Mastering jq: The Ultimate Guide to Data Transformation Like a Pro

Mastering jq: The Ultimate Guide to Data Transformation Like a Pro

1. Overview

JSON is a popular structured data format that is utilized in most modern APIs and data services. It is especially popular in online applications because of its lightweight design and interoperability with JavaScript.

Unfortunately, shells like Bash are unable to understand and manipulate JSON natively. This implies that dealing with JSON via the command line can be time-consuming, as it requires text manipulation using tools like sed and grep.

2. Installation

Let’s begin by installing jq, which is available in most operating system packaging repositories. It’s also possible to download the binary directly or build it from the source.

Once we’ve installed the package, let’s verify the installation by running jq:

$ jq
jq - commandline JSON processor [version 1.6]

Usage:    jq [options] <jq filter> [file...]
    jq [options] --args <jq filter> [strings...]
    jq [options] --jsonargs <jq filter> [JSON_TEXTS...]

If the installation was successful, the console will display the version, usage examples, and other information.

3. Working With Simple Filters

jq is based on the concept of filters that operate on a stream of JSON. Each filter accepts an input and returns JSON to the standard output. As we will see, there are numerous preconfigured filters that we can use. We can easily combine these filters with pipelines to quickly create and apply complicated operations and transformations to our JSON data.

3.1. Prettify JSON

Let’s start by taking a look at the simplest filter of all, which incidentally is one of the most useful and frequently used features of jq:

echo '{"fruit":{"name":"apple","color":"green","price":1.20}}' | jq '.'

We echo a simple JSON string and pipe it directly into our jq command. Then we use the identity filter ‘.’ that takes the input and produces it unchanged as output with the caveat that by default jq pretty-prints all output.

This gives us the following output:

  "fruit": {
    "name": "apple",
    "color": "green",
    "price": 1.2

We can also apply this filter directly to a JSON file:

jq '.' fruit.json

Being able to prettify JSON is particularly useful when we want to retrieve data from an API and see the response in a clear, readable format.

Let’s hit a simple API using curl to see this in practice:

curl | jq '.'

This gives us a JSON response for the current position of the International Space Station:

  "message": "success",
  "timestamp": 1572386230,
  "iss_position": {
    "longitude": "-35.4232",
    "latitude": "-51.3109"

3.2. Accessing Properties

We can access property values by using another simple filter: the .field operator. To find a property value, we simply combine this filter followed by the property name.

Let’s see this by building on our simple fruit example:

jq '.fruit' fruit.json

Here, we are accessing the fruit property, which gives us all the children of this key:

  "name": "apple",
  "color": "green",
  "price": 1.2

We can also chain property values together, allowing us to access nested objects:

jq '.fruit.color' fruit.json

As expected, this simply returns the color of our fruit:


If we need to retrieve multiple keys, we can separate them using a comma:

jq '.fruit.color,.fruit.price' fruit.json

This results in an output containing both property values:


Note that if one of the properties has spaces or special characters, we need to wrap the property name in quotes when accessing it from the jq command:

echo '{ "with space": "hello" }' | jq '."with space"'

4. JSON Arrays

Now let's look at how to work with arrays in JSON data. Arrays are commonly used to represent lists of elements. In addition, as in many programming languages, square brackets are used to designate the beginning and end of an array.

4.1. Iteration

We’ll start with a basic example to demonstrate how to iterate over an array:

echo '["x","y","z"]' | jq '.[]'

Here, we see the object value iterator operator .[] in use, which will print out each item in the array on a separate line:


Now let’s imagine we want to represent a list of fruit in a JSON document:

    "name": "apple",
    "color": "green",
    "price": 1.2
    "name": "banana",
    "color": "yellow",
    "price": 0.5
    "name": "kiwi",
    "color": "green",
    "price": 1.25

Each item in the array is an object that represents a fruit.

Let’s see how to extract the name of each fruit from each object in the array:

jq '.[] | .name' fruits.json

First, we iterate over the array using .[]. Then we can pass each object in the array to the next filter in the command using a pipe |. The last step is to output the name field from each object using .name:


We can also use a slightly more concise version and access the property directly on each object in the array:

jq '.[].name' fruits.json

4.2. Accessing by Index

Of course, as with all arrays, we can access one of the items in the array directly by passing the index:

jq '.[1].price' fruits.json

4.3. Slicing

Finally, jq also supports slicing of arrays, another powerful feature. This is particularly useful when we need to return a subarray of an array.

Again, let’s see this using a simple array of numbers:

echo '[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]' | jq '.[6:9]'

The result will be a new array with a length of 3, containing the elements from index 6 (inclusive) to index 9 (exclusive):


It’s also possible to omit one of the indexes when using the slicing functionality:

echo '[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]' | jq '.[:6]' | jq '.[-2:]'

Since we specified only the second argument in .[:6], the slice will start from the beginning of the array and run up until index 6. It’s the same as doing .[0:6].

The second slicing operation has a negative argument, which denotes in this case that it counts backward from the end of the array.

