Visualisation using Seaborn

The notes listed here are based on this DataCamp tutorial on Seaborn by Karlijn Willems and this CODATA-RDA module on visualisation by Sara El Jadid.

During this module we'll be making use of Seaborn, which provides a high-level interface to draw statistical graphics.

Seaborn vs Matplotlib

Seaborn is complimentary to Matplotlib and it specifically targets statistical data visualization. But it goes even further than that: Seaborn extends Matplotlib and that’s why it can address the two biggest frustrations of working with Matplotlib. Or, as Michael Waskom says in the “introduction to Seaborn”: “If matplotlib “tries to make easy things easy and hard things possible”, seaborn tries to make a well-defined set of hard things easy too.”

One of these hard things or frustrations had to do with the default Matplotlib parameters. Seaborn works with different parameters, which undoubtedly speaks to those users that don’t use the default looks of the Matplotlib plots.

During this module we'll also be making some use of Pandas to extract features of the data that we need.

Getting started

In the first instance please get yourself set up with a notebook on the Google colab site. Please go to

and then click on File and New Python 3 notebook.


log into the Kabre jupyter server and then click on New and then New Python 3.

We'll start with importing a set of libraries that will be useful for us and the gapminder data set.

import numpy as np
import pandas as pd
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import seaborn as sns

The last line is a choice about how things look - you may want to leave that out.

Now we'll read in the data. We will again use the gapminder data set but with the columns labelled differently. Please do not use the version you have used previously. The version is stored on a github repository which has been shortened using


So we are using pandas to read in the data set. The gapminder data set is a Data Frame.

Exploring the gapminder data set

The gapminder data set is a set of socioeconomic data about populations, GDP per capita and expected life span for a large number of countries over a number of years.

We can have a look at it using the head command.


You should get something like this.

Unnamed: 0 country continent year lifeExp pop gdpPercap
0 1 Afghanistan Asia 1952 28.801 8425333 779.445314
1 2 Afghanistan Asia 1957 30.332 9240934 820.853030
2 3 Afghanistan Asia 1962 31.997 10267083 853.100710
3 4 Afghanistan Asia 1967 34.020 11537966 836.197138
4 5 Afghanistan Asia 1972 36.088 13079460 739.981106

So it is a combination of categorical data (countries and continents) and quantitative data (year, lifeExp etc.). It's also nice (though unrealistic) that it doesn't have missing values or malformed data e.g. Ireland is written sometimes as "Ireland" and sometimes "ireland" and sometimes "Republic of Ireland" or even "Eire"!! Dealing with those kinds of issues is not what we're going to focus on here.

We can do a statistical summary of the numerical data using the describe function

Unnamed: 0 year lifeExp pop gdpPercap
count 1704.000000 1704.00000 1704.000000 1.704000e+03 1704.000000
mean 852.500000 1979.50000 59.474439 2.960121e+07 7215.327081
std 492.046746 17.26533 12.917107 1.061579e+08 9857.454543
min 1.000000 1952.00000 23.599000 6.001100e+04 241.165877
25% 426.750000 1965.75000 48.198000 2.793664e+06 1202.060309
50% 852.500000 1979.50000 60.712500 7.023596e+06 3531.846989
75% 1278.250000 1993.25000 70.845500 1.958522e+07 9325.462346
max 1704.000000 2007.00000 82.603000 1.318683e+09 113523.132900

One can find the names of the continents by executing the following.


We note that gapminder.continent gives us the list with the column corresponding to the continent entry. The set command converts the list into a set (which only has unique entries) and then list turns that back into a list again.

We can list these entries alphabetically from the command



  1. What does the function sorted do?

  2. Do the same for the countries.

The gsapminder data set also presents lots of questions such as

  • Is there a relationship between gdpPercap (roughly a measure of the average wealth of each person in a country) and their average life span?
  • Is the average life span changing over time?
  • How does picture change over different countries or comntinents?

Visualisation allows us to explore all of this!

Getting started with seaborn

Let us start with doing box plots which count the number of entries that we have for each continent.

sns.countplot(x="continent", data=gapminder)

You should get the folllowing.


Note that generically seaborn generally looks like this.

sns.(x=, y=, ... , data =< a data frame>)

We use countplot here to just count entries and plot them as a box plot.


What happens if we do the following?

sns.countplot(x="Continent", data=gapminder)

What does that tell us?

Printing out

You can save a figure as a PNG or as a PDF then in the same cell as the command you run to plot use the savefig command.

sns.countplot(x="continent", data=gapminder)

Looking at 1-d distributions

We can use the command catplot to just look at the distribution of life expenctancies.

sns.catplot(y="lifeExp", data=gapminder)

You should get something like this.


