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Beware of the R timezone pitfall!

Always make sure you have the tz param set just in case you are deploying it to a different server at different time zone!

xDate = as.POSIXct(x, origin=”1970-01-01″, tz=”America/Los_Angeles”)

Also found this good article:


Converting time zones in R: tips, tricks and pitfalls

When I’m adding events to the R Community Calendar, I can only enter dates and times in my local time zone (US Pacific Time). This is problematic when I need to enter events in other countries: I have to do some fancy (and unreliable) mental gymnastics to, say, convert a future date and time in London into my local time to make sure it’s accurately listed on the calendar. So I decided to tackle the problem with R and learned a lot about dates, times, and time zones in the process.

Converting times from one time zone to another is actually a thornier problem than it first appears. Not only do you have to take into account the time zone difference (London is nominally 8 hours ahead of San Francisco) but also the effects of daylight savings. California and the UK both observe daylight savings time, but they don’t change over at the same time of the year — so for 3 weeks in Spring and 1 week in Autumn the difference is seven hours, not eight. (See below to find where I got those numbers.) And that only applies to 2009: the dates when daylight savings starts and ends has changed over the years in both locations, never consistently. Some locations don’t observe daylight savings at all, or used to but don’t anymore. In some US states, some localities observe daylight savings time, while others in the same state, just a few miles away, do not. Some places (including my hometown, Adelaide) have fractional (half-hour or quarter-hour) offsets from Greenwich Mean Time. (By the way, GMT isn’t always the same as London time: GMT is not affected by daylight savings.) So the problem of converting the time at one place to the time at another, at any point in the past or future, is quite a complicated one.
Fortunately, R comes to the rescue with a very powerful set of tools for handling times, dates, and timezones, as I discovered when working through this little task. Patrick Burns is giving a talk on Random Portfolios with R in London at 7:30PM (London time) on Wednesday June 3, 2009; I need that date and time in US Pacific time. First, let’s represent it as a text string:

pb.txt <- “2009-06-03 19:30”

I’ve used a standardized, unambiguous time format: year-month-date eliminates the confusion between US and British-style dates, and a 24-hour clock eliminates the AM/PM ambiguity. This format is required by the as.POSIXct function, which I’ll use to convert it to an object in R representing the date and time in the London time zone:

pb.date <- as.POSIXct(pb.txt, tz=”Europe/London”)

Now, I can convert it to my local timezone using the format function (documented in the help for strptime):

> format(pb.date, tz=”America/Los_Angeles”,usetz=TRUE)

[1] “2009-06-03 11:30:00 PDT”

The usetz=TRUE argument is optional: I included it here just so it would be clear that Pacific Daylight Time was indeed used. (But see the notes below for a warning about PDT.)
So now I have the date and time to enter into my local calendar: 11:30AM on June 3, 2009.
You can work with many dates at once, too. Here’s how I figured out when the US and UK were out of sync on because of varying daylight savings changeover dates (which I just Googled for):

d <- c(“2009-03-07 12:00”, “2009-03-08 12:00”, “2009-03-28 12:00”, “2009-03-29 12:00”, “2009-10-24 12:00”, “2009-10-25 12:00”, “2009-10-31 12:00”, “2009-11-01 12:00″)

t1 <- as.POSIXct(d,”America/Los_Angeles”)


     US                    UK
[1,] “2009-03-07 12:00:00” “2009-03-07 20:00:00”
[2,] “2009-03-08 12:00:00” “2009-03-08 19:00:00”
[3,] “2009-03-28 12:00:00” “2009-03-28 19:00:00”
[4,] “2009-03-29 12:00:00” “2009-03-29 20:00:00”
[5,] “2009-10-24 12:00:00” “2009-10-24 20:00:00”
[6,] “2009-10-25 12:00:00” “2009-10-25 19:00:00”
[7,] “2009-10-31 12:00:00” “2009-10-31 19:00:00”
[8,] “2009-11-01 12:00:00” “2009-11-01 20:00:00”
A few other notes on dates, times, and timezones:
  • You can work with dates represented as character strings in various formats like “12/25/2008” or “8 Jan 2009 2:43 PM” using the function strptime
  • It’s a bit tricky to find valid timezones to use with the tz= argument. Common timezone abbreviations like “BST” (British Summer Time) sometimes work, but might not mean what you think they mean: EST refers to a time-zone in Canada that does not observe daylight savings time, NOT US Eastern Standard Time. It’s safest to use the time zone names listed on this Wikipedia page (especially if you’re dealing with data from the archives of Louisville, Kentucky). The list of known timezones is system-specific, but these ones should work on all R implementations.
  • Important warning: If you misspell a timezone, or use one that isn’t known, you don’t get an error: UTC (basically Greenwich Mean Time) is used instead. If you’re not sure, print your POSIXct object: if it looks like this: “2009-06-03 19:30:00 UTC” your time zone wasn’t recognized. On my machine this happens if I try to use “PDT” or “PST” as a timezone, even though dates are printed with those characters representing the time zone. “US/Pacific works”, but I can’t find any documentation listing time zones beginning with “US/”.
  • You might think you can convert a POSIXct object from one time zone to another like this: as.POSIXct(pb.date,tz=”US/Pacific”), but it doesn’t work. You can strip the time-zone information from the object first with c: as.POSIXct(c(pb.date),tz=”US/Pacific”).  But it’s probably safest just to use format.
  • POSIXlt objects represent times like POSIXct objects do, but you only want to use them if you need to extract information like the day of the week, or if daylight savings is in effect. I had difficulties working with timezones using POSIXlt objects, so you’ll probably want to stick with as.POSIXct for most purposes. The differences between the two are documented in ?DateTimeClasses.
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