Introduction to SQL

Creative Commons License: CC-BY Questions:
  • How can I get data from a database?

  • How can I sort a query’s results?

  • How can I remove duplicate values from a query’s results?

  • How can I select subsets of data?

  • How can I calculate new values on the fly?

  • How do databases represent missing information?

  • What special handling does missing information require?

  • Explain the difference between a table, a record, and a field.

  • Explain the difference between a database and a database manager.

  • Write a query to select all values for specific fields from a single table.

  • Write queries that display results in a particular order.

  • Write queries that eliminate duplicate values from data.

  • Write queries that select records that satisfy user-specified conditions.

  • Explain the order in which the clauses in a query are executed.

  • Write queries that calculate new values for each selected record.

  • Explain how databases represent missing information.

  • Explain the three-valued logic databases use when manipulating missing information.

  • Write queries that handle missing information correctly.

Time estimation: 3 hours
Level: Introductory Introductory
Supporting Materials:
Published: Oct 11, 2021
Last modification: Nov 15, 2023
License: Tutorial Content is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The GTN Framework is licensed under MIT
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version Revision: 15
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This tutorial will introduce you to Structured Query Language (SQL) which can be used to query databases!


This tutorial is significantly based on the Carpentries Databases and SQL lesson, which is licensed CC-BY 4.0.

Abigail Cabunoc and Sheldon McKay (eds): “Software Carpentry: Using Databases and SQL.” Version 2017.08, August 2017,,

Adaptations have been made to make this work better in a GTN/Galaxy environment.


In this tutorial, we will cover:

  1. Selecting Data
  2. Sorting and Removing Duplicates
  3. Filtering
  4. Calculating New Values
  5. Missing Data
# This preamble sets up the sql "magic" for jupyter. Use %%sql in your cells to write sql!
!python3 -m pip install ipython-sql sqlalchemy
!wget -c
import sqlalchemy
engine = sqlalchemy.create_engine("sqlite:///survey.db")
%load_ext sql
%sql sqlite:///survey.db
%config SqlMagic.displaycon=False

Selecting Data

A relational database is a way to store and manipulate information. Databases are arranged as table. Each table has columns (also known as fields) that describe the data, and rows (also known as records) which contain the data.

When we are using a spreadsheet, we put formulas into cells to calculate new values based on old ones. When we are using a database, we send commands (usually called queries) to a database manager: a program that manipulates the database for us. The database manager does whatever lookups and calculations the query specifies, returning the results in a tabular form that we can then use as a starting point for further queries.

Queries are written in a language called SQL, SQL provides hundreds of different ways to analyze and recombine data. We will only look at a handful of queries, but that handful accounts for most of what scientists do.

Many database managers — Oracle, IBM DB2, PostgreSQL, MySQL, Microsoft Access, and SQLite — understand SQL but each stores data in a different way, so a database created with one cannot be used directly by another. However, every database manager can import and export data in a variety of formats like .csv, SQL, so it is possible to move information from one to another.

Before we get into using SQL to select the data, let’s take a look at the tables of the database we will use in our examples:

Person: people who took readings.

id personal family
dyer William Dyer
pb Frank Pabodie
lake Anderson Lake
roe Valentina Roerich
danforth Frank Danforth

Site: locations where readings were taken.

name lat long
DR-1 -49.85 -128.57
DR-3 -47.15 -126.72
MSK-4 -48.87 -123.4

Visited: when readings were taken at specific sites.

id site dated
619 DR-1 1927-02-08
622 DR-1 1927-02-10
734 DR-3 1930-01-07
735 DR-3 1930-01-12
751 DR-3 1930-02-26
752 DR-3 None
837 MSK-4 1932-01-14
844 DR-1 1932-03-22

Survey: the actual readings. The field quant is short for quantitative and indicates what is being measured. Values are rad, sal, and temp referring to ‘radiation’, ‘salinity’ and ‘temperature’, respectively.

taken person quant reading
619 dyer rad 9.82
619 dyer sal 0.13
622 dyer rad 7.8
622 dyer sal 0.09
734 pb rad 8.41
734 lake sal 0.05
734 pb temp -21.5
735 pb rad 7.22
735 None sal 0.06
735 None temp -26.0
751 pb rad 4.35
751 pb temp -18.5
751 lake sal 0.1
752 lake rad 2.19
752 lake sal 0.09
752 lake temp -16.0
752 roe sal 41.6
837 lake rad 1.46
837 lake sal 0.21
837 roe sal 22.5
844 roe rad 11.25

Notice that three entries — one in the Visited table, and two in the Survey table — don’t contain any actual data, but instead have a special None entry: we’ll return to these missing values.

