Germán Rodríguez
Stata Tutorial Princeton University

2 Data Management

In this section I describe Stata data files, discuss how to read raw data into Stata in free and fixed formats, how to create new variables, how to document a dataset labeling the variables and their values, and how to manage Stata system files.

Stata 11 introduced a variables manager that allows editing variable names, labels, types, formats, and notes, as well as value labels, using an intuitive graphical user interface available under Data|Variables Manager in the menu system. While the manager is certainly convenient, I still prefer writing all commands in a do file to ensure research reproducibility. A nice feature of the manager, however, is that it generates the Stata commands needed to accomplish the changes, so it can be used as a learning tool and, as long as you are logging the session, leaves a record behind.

2.1 Stata Files

Stata datasets are rectangular arrays with n observations on m variables. Unlike packages that read one observation at a time, Stata keeps all data in memory, which is one reason why it is so fast. There’s a limit of 2,047 variables in Stata/BE, 32,767 in Stata/SE, and 120,000 in Stata/MP. You can have as many observations as your computer’s memory will allow, provided you don’t go too far above 2 billion cases with Stata/SE and 1 trillion with Stata/MP. (To find these limits type help limits.)

2.1.1 Variable Names

Variable names can have up to 32 characters, but many commands print only 12, and shorter names are easier to type. Stata names are case sensitive, Age and age are different variables! It pays to develop a convention for naming variables and sticking to it. I prefer short lowercase names and tend to use single words or abbreviations rather than multi-word names, for example I prefer effort or fpe to family_planning_effort or familyPlanningEffort, although all four names are legal. Note the use of underscores or camel casing to separate words.

2.1.2 Variable Types

Variables can contain numbers or strings. Numeric variables can be stored as integers (bytes, integers, or longs) or floating point (float or double). These types differ in the range or precision of the values they can hold, type help datatype for details.

You usually don’t need to be concerned about the storage mode; Stata does all calculations using doubles, and the compress command will find the most economical way to store each variable in your dataset, type help compress to learn more.

You do have to be careful with logical comparisons involving floating point types. If you store 0.1 in a float called x, you may be surprised to learn that x == 0.1 is never true. The reason is that 0.1 is “rounded” to different binary numbers when stored as a float (the variable x) or as a double (the constant 0.1). This problem does not occur with integers or strings.

String variables can have varying lengths up to 244 characters in Stata 12, or up to two billion characters in Stata 13 or higher, where you can use str1...str2045 to define fixed-length strings of up to 2045 characters, and strL to define a long string, suitable for storing plain text or even binary large objects such as images or word processing documents, type help strings to learn more. Strings are ideally suited for id variables because they can be compared without problems.

Sometimes you may need to convert between numeric and string variables. If a variable has been read as a string but really contains numbers you will want to use the command destring or the function real(). Otherwise, you can use encode to convert string data into a numeric variable or decode to convert numeric variables to strings. These commands rely on value labels, which are described below.

2.1.3 Missing Values

Like other statistical packages, Stata distinguishes missing values. The basic missing value for numeric variables is represented by a dot . Starting with version 8 there are 26 additional missing-value codes denoted by .a to .z. These values are represented internally as very large numbers, so valid_numbers < . < .a < ... < .z.

To check for missing you need to write var >= . (not var == .). Stata has a function that can do this comparison, missing(varname) and I recommend it because it leads to more readable code, e.g. I prefer list id if missing(age) to list id if age >= .

Missing values for string variables are denoted by ““, the empty string; not to be confused with a string that is all blanks, such as” “.

Demographic survey data often use codes such as 88 for not applicable and 99 for not ascertained. For example age at marriage may be coded 88 for single women and 99 for women who are known to be married but did not report their age at marriage. You will often want to distinguish these two cases using different kinds of missing value codes. If you wanted to recode 88’s to .n (for “na” or not applicable) and 99’s to .m (for “missing”) you could use the code

replace ageAtMar = .n if ageAtMar == 88
replace ageAtMar = .m if ageAtMar == 99

Sometimes you want to tabulate a variable including missing values but excluding not applicable cases. If you will be doing this often you may prefer to leave 99 as a regular code and define only 88 as missing. Just be careful if you then run a regression!