Note the subtle difference in the second slice — we pass the index as the first argument. This means we will start two indexes from the end (-2), and since the second argument is empty, it will run until the end of the array.

This gives us the following output:


5. Using Functions

jq has many powerful built-in functions that we can use to perform a variety of useful operations. Let’s take a look at some of them now.

5.1. Getting Keys

Sometimes, we may want to get the keys of an object as an array instead of the values.

We can do this using the keys function:

jq '.fruit | keys' fruit.json

This gives us the keys sorted alphabetically:


5.2. Returning the Length

Another handy function for arrays and objects is the length function.

We can use this function to return the array’s length or the number of properties on an object:

jq '.fruit | length' fruit.json

Here, we get “3” since the fruit object has three properties.

We can even use the length function on string values as well:

jq ' | length' fruit.json

We would see “5” as the resulting output since the fruit name property has five characters: “apple”.

5.3. Mapping Values

The map function is a powerful function we can use to apply a filter or function to an array:

jq 'map(has("name"))' fruits.json

In this example, we’re applying the has function to each item in the array and looking to see if there is a name property. In our simple fruits JSON, we get true in each result item.

We can also use the map function to apply operations to the elements in an array.

Let’s imagine we want to increase the price of each fruit:

jq 'map(.price+2)' fruits.json

This gives us a new array with each price incremented:


5.4. Min and Max

If we need to find the minimum or maximum element of an input array, we can utilize the min and max functions:

jq '[.[].price] | min' fruits.json

Likewise, we can also find the most expensive fruit in our JSON document:

jq '[.[].price] | max' fruits.json

Note that in these two examples, we’ve constructed a new array, using [] around the array iteration. This contains only the prices before we pass this new list to the min or max function.

5.5. Selecting Values

The select function is another impressive utility that we can use for querying JSON.

We can think of it as a bit like a simple version of XPath for JSON:

jq '.[] | select(.price>0.5)' fruits.json

This selects all the fruit with a price greater than 0.5.

Likewise, we can also make selections based on the value of a property:

jq '.[] | select(.color=="yellow")' fruits.json

We can even combine conditions to build up complex selections:

jq '.[] | select(.color=="yellow" and .price>=0.5)' fruits.json

This will give us all yellow fruit matching a given price condition:

  "name": "banana",
  "color": "yellow",
  "price": 0.5

5.6. Support for Regular Expressions

Next, we’re going to look at the test function, which enables us to test if an input matches against a given regular expression:

jq '.[] | select(.name|test("^a.")) | .price' fruits.json

Simply put, we want to output the price of all the fruit whose name starts with the letter “a”.

5.7. Finding Unique Values

One common use case is to be able to see unique occurrences of a particular value within an array or remove duplicates.

Let’s see how many unique colors we have in our fruits JSON document:

jq 'map(.color) | unique' fruits.json

We use the map function to create a new array containing only colors. Then we pass each color in the new array to the unique function using a pipe |.

This gives us an array with two distinct fruit colors:


5.8. Deleting Keys From JSON

We’ll also sometimes want to remove a key and corresponding value from JSON objects.

For this, jq provides the del function:

jq 'del(' fruit.json

This outputs the fruit object without the deleted key:

  "fruit": {
    "color": "green",
    "price": 1.2

6. Transforming JSON

Frequently, when working with data structures such as JSON, we might want to transform one data structure into another. This can be useful while working with large JSON structures when we are only interested in several properties or values.

In this example, we’ll use some Wikipedia JSON that describes a list of page entries:

  "query": {
    "pages": [
        "21721050": {
          "pageid": 21721050,
          "ns": 0,
          "title": "Stack Overflow",
          "extract": "Some interesting text about Stack Overflow"
        "21721051": {
          "pageid": 21721051,
          "ns": 0,
          "title": "Github",
          "extract": "Build software better, together"

We’re only really interested in the title and extract of each page entry.

So, let’s see how we can transform this document:

jq '.query.pages | [.[] | map(.) | .[] | {page_title: .title, page_description: .extract}]' wikipedia.json

We’ll take a look at the command in more detail to understand it properly:

  • First, we begin by accessing the pages array and passing that array into the next filter in the command via a pipe.

  • Then we iterate over this array and pass each object inside the pages array to the map function, where we simply create a new array with the contents of each object.

  • Next, we iterate over this array and for each item create an object containing the two keys page_title and page_description.

  • The .title and .extract references are used to populate the two new keys.

This gives us a new, lean JSON structure:

    "page_title": "Stack Overflow",
    "page_description": "Some interesting text about Stack Overflow"
    "page_title": "Github",
    "page_description": "Build software better, together"

7. Conclusion

In this in-depth post, we reviewed some of the fundamental capabilities that jq provides for processing and modifying JSON from the command line.

First, we looked at some of the most important filters that jq provides and how they may be used as the foundation for more complicated processes. Then we learned how to use the various built-in functions that come with JQ.

We finished with a difficult example that demonstrated how to convert one JSON document into another.

Of course, check out the fantastic cookbook for additional fascinating examples, and as always, the article's full source code can be found on GitHub.

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