Importing Data Into R from Different Sources

I have found that I get data from many different sources.  These sources range from simple .csv files to more complex relational databases, to structure XML or JSON files.  I have compiled the different approaches that one can use to easily access these datasets.

Local Column Delimited Files

This is probably the most common and easiest approach to load data into R.  It simply requires one line to do everything that is needed to set up the data.  Then a couple additional lines to tidy up the dataset.

file <- "c:\\my_folder\\my_file.txt"
 raw_data <- read.csv(file, sep=",");  ##'sep' can be a number of options including \t for tab delimited
 names(raw_data) <- c("VAR1","VAR2","RESPONSE1")

Text File From the Internet

I find this very useful when I need to get datasets from a Web site.  This is particularly useful if I need to rerun the script and the Web site continually updates their data.  This save me from having to download the dataset into a csv file each time I need to run an update.  In this example I use one of my favorite data sources which comes from the National Data Buoy Center.  This example pulls data from a buoy (buoy #44025) off the coast of New Jersey.  Conveniently you can use the same read.csv() function that you would use if read the file from you own computer.  You simply replace the file location with the URL of the data.

file <- "<a href=""></a>"

raw_data <- read.csv(file, header=T, skip=1)

Files From Other Software

Often I will have Excel files, SPSS files, or SAS dataset set to me.  Once again I can either export the data as a csv file and then import using the read.csv function.  However, taking that approach every time means that there is an additional step.  By adding unnecessary steps to a process increases the risk that the data might get corrupted due to human error.  Furthermore, if the data is updated from time to time then the data that you downloaded last week may not have the most current data.



file <- "C:\\my_folder\\my_file.sav"
 raw <-


Microsoft Excel


file <- "C:\\my_folder\\my_file.xlsx"
 raw_wb <- loadWorkbook(file, create=F)
 raw <- readWorksheet(raw_wb, sheet='Sheet1') )

Data From Relational Databases

There is the RMySQL library which is very useful.  However, I have generally been in the habit of using the RODBC library.  The reason for this is that I will often jump between databases (e.g. Oracle, MSSQL, MySQL).  By using the RODBC library I can keep all of my connections in one location and use the same functions regardless of the databases.  This example below will work on any standard SQL database.  You just need to make sure you set up an ODBC connection call (in this example) MY_DATABASE.

channel <- odbcConnect("MY_DATABASE", uid="username", pwd="password")
 raw <- sqlQuery(channel, "SELECT * FROM Table1");

Data from Non-Relational Databases

R has the capability to pull data from non-relational databases.  These include Hadoop (rhbase), Cassandra (RCassandra), MongoDB (rmongodb).  I personally have not used RCassandra but here is the documentation.  The example here uses MongoDB using an example provided by MongoDB.

MyMongodb <- "test"
 ns <- "articles"
 mongo <- mongo.create(db=MyMmongodb)
 list.d <- mongo.bson.from.list(list(
 name=list(first="Wesley", last=""),
 value=c("7", "5","8","2")
 mongo.insert(mongo, "test.MyPeople", list.d)
 list.d2 <- mongo.bson.from.list(list(
 when=mongo.timestamp.create(strptime("2012-10-01 01:30:00",
 "%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%s"), increment=1),
 title="Importing Data Into R from Different Sources",
 text="Provides R code on how to import data into R from different sources.",
 tags=c("R", "MongoDB", "Cassandra","MySQL","Excel","SPSS"),
 when=mongo.timestamp.create(strptime("2012-10-01 01:35:00",
 "%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%s"), increment=1),
 comment="I'm open to comments or suggestions on other data sources to include."
 mongo.insert(mongo, "test.MyArticles", list.d2)
 res <- mongo.find(mongo, "test.MyArticles", query=list(author="wes"), fields=list(title=1L))
 out <- NULL
 while ({
 out <- c(out, list(


Copied and Pasted Text

raw_txt <- "
 AL 36 36
 AK 5 8
 AZ 15 16
 AR 21 27
 CA 43 43
 CT 56 68
 DE 22 22
 DC 7 7
 FL 130 132
 GA 53 54
 HI 11 16
 ID 11 11
 IL 24 24
 IN 65 77
 IA 125 130
 KS 22 26
 KY 34 34
 LA 27 34
 ME 94 96
 MD 25 26
 MA 82 92
 Mi 119 126
 MN 69 80
 MS 43 43
 MO 74 82
 MT 34 40
 NE 9 13
 NV 64 64
 NM 120 137
 NY 60 62
 NJ 29 33
 NH 44 45
 ND 116 135
 NC 29 33
 OH 114 130
 OK 19 22
 PA 101 131
 RI 32 32
 Sc 35 45
 SD 25 25
 TN 30 34
 TX 14 25
 UT 11 11
 VT 33 49
 VA 108 124
 WV 27 36
 WI 122 125
 WY 12 14
 raw_data <- textConnection(raw_txt)
 raw <- read.table(raw_data, header=TRUE, comment.char="#", sep="")
 ###Or the following line can be used
 raw <- read.table(header=TRUE, text=raw_txt)

 Structured Local or Remote Data

One feature that I find quite useful is when there is a Web site with a table that I want to analyze.  R has the capability to read through the HTML and import the table that you want.  This example uses the XML library and pulls down the population by country in the world.  Once the data is brought into R it may need to be cleaned up a bit removing unnecessary columns and other stray characters.  The examples here use remote data from other Web sites.  If the data is available as a local file then it can be imported in a similar fashion just using filename rather than the URL.


url <- ""
 population = readHTMLTable(url, which=3)

Or you can use the feature to simple grab XML content.  I have found this particularly useful when I need geospatial data and need to get the latitude/longitude of a location (this example uses Open Street Maps API provided by MapQuest).  This example obtains the results for the coordinates of the United States White House.

 url <- ",%20Washington,%20DC&outFormat=xml"
 mygeo <- xmlToDataFrame(url)

An alternate approach is to use a JSON format.  I generally find that JSON is a better format and it can be readily used in most programming languages.

 url <- ",%20Washington,%20DC&outFormat=json"
 raw_json <- scan(url, "", sep="\n")
 mygeo <- fromJSON(raw_json)
Leave a comment


  1. Nicely explained. Good post.
    One point just for the sake of choices.

    For reading copied data, we can also use the read.clipboard() function from the psych package. It is very helpful (and quick) when you just have a few rows data that you copied from a webpage or text file.

    • RA

       /  December 7, 2012

      I also used psych for pasting stuff when I started with R until I noticed that there is no need for loading the a package everytime: read.delim(“clipboard”) or read.csv(“clipboard”) etc. will work too.

  2. why read.spss( x ) ) instead of read.spss( x , = TRUE?

    and don’t miss SAScii ;)

  3. abc

     /  December 7, 2012

    how to list files int the www directory?
    For eg.

    how to list the files and download it?
    list.dirs(dir) ## do not work


    • require(RCurl)
      url = ""
      filenames.raw = getURL(url,ftp.use.epsv = FALSE, dirlistonly = TRUE)
      filenames.all = paste(url, strsplit(filenames.raw, "\r*\n")[[1]], sep = "")
      include < - grep("*.txt",filenames.all) filenames <- filenames.all[include] con = getCurlHandle(ftp.use.epsv = FALSE) contents = sapply(filenames, function(x) try(getURL(x, curl = con))) names(contents) = filenames[1:length(contents)]

  4. Shailesh

     /  March 8, 2013

    Can you please explain how to import a SAS file into R? I didn’t find it in the explanation above. Thanks for uploading this post.

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