Missing Values

Missing Values

Julia provides support for representing missing values in the statistical sense, that is for situations where no value is available for a variable in an observation, but a valid value theoretically exists. Missing values are represented via the missing object, which is the singleton instance of the type Missing. missing is equivalent to NULL in SQL and NA in R, and behaves like them in most situations.

Propagation of Missing Values

The behavior of missing values follows one basic rule: missing values propagate automatically when passed to standard operators and functions, in particular mathematical functions. Uncertainty about the value of one of the operands induces uncertainty about the result. In practice, this means an operation involving a missing value generally returns missing

julia> missing + 1
missing

julia> "a" * missing
missing

julia> abs(missing)
missing

As missing is a normal Julia object, this propagation rule only works for functions which have opted in to implement this behavior. This can be achieved either via a specific method defined for arguments of type Missing, or simply by accepting arguments of this type, and passing them to functions which propagate them (like standard operators). Packages should consider whether it makes sense to propagate missing values when defining new functions, and define methods appropriately if that is the case. Passing a missing value to a function for which no method accepting arguments of type Missing is defined throws a MethodError, just like for any other type.

Equality and Comparison Operators

Standard equality and comparison operators follow the propagation rule presented above: if any of the operands is missing, the result is missing. Here are a few examples

julia> missing == 1
missing

julia> missing == missing
missing

julia> missing < 1
missing

julia> 2 >= missing
missing

In particular, note that missing == missing returns missing, so == cannot be used to test whether a value is missing. To test whether x is missing, use ismissing(x).

Special comparison operators isequal and === are exceptions to the propagation rule: they always return a Bool value, even in the presence of missing values, considering missing as equal to missing and as different from any other value. They can therefore be used to test whether a value is missing

julia> missing === 1
false

julia> isequal(missing, 1)
false

julia> missing === missing
true

julia> isequal(missing, missing)
true

The isless operator is another exception: missing is considered as greater than any other value. This operator is used by sort, which therefore places missing values after all other values.

julia> isless(1, missing)
true

julia> isless(missing, Inf)
false

julia> isless(missing, missing)
false

Logical operators

Logical (or boolean) operators |, & and xor are another special case, as they only propagate missing values when it is logically required. For these operators, whether or not the result is uncertain depends on the particular operation, following the well-established rules of three-valued logic which are also implemented by NULL in SQL and NA in R. This abstract definition actually corresponds to a relatively natural behavior which is best explained via concrete examples.

Let us illustrate this principle with the logical "or" operator |. Following the rules of boolean logic, if one of the operands is true, the value of the other operand does not have an influence on the result, which will always be true

julia> true | true
true

julia> true | false
true

julia> false | true
true

Based on this observation, we can conclude that if one of the operands is true and the other missing, we know that the result is true in spite of the uncertainty about the actual value of one of the operands. If we had been able to observe the actual value of the second operand, it could only be true or false, and in both cases the result would be true. Therefore, in this particular case, missingness does not propagate

julia> true | missing
true

julia> missing | true
true

On the contrary, if one of the operands is false, the result could be either true or false depending on the value of the other operand. Therefore, if that operand is missing, the result has to be missing too

julia> false | true
true

julia> true | false
true

julia> false | false
false

julia> false | missing
missing

julia> missing | false
missing

The behavior of the logical "and" operator & is similar to that of the | operator, with the difference that missingness does not propagate when one of the operands is false. For example, when that is the case of the first operand

julia> false & false
false

julia> false & true
false

julia> false & missing
false

On the other hand, missingness propagates when one of the operands is true, for example the first one

julia> true & true
true

julia> true & false
false

julia> true & missing
missing

Finally, the "exclusive or" logical operator xor always propagates missing values, since both operands always have an effect on the result. Also note that the negation operator ! returns missing when the operand is missing just like other unary operators.