The points are jittered i.e. randomly moved in the horizontal axis to make things clearer. We can switch that off if we wish.

sns.catplot(y="lifeExp", data=gapminder,jitter=False)


This scatterplot is not very informative! We can create a box plot of the data

sns.boxplot(y="lifeExp", data=gapminder)

This should give the following.



One can use another type of plot called a violin plot which tries to summarise the distribution better than a boxplot. The width of the violin plot represents how big the distribution is at that value. It is quite useful for picking out multi-modal (one with a distribution that has more than one peak). The command in seaborn is violinplot. Try and implement this for this data.

Diving deeper into the data

Just looking at the life expectancy for all of the countries isn't very informative. The first thing we can do is ask how does this vary across continents. Seaborn does this easily by introducing an x-axis which is the continent. Again, let's try with just the points.

sns.catplot(x="continent", y="lifeExp", data=gapminder)



  1. Repeat this using box plots (and violin plots if you wish).
  2. Repeat the above steps using GDP per capita (gdpPercap) instead of life expectancy.
  3. You can also try the swarmplot function as another way to represent this data.

Can we just draw a distribution or a histogram? What about dividing it as continents? Yes! But we'll get to that in a bit.


Plotting the box plots with the continents in alphabetical order is quite easy.

orderedContinents = sorted(list(set(gapminder.continent)))

orderedContinents is a list with the continents ordered.

sns.boxplot(x="continent", y="lifeExp", order=orderedContinents, data=gapminder)


On the other hand we may want to order the box plots in ascending order of the medians of the life expectancy. This is more involved but is a good exercise in manipulating the data.

#Create an empty dictionary
medianLifeExps = {}
# Loop through all the continents
for val in gapminder.continent:
  # Create a new key which is the median life expectancy of that continent
  # gapminder[gapminder.continent == val] pulls out the continent in that loop
  # the .lifeExp.median() part then computes the median 
  # of the remaining life expectancy data
    key = gapminder[gapminder.continent==val].lifeExp.median()
  # create a new entry in the dictionary with the continent as the value and the key 
  # as the median.
    medianLifeExps[key] = val   
# Create a sorted list of the medians (in ascending order)    
sortedKeys = sorted(medianLifeExps)
# Finally return the list of continents in that order
orderedMedianContinents = []
for m in orderedMedians:
sns.boxplot(x="continent", y="lifeExp", order=orderedMedianContinents, data=gapminder)


Do the same plot for GDP per capita.

Line and scatter plots

Instead of having a categorical variable on the horizontal access we now do scatter and line plots. Let's start with the whole data set.



This is hard to grasp as a whole, so we'll just consider one country - China.

We can select data corresponding to China by the following.


sns.scatterplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",data= gapminder["China"])



Do the same for your country - if it isn't listed in gapminder then pick another.

A line plot works in the same way. It's possible to overlay these in the same cell.

sns.lineplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",data= gapminder["China"])
sns.scatterplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",data= gapminder["China"])


Expressing more variables with different attributes

It is hard to make out the points from the lines. We can change the colour (color) of the points accordingly.

sns.lineplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",data= gapminder["China"])
sns.scatterplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",color="red",data= gapminder["China"])


We can use the colour of the points to represent a different column - e.g. the year.

sns.lineplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",data= gapminder["China"])
                data= gapminder["China"])


The problem here is that only a certain number of years have been picked out. We need to tell seaborn how many years there are and how to set a palette of colours for this (the default palette has six colours).

# Find the number of years (why only set?)
n = len(set(gapminder.year))
sns.lineplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",data= gapminder["China"])
# We use a rainbow-like palette but there are others.
sns.scatterplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",hue="year",palette=sns.color_palette("rainbow_r",n), data= gapminder["China"])


We can use the size of the point to represent an additional column - the population.

n = len(set(gapminder.year))
sns.lineplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",data= gapminder["China"])
                data= gapminder["China"])


The problem now is that there is too much detail in the legend - so we'll switch that off.

n = len(set(gapminder.year))
sns.lineplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",data= gapminder["China"])
                data= gapminder["China"],


How useful is adding these attributes?


Pick another country and try this out. Costa Rica is interesting. Does anybody have an explanation?


We will now examine how life expenctancy has varied over time.

sns.lineplot(x="year",y="lifeExp",hue="country",data= gapminder,legend=False)


There are so many countries here I haven't even tried to construct a palette! Looking at this many countries are generally increasing but some are not following that trend. We could explore those outliers but here we will focus on trying to summarise what is going on (is a particular continent not going with the trend of increasing life span over time?)

