Posted on 3 minute read

R is awesome for working with tabular data. The language and its libraries together offer comprehensive support for querying, visualizing, and modifying data in the form of rows and columns.

Unfortunately, much data in the world is not tabular, and so not amenable to direct manipulation in R. JSON, one of today’s most popular interchange formats, is hierarchical or tree-like.

The JSONPath query language has been developed to facilitate querying JSON trees, and is accessible in R through the rjsonpath library.

An alternative to using a purpose-built tree query language like JSONPath is to:

  1. Parse the tree from JSON (such as with jsonlite) into a tree of R objects.
  2. Convert the tree to a table.
  3. Work with it from there, in R, without hand-writing tree-walking code or resorting to a separate query language.


A tree can be represented as a table of paths. For example, the following structures have different affordances but are informationally equivalent:

# Tree
  people = list(
    list(name = "Joe", age = 34),
    list(name = "Lance", age = 46),
    list(name = "Margaret")

# Table
  list("people", 0, "name", "Joe")
  list("people", 0, "age", 34)
  list("people", 1, "name", "Lance")
  list("people", 1, "age", 46)
  list("people", 2, "name", "Margaret")

The tree_df function below performs this transformation by walking the tree and recursively accumulating a list of paths, and then converting the list of paths to a dataframe with rows of uniform length:

# Returns a list of lists, each a path into the nested structure x. Each path
# ends with the value at the leaf.
paths <- function(parent, x) {
  paths_recurse <- function(items) {
      lapply(items, function(item) {
        paths(c(parent, item), x[[item]])
      recursive = FALSE
  if (typeof(x) == "list") {
    if (is.null(names(x))) {
      # Unnamed list aka JSON array
    } else if (length(x) > 0) {
      # Named list aka JSON object
  } else {
    # Leaf, return the path to the leaf and its value
    list(c(parent, x))

# Returns a data frame where each row is a distinct path into a tree of lists,
# such as that produced by jsonlite::fromJSON. Useful for querying deeply-nested
# structures in a tabular fashion.
tree_df <- function(tree) {
  ps <- paths(list(), tree)

  # Ensure rows are all the same length, with NA for padding
  lengths <- vapply(ps, length, numeric(1))
  longest <- max(lengths)
  padded <- Map(ps, lengths, f = function(path, len) {
    append(path, rep(NA, longest - len))
  }), padded))


With tree_df we can create a table from a tree:

tree <- list(
  people = list(
    list(name = "Joe", age = 34),
    list(name = "Lance", age = 46),
    list(name = "Margaret")
df <- tree_df(tree)

Now, as a dataframe, the structure can be queried path-wise using subset. However, because each column represents a depth, and the values at a particular depth are not necessarily the same type, it’s useful to have a helper function to suppress the warnings subset produces about this:

tree_subset <- function(...) suppressWarnings(subset(...))

Finally, we can write code to tell us everyone’s names:

> tree_subset(df, V3 == "name", V4)
1      Joe
3    Lance
5 Margaret

Or we could find all the ages under 40:

> tree_subset(df, V3 == "age" & V4 < 40, V4)
2 34


We can join query results in order to answer questions like “What are the names of people under 40?”

First we gather the “ids” of people in the graph as people_ids, and then we filter by it in a subsequent query using %in%.

people_ids <- tree_subset(df, V3 == "age" & V4 < 40)
tree_subset(df, V2 %in% people_ids & V3 == "name")$V4


Transforming trees into tables provides a way to use R like a path query language. The conversion requires walking the tree and storing it in memory as a table, and so may not be suitable for large trees. For small trees, however, the computation time is negligible and the programmer is able to write clear R code for querying the structure without explicitly walking the tree or admitting a separate query language.

Many thanks to Barret Schloerke for reviewing this post and suggesting improvements.