Posts in this category

Sun, 16 Aug 2009

A SVG plotting adventure

Permanent link

The Quest

It usually begins with Carl Mäsak - this time was no exception.

First he sent us on big adventure, and then me on a particular quest by asking innocently if there were any vistor statics for the site Being curious myself I copied the access.log, started a log analyzer and voilá, we had a HTML page with some statistics.

But a tiny nagging voice in my head asked Can't you do that with Perl 6?. Well, sure I can, with a bit of effort.

So I decided to spend some time of my weekend (namely a travel by train and the time when my girlfriend took a nap) on this, and wrote a web log analyzer that produced a bar chart of the daily number of visitors. Here it goes:

visitor stats for

If you use a browser that supports SVG, you can view the svg version directly..

That was the short story. If you are more of a geek, you might be more interested in some of technical details.

The Gory Details - SVG

The choice of SVG as output format was pretty obvious: It's text based, a vector format, and masak had already written a SVG module for Perl 6. Despite its name, it's actually a module that generally transforms data structures of a particular form to XML - the only things specific to SVG in there are the name and the documentation.

Since it doesn't know about SVG, I as the programmer had to learn some SVG. So I downloaded the specs, and went offline.

Coordinate transformations

Skimming through the specs revealed something interesting: you can apply coordinate transformations to SVG primitives or groups. Also the drawing area stretches from negative to positive infinity in both x and y direction. In combination that means that the plotting module can start drawing without looking at the whole input data. It just has to keep track of how much space it has written to, and then in the end it can apply a scaling to fit the canvas (ie the visible drawing area).

There's just one problem with this approach:


The text is scaled with the same aspect ratio as the chart, leading to distorted text. Of course one could apply the reverse transformation to the text, but to avoid overlapping label text one has to know the size of the text anyway, so there's nothing gained by letting the SVG renderer do coordinate transformation.

So I ended up doing the scaling in my program code after all.

Text in SVG

There's one open problem so far: since the plotting program just emits SVG (or more accurately, a data structure which turns into SVG) and doesn't know about its rendering, it can't know how much space the text will take up, making it impossible to calculate the spaces appropriately. Inkscape and gqview render the text quite differently, I'm sure other user agents will have their own interpretation of text sizes and scaling.

The specs talks about precomputed text width according to which text might be scaled; I'll have to see if I can make use of that feature to solve this problem.


Speaking of different user agents: Firefox and gqview only show drawing on the canvas, silently (as per SVG spec) dropping elements outside the canvas. It was incredible helpful to have inkscape, which shows the border of the canvas, but also objects outside of it. When I got a coordinate transform wrong, that was a good way to debug it.

Mandatory Options

I made one observation not tied to SVG, but to plotting in general: without having planned for it, I ended up with having about ten configuration variables/attributes, more to come when I include captions, axis labels and so on. It just falls naturally out of process of writing the code, and thinking twice each time I used a numeric constant in code.

Perl 6 makes them very nice, the begin of the code looks like this:

class SVG::Plot {
    has $.height            = 200;
    has $.width             = 300;
    has $.fill-width        = 0.80;
    has $.label-font-size   = 14;
    has $.plot-width        = $.width  * 0.80;
    has $.plot-height       = $.height * 0.65;

    has &.y-tick-step       = -> $max_y {
        10 ** floor(log10($max_y)) / 5

    has $.max-x-labels      = $.plot-width / (1.5 * $.label-font-size);

    has $.label-spacing     = ($.height - $.plot-height) / 20;

Basically I declare attributes with default values, which can be overridden by passing a named argument to the new constructor - and the subsequent declarations which depend on them simply pick up the user supplied value if present, or the default otherwise.

It seems easier to come up with a myriad of configuration options than choosing sane defaults.

The Result

... can be found on The log parser is included in the examples/ directory.

It is far from complete, the interface is not yet stable etc, but it's still a nice piece of software, IMHO.

The Future

I want to pursue development in a few directions: more meta data (axis labels, captions, annotations, maybe clickable data points), other chart types (lines and points), documentation, and maybe more styling options.

I don't know yet how to write unit tests for it, and test driven development only works if you know in advance what to expect.

I don't know if I'll find the time to turn this into a full-blown charting module, but so far the work on it has been very rewarding, and I liked it.

[/perl-6] Permanent link