How to Make (and Animate) a Circular Time Series Plot in R

Also known as a polar plot, it is usually not the better option over a standard line chart, but in select cases the method can be useful to show cyclical patterns.

You’re probably familiar with the standard line chart to show time series data. The horizontal axis represents time and the vertical axis represents a metric. This plot type uses a Cartesian coordinate system. The circular time series chart uses a polar coordinate system. Angle represents time, and distance from the center represents a metric.

In most — almost all — cases, the standard, Cartesian method is the better way to go. It’s easier to read, it’s easier to make comparisons over time, and because they’re more common, more people know how to read them.

One case where the circular version might be visually helpful is when the data is cyclical or seasonal, and you want to focus on that. Maybe you want to match up all the January data points, all the February ones, etc.

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About the Author

Nathan Yau is a statistician who works primarily with visualization. He earned his PhD in statistics from UCLA, is the author of two best-selling books — Data Points and Visualize This — and runs FlowingData. Introvert. Likes food. Likes beer.