Selections: Building Blocks of Interactions

One of the unique features of Altair, inherited from Vega-Lite, is a declarative grammar of not just visualization, but interaction. The core concept of this grammar is the selection object.

Selections in Altair come in a few flavors, and they can be bound to particular charts or sub-charts in your visualization, then referenced in other parts of the visualization.

Example: Linked-Brush Scatter-Plot

As a motivation, let’s create a simple chart and then add some selections to it. Here is a simple scatter-plot created from the cars dataset:

import altair as alt
from vega_datasets import data

cars = data.cars.url

alt.Chart(cars).mark_point().encode(
    x='Miles_per_Gallon:Q',
    y='Horsepower:Q',
    color='Origin:N'
)

First we’ll create an interval selection using the selection_interval() function:

brush = alt.selection_interval()  # selection of type "interval"

We can now bind this brush to our chart by setting the selection property:

alt.Chart(cars).mark_point().encode(
    x='Miles_per_Gallon:Q',
    y='Horsepower:Q',
    color='Origin:N'
).properties(
    selection=brush
)

The result above is a chart that allows you to click and drag to create a selection region, and to move this region once the region is created.

This is neat, but the selection doesn’t actually do anything yet. To use this selection, we need to reference it in some way within the chart. Here, we will use the condition() function to create a conditional color encoding: we’ll tie the color to the "Origin" column for points in the selection, and set the color to "lightgray" for points outside the selection:

alt.Chart(cars).mark_point().encode(
    x='Miles_per_Gallon:Q',
    y='Horsepower:Q',
    color=alt.condition(brush, 'Origin:N', alt.value('lightgray'))
).properties(
    selection=brush
)

As you can see, with this simple change, the color of the points responds to the selection.

This approach becomes even more powerful when the selection behavior is tied across multiple views of the data within a compound chart. For example, here we create a chart object using the same code as above, and horizontally concatenate two versions of this chart: one with the x-encoding tied to "Acceleration", and one with the x-encoding tied to "Miles_per_Gallon"

chart = alt.Chart(cars).mark_point().encode(
    y='Horsepower:Q',
    color=alt.condition(brush, 'Origin:N', alt.value('lightgray'))
).properties(
    width=250,
    height=250,
    selection=brush
)

chart.encode(x='Acceleration:Q') | chart.encode(x='Miles_per_Gallon:Q')

Because both copies of the chart reference the same selection object, the renderer ties the selections together across panels, leading to a dynamic display that helps you gain insight into the relationships within the dataset.

Each selection type has attributes through which its behavior can be customized; for example we might wish for our brush to be tied only to the "x" encoding to emphasize that feature in the data. We can modify the brush definition, and leave the rest of the code unchanged:

brush = alt.selection_interval(encodings=['x'])

chart = alt.Chart(cars).mark_point().encode(
    y='Horsepower:Q',
    color=alt.condition(brush, 'Origin:N', alt.value('lightgray'))
).properties(
    width=250,
    height=250,
    selection=brush
)

chart.encode(x='Acceleration:Q') | chart.encode(x='Miles_per_Gallon:Q')

Selection Types: Interval, Single, Multi

With this interesting example under our belt, let’s take a more systematic look at some of the types of selections available in Altair. For simplicity, we’ll use a common chart in all the following examples; a simple heat-map based on the cars dataset. For convenience, let’s write a quick Python function that will take a selection object and create a chart with the color of the chart elements linked to this selection:

def make_example(selector):
    cars = data.cars.url

    return alt.Chart(cars).mark_rect().encode(
        x="Cylinders:O",
        y="Origin:N",
        color=alt.condition(selector, 'count()', alt.value('lightgray'))
    ).properties(
        width=300,
        height=180,
        selection=selector
    )

Next we’ll use this function to demonstrate the properties of various selections.

Interval Selections

An interval selection allows you to select chart elements by clicking and dragging. You can create such a selection using the selection_interval() function:

interval = alt.selection_interval()
make_example(interval)

As you click and drag on the plot, you’ll find that your mouse creates a box that can be subsequently moved to change the selection.

The selection_interval() function takes a few additional arguments; for example we can bind the interval to only the x-axis, and set it such that the empty selection contains none of the points:

interval_x = alt.selection_interval(encodings=['x'], empty='none')
make_example(interval_x)

A special case of an interval selection is when the interval is bound to the chart scales; this is how Altair plots can be made interactive:

scales = alt.selection_interval(bind='scales')

alt.Chart(cars).mark_point().encode(
    x='Horsepower:Q',
    y='Miles_per_Gallon:Q',
    color='Origin:N'
).properties(
    selection=scales
)

Because this is such a common pattern, Altair provides the Chart.interactive() method which creates such a selection more concisely.

Single Selections

A single selection allows you to select a single chart element at a time using mouse actions. By default, points are selected on click:

single = alt.selection_single()
make_example(single)

By changing some arguments, we can select points on mouseover rather than on click. We can also set the nearest flag to True so that the nearest point is highlighted:

single_nearest = alt.selection_single(on='mouseover', nearest=True)
make_example(single_nearest)

Multiple Selections

A multi selection is similar to a single selection, but it allows for multiple chart objects to be selected at once. By default, chart elements can be added to and removed from the selection by clicking on them while holding the shift key:

multi = alt.selection_multi()
make_example(multi)

In addition to the options seen in selection_single(), the multi selection accepts the toggle parameter, which controls whether points can be removed from the selection once they are added.

For example, here is a plot where you can “paint” the chart objects by hovering over them with your mouse:

multi_mouseover = alt.selection_multi(on='mouseover', toggle=False, empty='none')
make_example(multi_mouseover)

Further Examples

Now that you understand the basics of Altair selections, you might wish to look through the Interactive section of the example gallery for ideas about how they can be applied to more interesting charts.

For more information on how to fine-tune selections, including specifying other mouse and keystroke options, see the Vega-Lite Selection documentation.