Displaying and Saving Altair Visualizations

Fundamentally, Altair does one thing: create Vega-Lite JSON specifications of visualizations. For example, consider the following plot specification

>>> from altair import Chart, load_dataset
>>> data = load_dataset('cars', url_only=True)
>>> chart = Chart(data).mark_point().encode(
...             x='Horsepower:Q',
...             y='Miles_per_Gallon:Q',
...             color='Origin:N',
...         )

The chart object defined here is an Altair chart, which contains functionality to generate a JSON encoding that conforms to the Vega-Lite Schema:

>>> print(chart.to_json(indent=2))
  "data": {
    "url": "https://vega.github.io/vega-datasets/data/cars.json"
  "encoding": {
    "color": {
      "field": "Origin",
      "type": "nominal"
    "x": {
      "field": "Horsepower",
      "type": "quantitative"
    "y": {
      "field": "Miles_per_Gallon",
      "type": "quantitative"
  "mark": "point"

This specification is a full definition of a Vega-Lite visualization, and can be rendered in one of several ways.

Displaying Plots in Jupyter Notebook

Perhaps the most straightforward way to interactively create and render Altair visualizations is in the Jupyter Notebook. If you have installed correctly configured the ipyvega package (See Installation), then a chart on the last line of a code cell will automatically be represented within the notebook as a rendered plot:

# Within Jupyter Notebook
from altair import Chart, load_dataset
data = load_dataset('cars', url_only=True)

Alternatively, you can use chart.display() to more explicitly display any chart object

Outputting Plots as HTML

If you prefer working outside the notebook, Altair includes the ability to generate a stand-alone HTML document containing the JSON specification along with the javascript commands to render it:

>>> html = chart.to_html()
>>> with open('chart.html', 'w') as f:
...     f.write(html)  

If you then point your browser at chart.html, you will see the rendered result. For more information on embedding Vega-Lite plots within HTML pages, see Vega-Lite’s documentation, in particular Embedding Vega-Lite.

Displaying Plots via a Local HTTP Server

Because the above exercise (outputting html, saving to file, and opening a web browser) can be a bit tedious, Altair provides a chart.serve() method that will use Python’s HTTPServer to launch a local web server and open the visualization in your browser. Given a chart object, you can do this with

>>> chart.serve()   
Serving to    [Ctrl-C to exit] - - [15/Sep/2016 14:40:39] "GET / HTTP/1.1" 200 -

Online Vega-Lite Editor

Finally, if you wish to play with Vega/Vega-Lite specifications directly, you can paste the JSON into the Vega-Lite Online Editor. This provides an interface in which to directly explore the plot outputs of Vega-Lite specifications.

Saving Figures as PNG and SVG

The easiest way to export figures to PNG or SVG is to click the “Open In Vega Editor” link under any rendered figure, and then use the “Export” command to save the figure as either PNG format (With the Renderer set to “Canvas”) or SVG format (with the renderer set to “SVG”).

Saving Figures Programmatically

If you would like to save an Altair visualization as PNG or SVG from a script, Altair does provide an interface that allows this, though it requires some extra setup.

The Vega-Lite javascript library provides a NodeJS command-line tool to generate png and svg outputs from Altair/Vega-Lite specifications. The Chart.savechart() method provides an interface that will use these command-line tools to output PNG or SVG outputs of a chart.

If you have nodejs and npm available on your system, you can install the required command-line tools using:

$ npm install canvas vega vega-lite

If you don’t have nodejs and are using conda, you can create an environment with nodejs/npm and the required packages as follows (note that the node-gyp tool related to canvas seems to require Python 2.7):

$ conda create -n nodejs-env -c conda-forge python=2.7 nodejs cairo altair
$ source activate nodejs-env
$ npm install canvas vega vega-lite

On Linux systems, the required tools can be installed with Apt:

$ sudo apt-get install libcairo2-dev libjpeg8-dev libpango1.0-dev libgif-dev build-essential g++
$ npm install canvas vega vega-lite

As above, this appears to work only when using Python 2.7 because of the node-gyp dependency.

More information on installing node and associated packages can be found on the Node Installation Page.

If the installation was successful, you should have new executables called vl2png and vl2svg within your node root directory, which you can determine by running:

$ npm bin

$ ls /Users/username/node_modules/.bin
vg2png  vg2svg  vl2png  vl2svg  vl2vg

With these packages properly installed, you can use the Chart.savechart() method to save a chart to file:

>>> from altair import Chart, load_dataset
>>> data = load_dataset('cars', url_only=True)
>>> chart = Chart(data).mark_point().encode(
...             x='Horsepower:Q',
...             y='Miles_per_Gallon:Q',
...             color='Origin:N',
...         )
>>> # save as PNG
>>> chart.savechart('mychart.png')  
>>> # save as SVG
>>> chart.savechart('mychart.svg')  

This command searches for the vl2png or vl2svg executable either in the npm bin location or in the system $PATH variable.

The extra requirements here are straightforward, but the manual installation process is admittedly a bit clunky. We hope to find a way to streamline this in the future, but creating transparent interactions between Python packages and NodeJS packages remains a challenging area in general. If you have ideas on how to improve this aspect of Altair’s user experience, please send comments or contributions via Altair’s GitHub Issue Tracker.