For now, let’s write an SQL query that displays scientists’ names. We do this using the SQL command SELECT, giving it the names of the columns we want and the table we want them from. Our query and its output look like this:

SELECT family, personal FROM Person;

The semicolon at the end of the query tells the database manager that the query is complete and ready to run. We have written our commands in upper case and the names for the table and columns in lower case, but we don’t have to: as the example below shows, SQL is case insensitive.

SeLeCt FaMiLy, PeRsOnAl FrOm PeRsOn;

You can use SQL’s case insensitivity to your advantage. For instance, some people choose to write SQL keywords (such as SELECT and FROM) in capital letters and field and table names in lower case. This can make it easier to locate parts of an SQL statement. For instance, you can scan the statement, quickly locate the prominent FROM keyword and know the table name follows. Whatever casing convention you choose, please be consistent: complex queries are hard enough to read without the extra cognitive load of random capitalization. One convention is to use UPPER CASE for SQL statements, to distinguish them from tables and column names. This is the convention that we will use for this lesson.

Question: Is a personal and family name column a good design?

If you were tasked with designing a database to store this same data, is storing the name data in this way the best way to do it? Why or why not?

Can you think of any names that would be difficult to enter in such a schema?

No, it is generally not. There are a lot of falsehoods that programmers believe about names. The situation is much more complex as you can read in that article, but names vary wildly and generally placing constraints on how names are entered is only likely to frustrate you or your users later on when they need to enter data into that database.

In general you should consider using a single text field for the name and allowing users to specify them as whatever they like (if it is a system with registration), or asking what they wish to be recorded (if you are doing this sort of data collection).

If you are doing scientific research, you might know that names are generally very poor identifiers of a single human, and in that case consider recording their ORCiD which will help you reference that individual when you are publishing later.

This is also a good time to consider what data you really need to collect. If you are working in the EU under GDPR, do you really need their full legal name? Is that necessary? Do you have a plan for ensuring that data is correct when publishing, if any part of their name has changed since?

-- Try solutions here!

While we are on the topic of SQL’s syntax, one aspect of SQL’s syntax that can frustrate novices and experts alike is forgetting to finish a command with ; (semicolon). When you press enter for a command without adding the ; to the end, it can look something like this:


This is SQL’s prompt, where it is waiting for additional commands or for a ; to let SQL know to finish. This is easy to fix! Just type ; and press enter!

Now, going back to our query, it’s important to understand that the rows and columns in a database table aren’t actually stored in any particular order. They will always be displayed in some order, but we can control that in various ways. For example, we could swap the columns in the output by writing our query as:

SELECT personal, family FROM Person;

or even repeat columns:

SELECT id, id, id FROM Person;

As a shortcut, we can select all of the columns in a table using *:

Question: Selecting Site Names

Write a query that selects only the name column from the Site table.

SELECT name FROM Site;
-- Try solutions here!
Question: Query Style

Many people format queries as:

SELECT personal, family FROM person;

or as:

select Personal, Family from PERSON;

What style do you find easiest to read, and why?

-- Try solutions here!

Sorting and Removing Duplicates

In beginning our examination of the Antarctic data, we want to know:

  • what kind of quantity measurements were taken at each site;
  • which scientists took measurements on the expedition;

To determine which measurements were taken at each site, we can examine the Survey table. Data is often redundant, so queries often return redundant information. For example, if we select the quantities that have been measured from the Survey table, we get this:

SELECT quant FROM Survey;

This result makes it difficult to see all of the different types of quant in the Survey table. We can eliminate the redundant output to make the result more readable by adding the DISTINCT keyword to our query:


If we want to determine which visit (stored in the taken column) have which quant measurement, we can use the DISTINCT keyword on multiple columns. If we select more than one column, distinct sets of values are returned (in this case pairs, because we are selecting two columns):

SELECT DISTINCT taken, quant FROM Survey;

Notice in both cases that duplicates are removed even if the rows they come from didn’t appear to be adjacent in the database table.