Control Flow and Short-Circuiting Operators

Control flow operators including if, while and the ternary operator x ? y : z do not allow for missing values. This is because of the uncertainty about whether the actual value would be true or false if we could observe it, which implies that we do not know how the program should behave. A TypeError is thrown as soon as a missing value is encountered in this context

julia> if missing
           println("here")
       end
ERROR: TypeError: non-boolean (Missing) used in boolean context

For the same reason, contrary to logical operators presented above, the short-circuiting boolean operators && and || do not allow for missing values in situations where the value of the operand determines whether the next operand is evaluated or not. For example

julia> missing || false
ERROR: TypeError: non-boolean (Missing) used in boolean context

julia> missing && false
ERROR: TypeError: non-boolean (Missing) used in boolean context

julia> true && missing && false
ERROR: TypeError: non-boolean (Missing) used in boolean context

On the other hand, no error is thrown when the result can be determined without the missing values. This is the case when the code short-circuits before evaluating the missing operand, and when the missing operand is the last one

julia> true && missing
missing

julia> false && missing
false

Arrays With Missing Values

Arrays containing missing values can be created like other arrays

julia> [1, missing]
2-element Array{Union{Missing, Int64},1}:
 1
  missing

As this example shows, the element type of such arrays is Union{Missing, T}, with T the type of the non-missing values. This simply reflects the fact that array entries can be either of type T (here, Int64) or of type Missing. This kind of array uses an efficient memory storage equivalent to an Array{T} holding the actual values combined with an Array{UInt8} indicating the type of the entry (i.e. whether it is Missing or T).

Arrays allowing for missing values can be constructed with the standard syntax. Use Array{Union{Missing, T}}(missing, dims) to create arrays filled with missing values:

julia> Array{Union{Missing, String}}(missing, 2, 3)
2×3 Array{Union{Missing, String},2}:
 missing  missing  missing
 missing  missing  missing

An array allowing for missing values but which does not contain any such value can be converted back to an array which does not allow for missing values using convert. If the array contains missing values, a MethodError is thrown during conversion

julia> x = Union{Missing, String}["a", "b"]
2-element Array{Union{Missing, String},1}:
 "a"
 "b"

julia> convert(Array{String}, x)
2-element Array{String,1}:
 "a"
 "b"

julia> y = Union{Missing, String}[missing, "b"]
2-element Array{Union{Missing, String},1}:
 missing
 "b"

julia> convert(Array{String}, y)
ERROR: MethodError: Cannot `convert` an object of type Missing to an object of type String
This may have arisen from a call to the constructor String(...),
since type constructors fall back to convert methods.
Stacktrace:
[...

Skipping Missing Values

Since missing values propagate with standard mathematical operators, reduction functions return missing when called on arrays which contain missing values

julia> sum([1, missing])
missing

In this situation, use the skipmissing function to skip missing values

julia> sum(skipmissing([1, missing]))
1

This convenience function returns an iterator which filters out missing values efficiently. It can therefore be used with any function which supports iterators

julia> maximum(skipmissing([3, missing, 2, 1]))
3

julia> mean(skipmissing([3, missing, 2, 1]))
2.0

julia> mapreduce(sqrt, +, skipmissing([3, missing, 2, 1]))
4.146264369941973

Use collect to extract non-missing values and store them in an array

julia> collect(skipmissing([3, missing, 2, 1]))
3-element Array{Int64,1}:
 3
 2
 1

Logical Operations on Arrays

The three-valued logic described above for logical operators is also used by logical functions applied to arrays. Thus, array equality tests using the == operator return missing whenever the result cannot be determined without knowing the actual value of the missing entry. In practice, this means that missing is returned if all non-missing values of the compared arrays are equal, but one or both arrays contain missing values (possibly at different positions)

julia> [1, missing] == [2, missing]
false

julia> [1, missing] == [1, missing]
missing

julia> [1, 2, missing] == [1, missing, 2]
missing

As for single values, use isequal to treat missing values as equal to other missing values but different from non-missing values

julia> isequal([1, missing], [1, missing])
true

julia> isequal([1, 2, missing], [1, missing, 2])
false

Functions any and all also follow the rules of three-valued logic, returning missing when the result cannot be determined

julia> all([true, missing])
missing

julia> all([false, missing])
false

julia> any([true, missing])
true

julia> any([false, missing])
missing