Stata ships with a number of small datasets, type sysuse dir to get a list. You can use any of these by typing sysuse name. The Stata website is also a repository for datasets used in the Stata manuals and in a number of statistical books.

2.2 Reading Data Into Stata

In this section we discuss how to read raw data files. If your data come from another statistical package, such as SAS or SPSS, you will be glad to know that starting with version 16 Stata can import sas and import spss. Older versions could read SAS transport or export files, using the command fdause (so-named because this is the format required by the Food and Drug Administration), later renamed to import sasxport. Stata can also import and export Excel spreadsheets, type help import excel for details, and can read data from relational databases, type help odbc for an introduction. For more alternatives consider using a tool such as Stat/Transfer (

2.2.1 Free Format

If your data are in free format, with variables separated by blanks, commas, or tabs, you can use the infile command.

For an example of a free format file consider the family planning effort data available in the datasets sections as effort.raw. This is essentially a text file with four columns, one with country names and three with numeric variables, separated by white space. We can read the data into Stata using the command

. clear

. infile str14 country setting effort change using ///
(20 observations read)

The infile command is followed by the names of the variables. Because the country name is a string rather than a numeric variable we precede the name with str14, which sets the type of the variable as a string of up to 14 characters. All other variables are numeric, which is the default type.

The keyword using is followed by the name of the file, which can be a file on your computer, a local network, or the internet. In this example we are reading the file directly off the internet. And that’s all there is to it. For more information on this command type help infile1. To see what we got we can list a few cases

. list in 1/3

     │ country   setting   effort   change │
  1. │ Bolivia        46        0        1 │
  2. │  Brazil        74        0       10 │
  3. │   Chile        89       16       29 │

Spreadsheet packages such as Excel often export data separated by tabs or commas, with one observation per line. Sometimes the first line has the names of the variables. If your data are in this format you can read them using the import delimited command. This command superseeded the insheet command as of Stata 13. Type help import delimited to learn more.

2.2.2 Fixed Format

Survey data often come in fixed format, with one or more records per case and each variable in a fixed position in each record.

The simplest way to read fixed-format data is using the infix command to specify the columns where each variable is located. As it happens, the effort data are neatly lined up in columns, so we could read them as follows:

. infix str country 4-17 setting 23-24 effort 31-32 change 40-41 using ///
>, clear
(20 observations read)

This says to read the country name from columns 4-17, setting from columns 23-24, and so on. It is, of course, essential to read the correct columns. We specified that country was a string variable but didn’t have to specify the width, which was clear from the fact that the data are in columns 4-17. The clear option is used to overwrite the existing dataset in memory.

If you have a large number of variables you should consider typing the names and locations on a separate file, called a dictionary, which you can then call from the infix command. Try typing the following dictionary into a file called effort.dct:

infix dictionary using {
  str country  4-17
      setting 23-24
      effort  31-32
      change  40-41

Dictionaries accept only /* */ comments, and these must appear after the first line. After you save this file you can read the data using the command

infix using effort.dct, clear

Note that you now ‘use’ the dictionary, which in turn ‘uses’ the data file. Instead of specifying the name of the data file in the dictionary you could specify it as an option to the infix command, using the form infix using dictionaryfile, using(datafile). The first ‘using’ specifies the dictionary and the second ‘using’ is an option specifying the data file. This is particularly useful if you want to use one dictionary to read several data files stored in the same format.

If your observations span multiple records or lines, you can still read them using infix as long as all observations have the same number of records (not necessarily all of the same width). For more information see help infix.

The infile command can also be used with fixed-format data and a dictionary. This is a very powerful command that gives you a number of options not available with infix; for example it lets you define variable labels right in the dictionary, but the syntax is a bit more complicated. See help infile2.