Our next task is to identify the scientists on the expedition by looking at the Person table. As we mentioned earlier, database records are not stored in any particular order. This means that query results aren’t necessarily sorted, and even if they are, we often want to sort them in a different way, e.g., by their identifier instead of by their personal name. We can do this in SQL by adding an ORDER BY clause to our query:

id personal family
danfort Frank Danforth
dyer William Dyer
lake Anderson Lake
pb Frank Pabodie
roe Valentina Roerich

By default, when we use ORDER BY, results are sorted in ascending order of the column we specify (i.e., from least to greatest).

We can sort in the opposite order using DESC (for “descending”):

While it may look that the records are consistent every time we ask for them in this lesson, that is because no one has changed or modified any of the data so far. Remember to use ORDER BY if you want the rows returned to have any sort of consistent or predictable order.


(And if we want to make it clear that we’re sorting in ascending order, we can use ASC instead of DESC.)

In order to look at which scientist measured quantities during each visit, we can look again at the Survey table. We can also sort on several fields at once. For example, this query sorts results first in ascending order by taken, and then in descending order by person within each group of equal taken values:

SELECT taken, person, quant FROM Survey ORDER BY taken ASC, person DESC;

This query gives us a good idea of which scientist was involved in which visit, and what measurements they performed during the visit.

Looking at the table, it seems like some scientists specialized in certain kinds of measurements. We can examine which scientists performed which measurements by selecting the appropriate columns and removing duplicates.

SELECT DISTINCT quant, person FROM Survey ORDER BY quant ASC;
Question: Finding Distinct Dates

Write a query that selects distinct dates from the Visited table.

-- Try solutions here!
Question: Displaying Full Names

Write a query that displays the full names of the scientists in the Person table, ordered by family name.

SELECT personal, family FROM Person ORDER BY family ASC;
personal family
Frank Danforth
William Dyer
Anderson Lake
Frank Pabodie
Valentina Roerich
-- Try solutions here!

If you are someone with a name which falls at the end of the alphabet, you’ve likely been penalised for this your entire life. Alphabetically sorting names should always be looked at critically and through a lens to whether you are fairly reflecting everyone’s contributions, rather than just the default sort order.

There are many options, either by some metric of contribution that everyone could agree on, or better, consider random sorting, like the GTN uses with our Hall of Fame page where we intentionally order randomly to tell contributors that no one persons contributions matter more than anothers.

The evidence provided in a variety of studies leaves no doubt that an alphabetical author ordering norm disadvantages researchers with last names toward the end of the alphabet. There is furthermore con- vincing evidence that researchers are aware of this and that they react strategically to such alphabetical discrimination, for example with their choices of who to collaborate with. See Weber 2018 for more.

When you are sorting things in SQL, you need to be aware of something called collation which can affect your results if you have values that are not the letters A-Z. Collating is the process of sorting values, and this affects many human languages when storing data in a database.

Here is a Dutch example. In the old days their alphabet contained a ÿ which was later replaced with ij, a digraph of two characters squished together. This is commonly rendered as ij however, two separate characters, due to the internet and widespread use of keyboards featuring mainly ascii characters. However, it is still the 25th letter of their alphabet.

sqlite> create table nl(value text);
sqlite> insert into nl values ('appel'), ('beer'), ('index'), ('ijs'), ('jammer'), ('winkel'), ('zon');
sqlite> select * from nl order by value;

Find a dutch friend and ask them if this is the correct order for this list. Unfortunately it isn’t. Even though it is ij as two separate characters, it should be sorted as if it was ij or ÿ, before z. Like so: appel, beer, index, jammer, winkel, ijs, zon

While there is not much you can do about it now (you’re just beginning!) it is something you should be aware of. When you later need to know about this, you will find the term ‘collation’ useful, and you’ll find the procedure is different for every database engine.


