Clojure: flattening key paths

This article will cover how to flatten the nested key paths of a map in Clojure; turning a nested map like {:a {:b {:c {:d 1} :e 2}}} into a flat map like {:a-b-c-d 1 :a-b-e 2}.

Flattening key paths recursively

We map over the key value pairs of the top level map. If we encounter a map? that is not-empty, we conj the current key onto a vector, thus gradually building a path and then call flatten-paths recursively. If we encounter anything else, we take the current path and turn it into a single key:

(defn flatten-paths
  ([m separator]
   (flatten-paths m separator []))
  ([m separator path]
   (->> (map (fn [[k v]]
               (if (and (map? v) (not-empty v))
                 (flatten-paths v separator (conj path k))
                 [(->> (conj path k)
                       (map name)
                       (clojure.string/join separator)
                       keyword) v]))
        (into {}))))

This works for shallow maps:

(flatten-paths {:a {:b {:c {:d 1}
                        :e 2}}
                :f 3}

=> {:a-b-c-d 1, :a-b-e 2, :f 3}

But does it work with deeply nested maps? To check this we first need to write a function create-n-nested-map that will create a deeply nested map:

(defn create-n-nested-map [n]
  (assoc-in {} (repeat n :a) {}))

And a harness find-when-overflow-occurs to tell us roughly at what depth we get a StackOverflowError:

(defn find-when-overflow-occurs [f n]
  (if (try
        (f n)
        (catch StackOverflowError e
    (recur f (inc n))

          (flatten-paths (create-n-nested-map n) "-")

=> 599

On my machine I get a stack overflow at a depth of 600. In practice, you are unlikely to encounter a map that is this deeply nested. However, lets see if we can refactor flatten-paths to use the sequence abstraction so that it can handle deeper maps.

Flattening key paths with lazy-seq

The lazy-seq takes a body of expressions that returns an ISeq or nil and yields a Seqable object that will invoke the body only the first time seq is called. It will cache the result and return it on all subsequent seq calls. The caching of the body is what allows the lazy-seq macro to call itself recursively without consuming more stackframes the way a normal recursive call would.

We use the lazy-seq to define a function that recursively builds a list of the flattened key paths. The use of (when-let [[x & xs] (seq s)] ...) is a common pattern when building lazy sequences, allowing you to apply a function to the head of the sequence and then call it recursively on the tail. It's also worth noting that to combine the output of the head and the tail operations we use into (strict) rather than concat (lazy). For more details check out this article.

(defn flatten-paths [m separator]
    (letfn [(flatten-paths [m separator path]
               (when-let [[[k v] & xs] (seq m)]
                 (cond (and (map? v) (not-empty v))
                       (into (flatten-paths v separator (conj path k))
                             (flatten-paths xs separator path))
                       (cons [(->> (conj path k)
                                   (map name)
                                   (clojure.string/join separator)
                                   keyword) v]
                             (flatten-paths xs separator path))))))]
      (into {} (flatten-paths m separator []))))

(flatten-paths (create-n-nested-map 1000000) "-")

Execution error (StackOverflowError) at user/flatten-paths...

But for some reason we are still getting a StackOverflowError. Maybe it's our create-n-nested-map function that's the culprit?


=> 5889

Interesting... so assoc-in seems to be the cause. I guess this highlights just how unlikely you are to encounter such ridiculously nested maps. Let's rewrite create-n-nested-map to build the map from the inside out with reduce rather than outside in with assoc-in.

(defn create-n-nested-map [n]
  (reduce (fn [acc _] {:a acc}) {} (range n)))

Let's see if that works. Warning! The output is quite large and will flood your repl.

(flatten-paths (create-n-nested-map 1000000) "-")

=> {:a-a-a-a-a-a... {}}

Rejoice! We can now flatten the key paths of ridiculously deeply nested maps.

This concludes this guide to flattening key paths in Clojure.