Formatting in a Shiny App

Written by: Paul Rubin

Primary Source:  OR in an OB World

I’ve been updating a Shiny (web-based interactive R) application, during the course of which I needed to make a couple of cosmetic fixes. Both proved to be oddly difficult. Extensive use of Google (I think I melted one of their cloud servers) eventually turned up enough clues to get both done. I’m going to record the solutions here, lest I forget them. Unfortunately, I can’t give credit where credit is due; in the heat of trying all sorts of fixes (many of which did not work), I neglected to take note of the URLs for the ones that helped.

Centering Text

On the surface, this sounds trivial: just put it inside an HTML “div” or “span” tag, with appropriate style information. In my case, though, I was generating the text dynamically using the verbatimTextOutput() function. More specifically, I was positioning two plots side by side, with dynamic text under each one. In the UI file, this was done using a “fluid row” containing two columns of width 6 each. (I won’t explain the spacing convention for fluid rows here. It’s enough to know that the available width is 12 units, so this splits the row into two columns of equal size.) One plot, followed by the text, went into each column. According to the help for the column() function, the syntax is

column(width, …, offset = 0)

where … is the list of elements to include in the column. It turns out that column() also understands an alignment parameter, so

column(6, align = “center”, plotOutput(…), verbatimText(…))

worked just fine for me. That’s certainly simple enough, once you know about the align argument.

Aspect Ratio

My other challenge was a bit trickier. I wanted to control the aspect ratio of the two plots. The plotOutput() function has width and height arguments, which take (string) values that can be either a percentage of available space, an integer number of pixels, or “auto”. Per the help entry,

Note that, for height, using “auto” or “100%” generally will not work as expected, because of how height is computed with HTML/CSS.

Truer words have never been written. Width defaults to 100%, which in the context of my two-column fluid row means that each plot scales fill half the width of the available space. That’s fine. I want the plots to expand when the user expands the browser window (or goes to full screen). I tried both “100%” and “auto” for the height argument, and in both cases the result was that the plots had zero height (did not display at all). Oops.

Ideally, I would like to say something like “height = width” (for a 1:1 aspect ratio) or “height = 0.8 * width” (for a 5 : 4 aspect ratio). Unfortunately, the height is being handled by Javascript, not R code, and the Javascript apparently does not support expressions. So that left the option of computing the height in the server R code, but doing so requires knowing the aspect ratio (a constant) and the width of the plot, which is determined in the UI.

Once again, an undocumented argument (or documented in some sacred scroll not available to lay people) comes into play. Let’s say that the identifier I use for my plot is “xyz”. The UI contains the function call

plotOutput(“xyz”, height = “auto”, …)

causing the UI to look for the output to plot in output$xyz. The server script in turn uses

output <- renderPlot(…)

to generate the plot. Here’s the code that ended up working:

    output$xyz <-
                 height = function() {
                   aspect * session$clientData$output_xyz_width

(where “…” is the code generating the actual plot and aspect is a variable containing the target ratio of height to width, 0.8 in my case). The list session$clientData contain stuff used by the Shiny server to keep track of one session versus another. (If you and I are concurrently running the same application, we each have a unique session, which is how Shiny keeps straight which data and results belong to you and which belong to me.) Apparently that list includes a numeric item giving the display width of output$xyz, with the name mangled to output_xyz_width for reasons unknown to me.

Using this code, the server script computes and sets the correct height for the plot, and apparently “auto” in the UI script tells it to defer to the height computed by the server.

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I'm an apostate mathematician, retired from a business school after 33 years of teaching mostly (but not exclusively) quantitative methods courses. My academic interests lie in operations research. I also study Tae Kwon Do a bit on the side.

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