One of the most powerful features of a database is the ability to filter data, i.e., to select only those records that match certain criteria. For example, suppose we want to see when a particular site was visited. We can select these records from the Visited table by using a WHERE clause in our query:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE site = 'DR-1';

The database manager executes this query in two stages. First, it checks at each row in the Visited table to see which ones satisfy the WHERE. It then uses the column names following the SELECT keyword to determine which columns to display.

This processing order means that we can filter records using WHERE based on values in columns that aren’t then displayed:

SELECT id FROM Visited WHERE site = 'DR-1';

![SQL Filtering in Action]`(../../images/carpentries-sql/sql-filter.svg)

We can use many other Boolean operators to filter our data. For example, we can ask for all information from the DR-1 site collected before 1930:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE site = 'DR-1' AND dated < '1930-01-01';

Most database managers have a special data type for dates. In fact, many have two: one for dates, such as “May 31, 1971”, and one for durations, such as “31 days”. SQLite doesn’t: instead, it stores dates as either text (in the ISO-8601 standard format “YYYY-MM-DD HH:MM:SS.SSSS”), real numbers (Julian days, the number of days since November 24, 4714 BCE), or integers (Unix time, the number of seconds since midnight, January 1, 1970). If this sounds complicated, it is, but not nearly as complicated as figuring out historical dates in Sweden.

Storing the year as the last two digits causes problems in databases, and is part of what caused Y2K. Be sure to use the databases’ built in format for storing dates, if it is available as that will generally avoid any major issues.

Similarly there is a “Year 2038 problem”, as the timestamps mentioned above that count seconds since Jan 1, 1970 were running out of space on 32-bit machines. Many systems have since migrated to work around this with 64-bit timestamps.

If we want to find out what measurements were taken by either Lake or Roerich, we can combine the tests on their names using OR:

SELECT * FROM Survey WHERE person = 'lake' OR person = 'roe';

Alternatively, we can use IN to see if a value is in a specific set:

SELECT * FROM Survey WHERE person IN ('lake', 'roe');

We can combine AND with OR, but we need to be careful about which operator is executed first. If we don’t use parentheses, we get this:

SELECT * FROM Survey WHERE quant = 'sal' AND person = 'lake' OR person = 'roe';

which is salinity measurements by Lake, and any measurement by Roerich. We probably want this instead:

SELECT * FROM Survey WHERE quant = 'sal' AND (person = 'lake' OR person = 'roe');

We can also filter by partial matches. For example, if we want to know something just about the site names beginning with “DR” we can use the LIKE keyword. The percent symbol acts as a wildcard, matching any characters in that place. It can be used at the beginning, middle, or end of the string See this page on wildcards for more information:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE site LIKE 'DR%';

Finally, we can use DISTINCT with WHERE to give a second level of filtering:

SELECT DISTINCT person, quant FROM Survey WHERE person = 'lake' OR person = 'roe';

But remember: DISTINCT is applied to the values displayed in the chosen columns, not to the entire rows as they are being processed.

What we have just done is how most people “grow” their SQL queries. We started with something simple that did part of what we wanted, then added more clauses one by one, testing their effects as we went. This is a good strategy — in fact, for complex queries it’s often the only strategy — but it depends on quick turnaround, and on us recognizing the right answer when we get it.

The best way to achieve quick turnaround is often to put a subset of data in a temporary database and run our queries against that, or to fill a small database with synthesized records. For example, instead of trying our queries against an actual database of 20 million Australians, we could run it against a sample of ten thousand, or write a small program to generate ten thousand random (but plausible) records and use that.

Question: Fix This Query

Suppose we want to select all sites that lie within 48 degrees of the equator. Our first query is:

SELECT * FROM Site WHERE (lat > -48) OR (lat < 48);

Explain why this is wrong, and rewrite the query so that it is correct.

Because we used OR, a site on the South Pole for example will still meet the second criteria and thus be included. Instead, we want to restrict this to sites that meet both criteria:

SELECT * FROM Site WHERE (lat > -48) AND (lat < 48);
-- Try solutions here!
Question: Finding Outliers

Normalized salinity readings are supposed to be between 0.0 and 1.0. Write a query that selects all records from Survey with salinity values outside this range.

