Introduction to robservable

Julien Barnier, Kenton Russell

2021-10-06

robservable allows the use of Observable notebooks (or part of them) as htmlwidgets in R.

Note that it is not just an iframe embedding a whole notebook. Cells are integrated directly into the document or application with no iframe wrapper. You can choose what cells to display, update cell values from R, and add observers to cells to get their values back into a Shiny application.

Embed a whole notebook

The most basic usage is to call the robservable() function with the full URL or the identifier of the notebook you want to display. The identifier is the same as the one used to import another notebook in Observable (something like @d3/horizontal-bar-chart). Please see the Introduction to Imports notebook for additional reference.

For example, the two following commands are equivalent and should display the whole corresponding notebook1 :

robservable("https://observablehq.com/@d3/horizontal-bar-chart")
robservable("@d3/horizontal-bar-chart")

If the notebook is shared but not published, you can use the full URL or the hash identifier.

robservable("https://observablehq.com/d/61be71d2b8c0d456")
robservable("61be71d2b8c0d456")

Choose which cells to render

Instead of rendering a whole notebook, we can choose to display only some of its cells. This is done by passing a character vector of cell names to the include argument.

robservable(
  "@d3/horizontal-bar-chart", 
  include = "chart"
)

If you need to display an unnamed cell2, you can do it by specifying its number, ie its position in the notebook (starting with 1). For example, to display the first cell of a notebook if it is unnamed you would use include = 1.

robservable(
  "@d3/horizontal-bar-chart", 
  include = 1
)

Note that specifying a named cell by its position will not display it. You have to add its name to include.

For some notebooks you’ll have to render several cells to get the desired result. For example, in the eyes notebook, the main chart is in a cell named canvas, but it doesn’t render anything if mouse value is not present. For the chart to be created, you have to render both cells.

robservable(
  "@mbostock/eyes",
  include = c("canvas", "mouse")
)

In this case, we may want to render mouse without displaying it. This is possible by adding its name to the hide argument.

robservable(
  "@mbostock/eyes",
  include = c("canvas", "mouse"),
  hide = "mouse"
)

Finally, it is possible to mix the use of named and unnamed cells both in cell and hide, so you can do something like below.

robservable(
  "@mbostock/eyes",
  include = c(1, "canvas", "mouse"),
  hide = "mouse"
)

Update cell values

robservable allows to update a notebook cell value directly from R. This is done by passing a named list as the input argument.

For example, in the horizontal bar chart notebook there is a cell called barHeight which allows to customize the bar heights. We can modify its value when calling robservable with input = list(barHeight = 15).

robservable(
  "@d3/horizontal-bar-chart", 
  include = "chart",
  input = list(barHeight = 15)
)

More interesting, we can update the data cell value of the notebook to generate the bar chart based on our own data. We just have to be sure that it is in the same format as the notebook data. In this example the data is in a standard d3-array format, so we can pass a data frame. We will need to take care of the column names, as they must match the ones in the notebook data.

library(palmerpenguins)
df <- data.frame(table(penguins$species))
# change column names to match the names used in the observable notebook
names(df) <- c("name", "value")

robservable(
  "@d3/horizontal-bar-chart", 
  include = "chart",
  input = list(data = df)
)

There’s still one problem though. Our species names are truncated. We can fix this because the notebook allows us to change the margins of the plot by modifiying the margin cell. As this cell value is a JavaScript object, we can update it by passing a named list.

robservable(
  "@d3/horizontal-bar-chart",
  include = "chart",
  input = list(
    data = df,
    # equivalent to {top: 20, right: 0, left: 70, bottom: 0} in JavaScript
    margin = list(top = 20, right = 0, left = 70, bottom = 0)
  )
)

Finally, here is a bit more complex example which displays a multi-line chart with the gapminder data. The to_js_date function is a helper to convert Date or POSIXt R objects to JavaScript Date values (ie number of milliseconds since Unix Epoch).

library(gapminder)
data(gapminder)
series <- lapply(unique(gapminder$country), function(country) {
  values <- gapminder[gapminder$country == country, "lifeExp", drop = TRUE]
  list(name = country, values = values)
})
dates <- sort(unique(gapminder$year))
dates <- as.Date(as.character(dates), format = "%Y")

df <- list(
  y = "Life expectancy",
  series = series,
  dates = to_js_date(dates)
)

robservable(
  "@d3/multi-line-chart",
  include = "chart",
  input = list(data = df)
)