In most cases you will find that you can read free-format data using infile and fixed-format data using infix. For more information on various ways to import data into Stata see help import.

Data can also be typed directly into Stata using the input command, see help input, or using the built-in Stata data editor available through Data|Data editor on the menu system.

2.3 Data Documentation

After you read your data into Stata it is important to prepare some documentation. In this section we will see how to create labels for your dataset, the variables, and their values, and how to create notes for the dataset and the variables.

2.3.1 Data Label and Notes

Stata lets you label your dataset using the label data command followed by a label of up to 80 characters. You can also add notes of up to ~64K characters each using the notes command followed by a colon and then the text:

. label data "Family Planning Effort Data"

. notes:  Source P.W. Mauldin and B. Berelson (1978). ///
>   Conditions of fertility decline in developing countries, 1965-75. ///
>   Studies in Family Planning, 9:89-147

Users of the data can type notes to see your annotation. Documenting your data carefully always pays off.

2.3.2 Variable Labels and Notes

You can (and should) label your variables using the label variable command followed by the name of the variable and a label of up to 80 characters enclosed in quotes. With the infile command you can add these labels to the dictionary, which is a natural home for them. Otherwise you should prepare a do file with all the labels. Here’s how to define labels for the three variables in our dataset:

. label variable setting "Social Setting"

. label variable effort  "Family Planning Effort"

. label variable change  "Fertility Change"

Stata also lets you add notes to specific variables using the command notes varname: text. Note that the command is followed by a variable name and then a colon:

. notes change: Percent decline in the crude birth rate (CBR) ///
>   -the number of births per thousand population- between 1965 and 1975.

Type describe and then notes to check our work so far.

2.3.3 Value Labels

You can also label the values of categorical variables. Our dataset doesn’t have any categorical variables, but let’s create one. We will make a copy of the family planning effort variable and then group it into three categories, 0-4, 5-14 and 15+, which represent weak, moderate and strong programs (the generate and recode used in the first two lines are described in the next section, where we also show how to accomplish all these steps with just one command):

. generate effortg = effort 

. recode effortg 0/4=1 5/14=2 15/max=3
(20 changes made to effortg)

. label define effortg 1 "Weak" 2 "Moderate" 3 "Strong", replace

. label values effortg effortg

. label variable effortg "Family Planning Effort (Grouped)"

Stata has a two-step approach to defining labels. First you define a named label set which associates integer codes with labels of up to 80 characters, using the label define command. Then you associate the set of labels with a variable, using the label values command. Often you use the same name for the label set and the variable, as we did in our example.

One advantage of this approach is that you can use the same set of labels for several variables. The canonical example is label define yesno 1 "yes" 0 "no", which can then be associated with all 0-1 variables in your dataset, using a command of the form label values variablename yesno for each one. When defining labels you can omit the quotes if the label is a single word, but I prefer to use them always for clarity.

Label sets can be modified using the options add or modify, listed using label dir (lists only names) or label list (lists names and labels), and saved to a do file using label save. Type help label to learn more about these options and commands. You can also have labels in different languages as explained below.

2.3.4 Multilingual Labels*

(This sub-section can be skipped without loss of continuity.) A Stata file can store labels in several languages and you can move freely from one set to another. One limitation of multi-language support in version 13 and earlier is that labels were restricted to 7-bit ascii characters, so you couldn’t include letters with diacritical marks such as accents. This limitation was removed with the introduction of Unicode support in Stata 14, so you can use diacritical marks and other non-ascii characters, not just in labels but throughout Stata.

I’ll illustrate the idea by creating Spanish labels for our dataset. Following Stata recommendations we will use the ISO standard two-letter language codes, en for English and es for Spanish.

