• Laura Whiting

Subsetting Data - Speeding Up your Processing Time

Some data sets can be huge and unwieldy, slowing down processing time. Typically, only a portion of the data is needed. If the end user can identify the variables they need, they can select their required slice of data and just operate on this set, rather than importing everything. This is called subsetting your data, so you are only working on the part you are interested in. There are two ways to subset your data.


First, you can use the keep and drop commands to subset variables, once the data file is loaded into Stata.


Second, you can use the use command, which will only import the subset of data to begin with (without having to bring the entire datafile into Stata first). This does rely on the user being familiar with the variable names, and using a Stata data set (.dta).


How to Use:

Using the keep and drop commands

To keep specific variables (deleting the rest) or drop (delete) specific variables

To keep specific observations (deleting the rest), or drop (delete) specific observations

Using the use command (requires some knowledge if the data you are importing)

These are similar to the keep option, as you are telling Stata which variables you want to load in to the exclusion of everything else.


The file path that you specify can be on your computer hard drive, on a server or external hard drive your computer is connected to, or a dataset off the internet. An example of each of these would be:

  • A file on your computer hard drive = “c:\Program Files\Stata16\auto.dta”

  • A file on a server or external hard drive your computer is connected to = “d:\folder_name\file_name.dta”

  • A file saved on the internet = http://www.stata-press.com/data/r10/auto-


Worked Example 1:

In this example I will demonstrate using the keep and drop commands to subset your data. Let’s use the auto dataset for this example. In the command pane I type the following:

OR the following keep command is equivalent to the drop command above

Now we describe the dataset again to see what has changed.

Here I have removed six variables (weight, length, turn, displacement, gear_ratio and foreign), with the rest remaining in Stata.


In the data above you can see that the variable "rep78" has some missing values. I don’t want any of my observations (rows) to include missing values, so I am going to remove them. In the command pane I type the following:

OR alternatively

Then we use the describe command to have another look at our dataset.

When we drop observations from a dataset Stata lets us know how many have been deleted. In this case we have deleted 5 observations (rows) from our dataset. However, if we didn't have this information we could still see that some observations had been lost. We simply compare the number of observations in this describe summary (obs: 69) with the number of observations in the previous describe summary (obs: 74).


Finally, I am only interested in cars that cost $6000 or less, so I am going to remove all the cars that cost more than this from the dataset. In the command pane I type the following:

Now Stata tells us we have deleted another 21 observations, which we can confirm by looking at the number of observations listed by describe, which is now obs: 48.


Worked Example 2:

In this example I will demonstrate using the use command to subset your data. This requires an understanding of the data you are working with. We will use the auto dataset as we got an overview of what was in this data through our first example. I am first going to use describe without loading the dataset, as Stata has the ability to describe a dataset that is not yet loaded in memory. I am then going to partially load the dataset from its location on my hard drive, choosing to load only the variables and observations I want. I will use the same 6 variables as before, while at the same time specifying no missing rep78 observations and no observations where price is greater than $6000. With the use command I can do this all at once. In the command pane I type the following:

As you can see, the six variables have been brought in, but observations where rep78 is missing or price is greater than 6000 have been left out (not imported). I have done this with one command, without ever loading the full dataset in memory. This is a great tool when you are looking at a really big dataset (e.g. HILDA) and you are only interested in a smaller subset of the data contained in the file. Even if your Stata is unable to load the full dataset, you can still see whats inside it with describe and pull in the bits you need with use.

© 2020 by Survey Design and Analysis Services. 

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