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Pandas read csv() Tutorial: Importing Data

Importing data is the first step in any data science project. Learn why today's data scientists prefer pandas' read_csv() function to do this.
May 2018  · 9 min read

Pandas Tutorial: Importing Data with read_csv()

The first step to any data science project is to import your data. Often, you'll work with data in Comma Separated Value (CSV) files and run into problems at the very start of your workflow. In this tutorial, you'll see how you can use the read_csv() function from pandas to deal with common problems when importing data and see why loading CSV files specifically with pandas has become standard practice for working data scientists today.

The filesystem

Before you can use pandas to import your data, you need to know where your data is in your filesystem and what your current working directory is. You'll see why this is important very soon, but let's review some basic concepts:

Everything on the computer is stored in the filesystem. "Directories" is just another word for "folders", and the "working directory" is simply the folder you're currently in. The Introduction to Shell for Data Science course on DataCamp will give you a full, hands-on experience with its utility, but here are some basic Shell commands to navigate your way in the filesystem:

  • The ls command lists all content in the current working directory.
  • The cd command followed by:
    • the name of a sub-directory allows you to change your working directory to the sub-directory you specify.
    • .. allows you to navigate back to the parent directory of your current working directory.
  • The pwd command prints the path of your current working directory.

IPython allows you to execute Shell commands directly from the IPython console via its magic commands. Here are the ones that correspond to the commands you saw above:

  • ! ls in IPython is the same as ls in the command line.
  • %cd in IPython is the same as cd in the command line.
  • ! pwd in IPython is the same as pwd in the command line. The working directory is also printed after changing into it in IPython, which isn't the case in the command line.

In your filesystem, there's a file called cereal.csv that contains nutrition data on 80 cereals. Enter the magic commands one-by-one in the IPython Shell, and see if you can locate the dataset!


Did you find it in the data directory? Excellent work!

Loading your data

Now that you know what your current working directory is and where the dataset is in your filesystem, you can specify the file path to it. You're now ready to import the CSV file into Python using read_csv() from pandas:

import pandas as pd
cereal_df = pd.read_csv("/tmp/tmp07wuam09/data/cereal.csv")
cereal_df2 = pd.read_csv("data/cereal.csv")

# Are they the same?
print(pd.DataFrame.equals(cereal_df, cereal_df2))

As you can see in the code chunk above, the file path is the main argument to read_csv() and it was specified in two ways. You can use the full file path which is prefixed by a / and includes the working directory in the specification, or use the relative file path which doesn't. The read_csv() function is smart enough to decipher whether it's working with full or relative file paths and convert your flat file as a DataFrame without a problem. (Note: the environment for every DataCamp session is temporary, so the working directory you saw in the previous section may not be identical to the one you see in the code chunk above.)

Continue on and see how else pandas makes importing CSV files easier. Let's use some of the function's customizable options, particularly for the way it deals with headers, incorrect data types, and missing data.

Dealing with headers

Headers refer to the column names of your dataset. For some datasets you might encounter, the headers may be completely missing, partially missing, or they might exist, but you may want to rename them. How can you deal with such issues effectively with pandas?

Let's take a closer look at your data:

df = pd.read_csv("data/cereal.csv")
                         X.1      X.2      X.3       X.4      X.5      X.6  \
0                       name      mfr     type  calories  protein      fat   
1                  100% Bran        N        C        70        4        1   
2          100% Natural Bran        Q  no info       120        3        5   
3                   All-Bran  no info        C        70        4        1   
4  All-Bran with Extra Fiber        K        C        50        4  no info   

      X.7    X.8      X.9    X.10     X.11      X.12   X.13     X.14  X.15  \
0  sodium  fiber    carbo  sugars   potass  vitamins  shelf   weight  cups   
1       .     10  no info       6      280        25      3        1  0.33   
2      15      2        8       8      135         0      .        1     1   
3     260      9        7       5  no info        25      3        1  0.33   
4     140     14        8       0      330        25      3  no info   0.5   