First we use label language to rename the current language to en, and to create a new language set es:

. label language en, rename
(language default renamed en)

. label language es, new
(language es now current language)

If you type desc now you will discover that our variables have no labels! We could have copied the English ones by using the option copy, but that wouldn’t save us any work in this case. Here are Spanish versions of the data and variable labels:

. label data "Datos de Mauldin y Berelson sobre Planificación Familiar"

. label variable country "País"

. label variable setting "Indice de Desarrollo Social"

. label variable effort  "Esfuerzo en Planificación Familiar"

. label variable effortg "Esfuerzo en Planificación Familiar (Agrupado)"

. label variable change  "Cambio en la Tasa Bruta de Natalidad (%)"

These definitions do not overwrite the corresponding English labels, but coexist with them in a parallel Spanish universe. With value labels you have to be a bit more careful, however; you can’t just redefine the label set called effortg because it is only the association between a variable and a set of labels, not the labels themselves, that is stored in a language set. What you need to do is define a new label set; we’ll call it effortg_es, combining the old name and the new language code, and then associate it with the variable effortg:

. label define effortg_es 1 "Débil" 2 "Moderado" 3 "Fuerte"

. label values effortg effortg_es

You may want to try the describe command now. Try tabulating effort (output not shown).

table effortg

Next we change the language back to English and run the table again:

label language en
table effortg

For more information type help label_language.

2.4 Creating New Variables

The most important Stata commands for creating new variables are generate/replace and recode, and they are often used together.

2.4.1 Generate and Replace

The generate command creates a new variable using an expression that may combine constants, variables, functions, and arithmetic and logical operators. Let’s start with a simple example: here is how to create setting squared:

. gen settingsq = setting^2.

If you are going to use this term in a regression you know that linear and quadratic terms are highly correlated. It may be a good idea to center the variable (by subtracting the mean) before squaring it. Here we run summarize using quietly to suppress the output and retrieve the mean from the stored result r(mean):

. quietly summarize setting

. gen settingcsq = (setting - r(mean))^2

Note that I used a different name for this variable. Stata will not let you overwrite an existing variable using generate. If you really mean to replace the values of the old variable use replace instead. You can also use drop var_names to drop one or more variables from the dataset.

2.4.2 Operators and Expressions

The following table shows the standard arithmetic, logical and relational operators you may use in expressions:

Arithmetic Logical Relational
+ add ! not (also ~) == equal
- subtract | or != not equal (also ~=)
* multiply & and < less than
/ divide <= less than or equal
^ raise to power > greater than
+ string concatenation >= greater than or equal

Here’s how to create an indicator variable for countries with high-effort programs:

generate hieffort1 = effort > 14

This is a common Stata idiom, taking advantage of the fact that logical expressions take the value 1 if true and 0 if false. A common alternative is to write

generate hieffort2 = 0
replace  hieffort2 = 1 if effort > 14

The two strategies yield exactly the same answer. Both will be wrong if there are missing values, which will be coded as high effort because missing value codes are very large values, as noted in Section 2.1 above. You should develop a good habit of avoiding open ended comparisons. My preferred approach is to use

generate hieffort = effort > 14 if !missing(effort)

which gives true for effort above 14, false for effort less than or equal to 14, and missing when effort is missing. Logical expressions may be combined using & for “and” or | for “or”. Here’s how to create an indicator variable for effort between 5 and 14:

gen effort5to14 = (effort >=5 & effort <= 14)

Here we don’t need to worry about missing values, they are excluded by the clause effort <= 14.

2.4.3 Functions

Stata has a large number of functions, here are a few frequently-used mathematical functions, type help mathfun to see a complete list:

abs(x) the absolute value of x
exp(x) the exponential function of x
int(x) the integer obtained by truncating x towards zero
ln(x) or log(x) the natural logarithm of x if x>0
log10(x) the log base 10 of x (for x>0)
logit(x) the log of the odds for probability x: logit(x) = ln(x/(1-x))
max(x1,x2,…,xn) the maximum of x1, x2, …, xn, ignoring missing values
min(x1,x2,…,xn) the minimum of x1, x2, …, xn, ignoring missing values
round(x) x rounded to the nearest whole number
sqrt(x) the square root of x if x >= 0

These functions are automatically applied to all observations when the argument is a variable in your dataset.