To do this we need to use another pandas command groupby which creates a new data frame for particular variables. Once we have created that new data frame we can then plot the data.

# First create a new data frame which has the medians, by year and continent, of the life expectancy 
medianGapminder = gapminder.groupby(['continent','year']).lifeExp.median()
# Now plot it
sns.lineplot(x="year",y="lifeExp",hue="continent",data= medianGapminder)

What happened? The groupby command makes continent and year indices of the data (you can see this if you print out the data frame). Having created the data frame we need to reset the indices.

# First create a new data frame which has the medians, by year and continent, of the life expectancy 
medianGapminder = gapminder.groupby(['continent','year']).lifeExp.median()
# Now plot it
sns.lineplot(x="year",y="lifeExp",hue="continent",data= medianGapminder.reset_index())



  1. Repeat this using the GDP per capita.

  2. Use a different statistical summary apart from the median.


The line plots just "join the dots". It is more intesting to try and fit the data to a curve. We also want to do the fit and distinguish between the different continents. We can do this using the lmplot command.

sns.lmplot(x="year",y="lifeExp",hue="continent", data= medianGapminder.reset_index())


This does a simple linear regression. We can do more sophisticated types of fit, for example Loess (or Lowess).

sns.lmplot(x="year",y="lifeExp",hue="continent", lowess=True, data= medianGapminder.reset_index())



Repeat the above using the GDP per capita.

More regression

Now that we know how to fit curves through data with a number of different variables we can go back to the case of where we plotted the life expectancy against the GDP per capita. Instead of just doing a scatter plot we can now do regression (curve fitting) as function of the continent as well so we can see how the life expectancy varies between GDP per capita and the continent.

sns.lmplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",hue="continent", lowess=True,data=gapminder)

The problem here is that points are too large - we cannot see the trend. When you have many points make the point size smaller, indeed way smaller (someone described it as 'dust size') to see the trend better. Since Seaborn is based on Matplotlib we need to use a slightly different notation in the arguments to what was used previously.

# scatter_kws is passed onto the underlying matplotlib plotting routine.
sns.lmplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",hue="continent", lowess=True,data=gapminder,scatter_kws={"s":5})


The GDP per capita varies over a wide range and it would be good in the first instance to plot the x-axis on a logarithmic scale. Again since Seaborn is based on Matplotlib we need to use a slightly different notation to what was used previously.

ax = sns.lmplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",hue="continent", lowess=True, data=gapminder,scatter_kws={"s":5})


We now get a much better spread of the data but it's still hard to see how the different continents are behaving. To do that we make use of facet plots. These are simply plots of different but related variables that are organised on the same screen for easy comparison.

ax = sns.lmplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",col="continent", lowess=True, data=gapminder,scatter_kws={"s":5})


We note that the axes of all of these plots are the same so we can do a valid comparison. Still these plots are quite squashed as thy try and fit to the width of the page. Instead we can wrap them around.

ax = sns.lmplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",col="continent", 
                lowess=True, data=gapminder,scatter_kws={"s":5})


Finally, we can adjust the colour of the individual plots.

ax = sns.lmplot(x="gdpPercap",y="lifeExp",col="continent", hue="continent",
                lowess=True, data=gapminder,scatter_kws={"s":5})



Do the same type of plots for life expectancy against year.


We can plot the distribution of a list of data (one column from a data frame) using a kernal density approach and/or a histogram.


distplot only allows a single column from a data frame!


You can also add the raw data into this plot as well (although this isn't very useful in this case as there's so much data).




Do the same type of plot with the GDP per capita data.

Again we would like to break this down in separate continents. Again we will make use of facet plots. lmplot is designed to create facet plots but distplot isn't so we need to use a specific function called FacetGrid to do this. In the call below we also adjust the height and aspect (the height/width ratio) of the figures.

# Create a facet of the gapminder data based on the continents ordered alphabetically (orderedContinents)
g = sns.FacetGrid(gapminder, row="continent", row_order=orderedContinents,
                  height=2, aspect=4)
# Plot on the facets the distribution of the life expctancy data, but don't plot the histogram., "lifeExp", hist=False)


Finally the facet plot can also be used with just one facet!

# Create a facet plot with one facet but colour on continent.
g = sns.FacetGrid(gapminder, hue="continent",height=2, aspect=4)
# Plot the distributions with no histogram, "lifeExp", hist=False)
# Give the colour scheme in a legend



  • Do the same type of plot with the GDP per capita data
  • (Longer) Select the data from the gapminder data set for a particular continent and now create facet plots for those countries.