Size the widget

Widget sizing is a bit complicated as it depends on several factors :

By default, robservable overrides the potential width and height notebook values by the htmlwidget container HTML element width and height. This override is performed both at widget creation and on widget resizing. Overriding width allows making the widget “fit” in its container, and avoids updating size when the page is resized but not its container (which is the case when width is taken from Observable standard library). Overriding height has the same purpose, but not all notebooks define a height value, so unlike width, height won’t always have an effect.

This value override allows the following figure to fit in the widget dimensions.

robservable(
  "@mbostock/eyes",
  include = c("canvas", "mouse"),
  hide = "mouse"
)

If you explicitly specify the width and height of the widget with the corresponding arguments, the cell values will be updated accordingly.

robservable(
  "@mbostock/eyes",
  include = c("canvas", "mouse"),
  hide = "mouse",
  width = 500,
  height = 100
)

If the notebook doesn’t provide a height value, then you’ll have to manually define an height suitable for the output.

robservable(
  "@d3/bivariate-choropleth",
  include = "chart",
  height = 450
)

Finally, if you provide both a widget height and an height value with the input argument, the second one is not overriden.

robservable(
  "@mbostock/eyes",
  include = c("canvas", "mouse"),
  hide = "mouse",
  input = list(height = 50),
  height = 200
)

There are some cases when these width and height overrides are not suitable. First, those values could be defined for something else than an output size (height could be another type of parameter). Second, overriding the height can modify the chart appearance. In these cases, you can set the update_width or update_height arguments to FALSE to deactivate the value override.

For example, on our horizontal bar chart, it changes the original bar heights. To avoid this effect, we can deactivate height override with the update_height = FALSE argument.

df <- data.frame(table(penguins$species))
names(df) <- c("name", "value")

robservable(
  "@d3/horizontal-bar-chart",
  include  = "chart",
  input = list(
    data = df,
    margin = list(top = 20, right = 0, left = 70, bottom = 0)
  ),
  update_height = FALSE
)

Write notebooks for robservable

If you are developing Observable notebooks to be used with robservable, here is some advice to make your notebook easier to use in R:

Advanced usage

Inspector state events

In Observable, a cell can be in three states : pending, fulfilled or rejected. For each included named cell, robservable emits custom JavaScript events which allow to track the cell state.

For example, suppose you include a chart cell from a notebook. You can then listen to the following document custom events :

Here is a sample use case : suppose you are including a notebook cell which generates a chart inside an Rmarkdown document or Shiny app, and you want to add a custom interaction when hovering certain charts elements. For this to work, you have to wait for the cell to be rendered, so that you can add event listeners. This is possible with something like the following code :

Updating a cell JavaScript code

The examples above show how to update a cell with a “fixed” value : a string, a number, a data frame… But sometimes you need to redefine a cell as JavaScript code, for example to redefine a function.

Suppose in our Observable notebook we have the following cell :

If we want to redefine this function using the JavaScript Observable runtime API, following the variable.define documentation we would use something like :

To do this in robservable, use the input_js argument. This is a named list whose elements are also lists with inputs and definition entries. In this case the syntax would be :

In a slightly more complex case, maybe our initial function is the following, when param is not an argument of our function but the value of another notebook cell :

If we want to redefine this function while still accessing the param cell value, we have to add its name to the inputs entry of input_js :

For more details on the usage of inputs and definition, see the Observable runtime API documentation.

Customizing JSON serialization

By default robservable uses htmlwidgets for JSON serialization of the widgets arguments, with an additional TOJSON_ARGS value of list(dataframe = "rows") so that R data frames are converted to a format suitable for d3.

You can change the value of TOJSON_ARGS with the json_args argument of robservable, or you can pass a custom JSON serializing R function with the json_func argument. This function will be passed to htmlwidgets via its internal TOJSON_FUNC parameter. See the custom JSON serializer documentation for more details.


  1. The result is not displayed here as a whole notebook is not very suitable for embedding in a document

  2. Another option for unnamed cells is to fork the notebook in Observable and to add a name yourself.