Pivot tables are a tabular way to summarize and group data. They’re a valuable tool in the analyst’s toolkit, as they’re an efficient way to present — and rearrange — a lot of information. Here’s how they work:
Pivot tables vs. regular tables
Your typical, basic table is a grid of cells. Each column represents an attribute of a single record, with a single record per row.
A pivot table is a table that groups rows and columns, and includes summarial rows with aggregate values for those groupings. These aggregate values are usually referred to as subtotals and grand totals, though these aggregates could also be other values, such as averages.
The reason they’re called pivot tables is because you can rotate (“pivot”) a column 90 degrees so that the values in that column become column headings themselves. Pivoting values into column headings can be really helpful when trying to analyze data across multiple attributes, like time, location, and category. You can pivot multiple columns, or not pivot any at all.
This is all pretty abstract, so let’s walk you through an example to give you a feel for how pivot tables work.
To start, let’s say we want to know:
- how much annual revenue orders are bringing in
- for each state (i.e., where do our customers live?)
- and how those orders break down by product category
Here’s our query using the notebook editor:
Here we’re taking data from the
Orders table and summarizing the records. We’re grouping the orders by
User -> State,
Created At (by year), and
Product -> Category. For each group (say Alaska in 2017), we count the number of orders and add up the subtotals for those orders. (Note that, even though we’ve only selected the
Orders table in the data section, Metabase will automatically join the
People tables to get the State and Category data.)
The resulting table is a regular one, with rows for each combination of state, year, and product category.
Now, let’s say that for each state, we also want to know the sum of the annual subtotals for each state (e.g., how much money did orders for Doohickey products make in Alaska for all years?). To find out, we could add up the subtotals ourselves, or use a pivot table to calculate that figure for us. At the bottom left of your screen, select Visualization then click on the Pivot Table option.
In our pivot table, Metabase has set the rows, columns, and values as follows:
User -> Stateand
Created At(by year)
Product -> Category
Sum of Subtotal
Like the flat table, the pivot table lets us see, for example, that in 2020 our customers in Alaska (AK) have purchased a combined 11 Doohickey products for $867.63. But now the pivot table has grouped the rows related to Alaska, and given a subtotal for those Alaskan rows, allowing us to see the answer to our question: Alaskans purchased 103 Doohickeys from 2016–2020, totaling $6,900.43.
In addition to the group subtotals, the pivot table also includes both row and column grand totals:
- Row grand total example: the total number of Doohickey orders placed across all states.
- Column grand total example: the sum of all subtotals in Alaska across all product categories.
We can navigate the table by collapsing and expanding groups of rows:
Now, let’s try “pivoting” the table. In the bottom left of the screen, we’ll click on Settings, which brings up Pivot Table options. To pivot the table, we’ll move fields between the three buckets: rows, columns, and values.
Order within a single bucket matters, so let’s start by simply rearranging the table within a single bucket: the rows bucket. If we switch the order of fields to use for table rows, putting
Created At above
User -> State, the table will rearrange itself:
Now the table groups first by year, then gives a breakdown of orders for each state across each product category.
We can also switch fields between the buckets, like moving
Product -> Category from a column to a row, and
User -> State from a row to a column.
You can also turn off subtotals for a given row grouping:
Like with flat tables, we have some sorting and formatting options, and we can click on values in the table to bring up the Action menu, which will lets us drill through the data.
Pivot tables only work with databases that support joins and expressions, so you won’t be able to use them with databases like MongoDB and Google Analytics. They also only work with questions composed with the GUI editors (i.e., simple and custom questions). The workaround here is that if you must use SQL to compose a question, you can save that question, then use its results as the starting point for a GUI question in order to build a question. The trick here is to do your aggregation and grouping in the GUI question. That is, use the SQL question to grab the raw data you want to work with, then start a new GUI question to filter, summarize, and group that data.
For example, to use a SQL question to build the pivot table we created above, you’d first write a SQL query to get the raw data you want to work with:
SELECT people.state, products.category, orders.subtotal, orders.created_at FROM orders INNER JOIN products ON orders.product_id = products.id INNER JOIN people ON orders.user_id = people.id
Notice that we’re just grabbing records here; there’s no summarizing or grouping. Next, we save that SQL question (here as “Raw data for pivot table”), and start a new simple or custom question that uses the results of that question as its starting data.
Now we can count, sum, and group our results:
When we visualize this question, we’ll now be able to use the pivot table visualization to see the group subtotals and grand totals.
Check out our documentation for a list of all our visualization types.