SELECT * FROM Survey WHERE quant = 'sal' AND ((reading > 1.0) OR (reading < 0.0));
taken person quant reading
752 roe sal 41.6
837 roe sal 22.5
-- Try solutions here!
Question: Matching Patterns

Which of these expressions are true?

  1. 'a' LIKE 'a'
  2. 'a' LIKE '%a'
  3. 'beta' LIKE '%a'
  4. 'alpha' LIKE 'a%%'
  5. 'alpha' LIKE 'a%p%'
  1. True because these are the same character.
  2. True because the wildcard can match zero or more characters.
  3. True because the % matches bet and the a matches the a.
  4. True because the first wildcard matches lpha and the second wildcard matches zero characters (or vice versa).
  5. True because the first wildcard matches l and the second wildcard matches ha.
-- Try solutions here!

But what about if you don’t care about if it’s ALPHA or alpha in the database, and you are using a language that has a notion of case (unlike e.g. Chinese, Japenese)?

Then you can use the ILIKE operator for ‘case Insensitive LIKE’. for example the following are true:

  • 'a' ILIKE 'A'
  • 'AlPhA' ILIKE '%lpha'

Calculating New Values

After carefully re-reading the expedition logs, we realize that the radiation measurements they report may need to be corrected upward by 5%. Rather than modifying the stored data, we can do this calculation on the fly as part of our query:

SELECT 1.05 * reading FROM Survey WHERE quant = 'rad';

When we run the query, the expression 1.05 * reading is evaluated for each row. Expressions can use any of the fields, all of usual arithmetic operators, and a variety of common functions. (Exactly which ones depends on which database manager is being used.) For example, we can convert temperature readings from Fahrenheit to Celsius and round to two decimal places:

SELECT taken, round(5 * (reading - 32) / 9, 2) FROM Survey WHERE quant = 'temp';

As you can see from this example, though, the string describing our new field (generated from the equation) can become quite unwieldy. SQL allows us to rename our fields, any field for that matter, whether it was calculated or one of the existing fields in our database, for succinctness and clarity. For example, we could write the previous query as:

SELECT taken, round(5 * (reading - 32) / 9, 2) as Celsius FROM Survey WHERE quant = 'temp';

We can also combine values from different fields, for example by using the string concatenation operator ||:

SELECT personal || ' ' || family FROM Person;

But of course that can also be solved by simply having a single name field which avoids other issues.

Question: Fixing Salinity Readings

After further reading, we realize that Valentina Roerich was reporting salinity as percentages. Write a query that returns all of her salinity measurements from the Survey table with the values divided by 100.

SELECT taken, reading / 100 FROM Survey WHERE person = 'roe' AND quant = 'sal';
taken reading / 100
752 0.416
837 0.225
-- Try solutions here!
Question: Unions

The UNION operator combines the results of two queries:

SELECT * FROM Person WHERE id = 'dyer' UNION SELECT * FROM Person WHERE id = 'roe';
id personal family
dyer William Dyer
roe Valentina Roerich

The UNION ALL command is equivalent to the UNION operator, except that UNION ALL will select all values. The difference is that UNION ALL will not eliminate duplicate rows. Instead, UNION ALL pulls all rows from the query specifics and combines them into a table. The UNION command does a SELECT DISTINCT on the results set. If all the records to be returned are unique from your union, use UNION ALL instead, it gives faster results since it skips the DISTINCT step. For this section, we shall use UNION.

Use UNION to create a consolidated list of salinity measurements in which Valentina Roerich’s, and only Valentina’s, have been corrected as described in the previous challenge. The output should be something like:

taken reading
619 0.13
622 0.09
734 0.05
751 0.1
752 0.09
752 0.416
837 0.21
837 0.225
SELECT taken, reading FROM Survey WHERE person != 'roe' AND quant = 'sal' UNION SELECT taken, reading / 100 FROM Survey WHERE person = 'roe' AND quant = 'sal' ORDER BY taken ASC;
-- Try solutions here!
Question: Selecting Major Site Identifiers

The site identifiers in the Visited table have two parts separated by a ‘-‘:


Some major site identifiers (i.e. the letter codes) are two letters long and some are three. The “in string” function instr(X, Y) returns the 1-based index of the first occurrence of string Y in string X, or 0 if Y does not exist in X. The substring function substr(X, I, [L]) returns the substring of X starting at index I, with an optional length L. Use these two functions to produce a list of unique major site identifiers. (For this data, the list should contain only “DR” and “MSK”).

