guest->base guest-data transform)
  (let ([tr (invertible-function-g transform)])
    (for/vector ([item guest-data])
      (match-define (vector x y) item)
      (vector x (tr y)))))

With all this preparation, we can now plot the altitude and grade data series on the same plot, with an Y axis on each side, the left one corresponding to grade data and the right one to the elevation data:

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(let-values ([(alt-min alt-max) (get-low+high df "calt")]
             [(grade-min grade-max) (get-low+high df "grade")])
  (define transform (make-guest-transform grade-min grade-max alt-min alt-max))
  (parameterize ([plot-x-label "Distance (km)"]
                 [plot-y-far-label "Elevation (meters)"]
                 [plot-y-label "Grade (%)"]
                 [plot-y-far-ticks (ticks-scale (linear-ticks) transform)])
    (plot (list
           (lines (df-select* df "distance" "grade"))
           (lines (guest->base (df-select* df "distance" "calt") transform))))))

which produces the following plot:

Combined Elevation and Grade Plot

Combined Elevation and Grade Plot

Final thoughts

Can this technique be extended for more than two data series? Well, yes and no: any number of data series can be transformed into the base data range by creating individual transforms, but the problem is that the Racket plot package only allows two Y axis on the plot, left and right (also called near and far axis), and this means that no axis can be displayed for the additional data series. In fact, this blog post is inspired by a Racket Plot Package Issue, which illustrates this limitation of the plot package.

© Alex Harsányi, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 , and there's a cookie policy.