Stata also has a function to generate random numbers (useful in simulation), namely uniform(). It also has an extensive set of functions to compute probability distributions (needed for p-values) and their inverses (needed for critical values), including normal() for the normal cdf and invnormal() for its inverse, see help density functions for more information. To simulate normally distributed observations you can use

rnormal()   // or invnormal(uniform()) 

There are also some specialized functions for working with strings, see help string functions, and with dates, see help date functions.

2.4.4 Recoding Variables

The recode command is used to group a numeric variable into categories. Suppose for example a fertility survey has age in single years for women aged 15 to 49, and you would like to code it into 5-year age groups. You could, of course, use something like

gen age5 = int((age-15)/5)+1 if !missing(age)

but this only works for regularly spaced intervals (and is a bit cryptic). The same result can be obtained using

recode age (15/19=1) (20/24=2) (25/29=3) (30/34=4) ///
           (35/39=5) (40/44=6) (45/49=7), gen(age5)

Each expression in parenthesis is a recoding rule, and consist of a list or range of values, followed by an equal sign and a new value. A range, specified using a slash, includes the two boundaries, so 15/19 is 15 to 19, which could also be specified as 15 16 17 18 19 or even 15 16 17/19. You can use min to refer to the smallest value and max to refer to the largest value, as in min/19 and 44/max. The parentheses can be omitted when the rule has the form range=value, but they usually help make the command more readable.

Values are assigned to the first category where they fall. Values that are never assigned to a category are kept as they are. You can use else (or *) as the last clause to refer to any value not yet assigned. Alternatively, you can use missing and nonmissing to refer to unassigned missing and nonmissing values; these must be the last two clauses and cannot be combined with else.

In our example we also used the gen() option to generate a new variable, in this case age5; the default is to replace the values of the existing variable. I strongly recommend that you always use the gen option, or make a copy of the original variable before recoding it.

You can also specify value labels in each recoding rule. This is simpler and less error prone that creating the labels in a separate statement. The option label(label_name) lets you assign a name to the labels created (the default is the same as the variable name). Here’s an example showing how to recode and label family planning effort in one step (compare with the four commands used in Section 2.4.2 above).

recode effort (0/4=1 Weak) (5/14=2 Moderate) (15/max=3 Strong) ///
     , generate(efffortg) label(effortg)

It is often a good idea to cross-tabulate original and recoded variables to check that the transformation has worked as intended. (Of course this can only be done if you have generated a new variable!)

2.5 Managing Stata Files

Once you have created a Stata system file you will want to save it on disk using save filename, replace, where the replace option, as usual, is needed only if the file already exists. To load a Stata file you have saved in a previous session you issue the command use filename.

If there are temporary variables you do not need in the saved file you can drop them (before saving) using drop varnames. Alternatively, you may specify the variables you want to keep, using keep varnames. With large files you may want to compress them before saving; this command looks at the data and stores each variable in the smallest possible data type that will not result in loss of precision.

It is possible to add variables or observations to a Stata file. To add variables you use the merge command, which requires two (or more) Stata files, usually with a common id so observations can be paired correctly. A typical application is to add household information to an individual data file. Type help merge to learn more.

To add observations to a file you use the append command, which requires the data to be appended to be on a Stata file, usually containing the same variables as the dataset in memory. You may, for example, have data for patients in one clinic and may want to append similar data from another clinic. Type help append to learn more.

A related but more specialized command is joinby, which forms all pairwise combinations of observations in memory with observations in an external dataset (see also cross).

2.6 Data Frames

Stata 16 introduced frames, which allow it to keep more than one dataset in memory at the same time. Consider a situation where you have household and individual data on separate files, both with a common household id, and need to combine them. In previous versions of Stata you would have needed to merge the files. With Stata 16 you can store both datasets as frames, and link the household data to each individual. There are many more applications, type help frames to learn more.

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