SELECT DISTINCT substr(site, 1, instr(site, '-') - 1) AS MajorSite FROM Visited;
-- Try solutions here!

Missing Data

Real-world data is never complete — there are always holes. Databases represent these holes using a special value called null. null is not zero, False, or the empty string; it is a one-of-a-kind value that means “nothing here”. Dealing with null requires a few special tricks and some careful thinking.

By default, the Python SQL interface does not display NULL values in its output, instead it shows None.

To start, let’s have a look at the Visited table. There are eight records, but #752 doesn’t have a date — or rather, its date is null:

SELECT * FROM Visited;

Null doesn’t behave like other values. If we select the records that come before 1930:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE dated < '1930-01-01';

we get two results, and if we select the ones that come during or after 1930:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE dated >= '1930-01-01';

we get five, but record #752 isn’t in either set of results. The reason is that null<'1930-01-01' is neither true nor false: null means, “We don’t know,” and if we don’t know the value on the left side of a comparison, we don’t know whether the comparison is true or false. Since databases represent “don’t know” as null, the value of null<'1930-01-01' is actually null. null>='1930-01-01' is also null because we can’t answer to that question either. And since the only records kept by a WHERE are those for which the test is true, record #752 isn’t included in either set of results.

Comparisons aren’t the only operations that behave this way with nulls. 1+null is null, 5*null is null, log(null) is null, and so on. In particular, comparing things to null with = and != produces null:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE dated = NULL;

produces no output, and neither does:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE dated != NULL;

To check whether a value is null or not, we must use a special test IS NULL:


or its inverse IS NOT NULL:


Null values can cause headaches wherever they appear. For example, suppose we want to find all the salinity measurements that weren’t taken by Lake. It’s natural to write the query like this:

SELECT * FROM Survey WHERE quant = 'sal' AND person != 'lake';

but this query filters omits the records where we don’t know who took the measurement. Once again, the reason is that when person is null, the != comparison produces null, so the record isn’t kept in our results. If we want to keep these records we need to add an explicit check:

SELECT * FROM Survey WHERE quant = 'sal' AND (person != 'lake' OR person IS NULL);

We still have to decide whether this is the right thing to do or not. If we want to be absolutely sure that we aren’t including any measurements by Lake in our results, we need to exclude all the records for which we don’t know who did the work.

In contrast to arithmetic or Boolean operators, aggregation functions that combine multiple values, such as min, max or avg, ignore null values. In the majority of cases, this is a desirable output: for example, unknown values are thus not affecting our data when we are averaging it. Aggregation functions will be addressed in more detail in the next section.

Question: Sorting by Known Date

Write a query that sorts the records in Visited by date, omitting entries for which the date is not known (i.e., is null).

id site dated
619 DR-1 1927-02-08
622 DR-1 1927-02-10
734 DR-3 1930-01-07
735 DR-3 1930-01-12
751 DR-3 1930-02-26
837 MSK-4 1932-01-14
844 DR-1 1932-03-22
-- Try solutions here!
Question: NULL in a Set

What do you expect the following query to produce?

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE dated IN ('1927-02-08', NULL);

What does it actually produce?

You might expect the above query to return rows where dated is either ‘1927-02-08’ or NULL. Instead it only returns rows where dated is ‘1927-02-08’, the same as you would get from this simpler query:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE dated IN ('1927-02-08');

The reason is that the IN operator works with a set of values, but NULL is by definition not a value and is therefore simply ignored.

If we wanted to actually include NULL, we would have to rewrite the query to use the IS NULL condition:

SELECT * FROM Visited WHERE dated = '1927-02-08' OR dated IS NULL;
-- Try solutions here!
Question: Pros and Cons of Sentinels

Some database designers prefer to use a sentinel value to mark missing data rather than null. For example, they will use the date “0000-00-00” to mark a missing date, or -1.0 to mark a missing salinity or radiation reading (since actual readings cannot be negative). What does this simplify? What burdens or risks does it introduce?

-- Try solutions here!