0     rating  
1  68.402973  
2    no info  
3  59.425505  
4  93.704912

It seems like more sensible columns names would be name, mfr, ..., rating, but they're incorrectly imported as the first observation in the dataset! Let's try to have these as the headers. The read_csv() function has an argument called skiprows that allows you to specify the number of lines to skip at the start of the file. In this case, you want to skip the first line, so let's try importing your CSV file with skiprows set equal to 1:

df = pd.read_csv("data/cereal.csv", skiprows = 1)
                        name      mfr     type  calories protein      fat  \
0                  100% Bran        N        C        70       4        1   
1          100% Natural Bran        Q  no info       120       3        5   
2                   All-Bran  no info        C        70       4        1   
3  All-Bran with Extra Fiber        K        C        50       4  no info   
4             Almond Delight        R        C       110       2        2   

  sodium  fiber    carbo  sugars   potass vitamins shelf   weight  cups  \
0      .   10.0  no info       6      280       25     3        1  0.33   
1     15    2.0        8       8      135        0     .        1  1.00   
2    260    9.0        7       5  no info       25     3        1  0.33   
3    140   14.0        8       0      330       25     3  no info  0.50   
4    200    1.0       14       8       -1        .     3        1  0.75   

0  68.402973  
1    no info  
2  59.425505  
3  93.704912  
4  34.384843


Even when you don't specify the headers, the read_csv() function correctly infers that the first observation contains the headers for the dataset. Not only that, read_csv() can infer the data types for each column of your dataset as well. You can see below the calories column is an integer column, whereas the fiber column is a float column:


Dealing with missing values and incorrect data types

In pandas, columns with a string value are stored as type object by default. Because missing values in this dataset appear to be encoded as either 'no info' or '.', both string values, checking the data type for a column with missing values such as the fat column, you can see that its data type isn't ideal:


When the column's data type is an object, doing simple arithmetic results in unexpected results. This sort of behavior can be problematic when doing all sorts of tasks—visualizing distributions, finding outliers, training models—because you expect Python to treat numbers as numbers.

Run the code below to see an example of this. Your dataset has been loaded as df.


But 1 + 5 is not 15!

Ideally, the fat column should be treated as type int64 or float64, and missing data should be encoded as NaN so that you can apply statistics in a missing-value-friendly manner. Instead of parsing through each column and replacing 'no info' and '.' with NaN values after the dataset is loaded, you can use the na_values argument to account for those before it's loaded:

df = pd.read_csv("data/cereal.csv", skiprows = 1, na_values = ['no info', '.'])
                        name  mfr type  calories  protein  fat  sodium  fiber  \
0                  100% Bran    N    C        70      4.0  1.0     NaN   10.0   
1          100% Natural Bran    Q  NaN       120      3.0  5.0    15.0    2.0   
2                   All-Bran  NaN    C        70      4.0  1.0   260.0    9.0   
3  All-Bran with Extra Fiber    K    C        50      4.0  NaN   140.0   14.0   
4             Almond Delight    R    C       110      2.0  2.0   200.0    1.0   

   carbo  sugars  potass  vitamins  shelf  weight  cups     rating  
0    NaN       6   280.0      25.0    3.0     1.0  0.33  68.402973  
1    8.0       8   135.0       0.0    NaN     1.0  1.00        NaN  
2    7.0       5     NaN      25.0    3.0     1.0  0.33  59.425505  
3    8.0       0   330.0      25.0    3.0     NaN  0.50  93.704912  
4   14.0       8    -1.0       NaN    3.0     1.0  0.75  34.384843

Now try the same arithmetic you saw a moment ago:


Awesome. 1 + 5 is indeed 6. The values in the fat column are now treated as numerics.


Now that you have a better idea of what to watch out for when importing data, let's recap. With a single line of code involving read_csv() from pandas, you:

  • Located the CSV file you want to import from your filesystem.
  • Corrected the headers of your dataset.
  • Dealt with missing values so that they're encoded properly as NaNs.
  • Corrected data types for every column in your dataset.
  • Converted a CSV file to a Pandas DataFrame (see why that's important in this Pandas tutorial).

Final Thoughts

Although the CSV file is one of the most common formats for storing data, there are other file types that the modern-day data scientist must be familiar with. You now have a good sense of how useful pandas is when importing the CSV file, and conveniently, pandas offers other similar and equally handy functions to import Excel, SAS, and Stata files to name a few.

Yet, due to the active community in open source software, there is constant activity in file formats and ways to import data. Lots of useful, high quality datasets are hosted on the web and accessed through APIs, for example. If you're curious and want to know the state of the art, DataCamp's Importing Data in Python (Part 1) and Importing Data in Python (Part 2) courses and Importing Data into Pandas tutorial will teach you all the best practices.

Happy Learning!

Run and edit the code from this tutorial online

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