A terminal prompt on a Linux PC.
Fatmawati Achmad Zaenuri/Shutterstock

JSON is one of the most popular formats for transferring text-based data around the web. It’s everywhere, and you’re bound to come across it. We’ll show you how to handle it from the Linux command line using the jq command.

JSON and jq

JSON stands for JavaScript Object Notation. It’s a scheme that allows data to be encoded into plain text files, in a self-describing way. There are no comments in a JSON file—the contents should be self-explanatory. Each data value has a text string called a “name” or “key.” This tells you what the data value is. Together, they’re known as name:value pairs, or key:value pairs. A colon (:) separates a key from its value.

An “object” is a collection of key:value pairs. In a JSON file, an object begins with an open curly brace ({) and ends with a closing brace (}). JSON also supports “arrays,” which are ordered lists of values. An array begins with an opening bracket ([) and ends with a closing one (]).

From these simple definitions, of course, arbitrary complexity can arise. For example, objects can be nested within objects. Objects can contain arrays, and arrays can also contain objects. All of which can have open-ended levels of nesting.

In practice, though, if the layout of JSON data is convoluted, the design of the data layout should probably use a rethink. Of course, if you’re not generating the JSON data, just trying to use it, you have no say in its layout. In those cases, unfortunately, you just have to deal with it.

Most programming languages have libraries or modules that allow them to parse JSON data. Sadly, the Bash shell has no such functionality.

Necessity being the mother of invention, though, the jq utility was born! With jq, we can easily parse JSON in the Bash shell, or even convert XML to JSON. And it doesn’t matter whether you have to work with well-engineered, elegant JSON, or the stuff nightmares are made of.

How to Install jq

We had to install jq on all the Linux distributions we used to research this article.

To install jq on Ubuntu type this command:

sudo apt-get install jq

To install jq on Fedora, type this command:

sudo dnf install jq

To install jq on Manjaro, type this command:

sudo pacman -Sy jq

How to Make JSON Readable

JSON doesn’t care about white space, and layout doesn’t affect it. As long as it follows the rules of JSON grammar, systems that process JSON can read and understood it. Because of this, JSON is often transmitted as a simple, long string, without any consideration of layout. This saves a bit of space because tabs, spaces, and new-line characters don’t have to be included in the JSON. Of course, the downside to all this is when a human tries to read it.

Let’s pull a short JSON object from the NASA site that tells us the position of the International Space Station. We’ll use curl, which can download files to retrieve the JSON object for us.

We don’t care about any of the status messages curl usually generates, so we’ll type the following, using the -s (silent) option:

curl -s http://api.open-notify.org/iss-now.json

Now, with a bit of effort, you can read this. You have to pick out the data values, but it isn’t easy or convenient. Let’s repeat this, but this time we’ll pipe it through jq.

jq uses filters to parse JSON, and the simplest of these filters is a period (.), which means “print the entire object.” By default, jq pretty-prints the output.

We put it all together and type the following:

curl -s http://api.open-notify.org/iss-now.json | jq .

That’s much better! Now, we can see exactly what’s going on.

The entire object is wrapped in curly braces. It contains two key:name pairs: message and timestamp. It also contains an object called iss_position, which contains two key:value pairs: longitude and latitude.

We’ll try this once more. This time we’ll type the following, and redirect the output into a file called “iss.json”:

curl -s http://api.open-notify.org/iss-now.json | jq . > iss.json
cat iss.json

This gives us a well laid out copy of the JSON object on our hard drive.

RELATED: How to Use curl to Download Files From the Linux Command Line

Accessing Data Values

As we saw above, jq can extract data values being piped through from JSON. It can also work with JSON stored in a file. We’re going to work with local files so the command line isn’t cluttered with curl commands. This should make it a bit easier to follow.

The simplest way to extract data from a JSON file is to provide a key name to obtain its data value. Type a period and the key name without a space between them. This creates a filter from the key name. We also need to tell jq which JSON file to use.

We type the following to retrieve the message value:

jq .message iss.json

jq prints the text of the message value in the terminal window.

If you have a key name that includes spaces or punctuation, you have to wrap its filter in quotation marks. Care is usually taken to use characters, numbers, and underscores only so the JSON key names are not problematic.

First, we type the following to retrieve the timestamp value:

jq .timestamp iss.json

The timestamp value is retrieved and printed in the terminal window.

But how can we access the values inside the iss_position object? We can use the JSON dot notation. We’ll include the iss_position object name in the “path” to the key value. To do this, the name of the object the key is inside will precede the name of the key itself.

We type the following, including the latitude key name (note there are no spaces between “.iss_position” and “.latitude”):

jq .iss_position.latitude iss.json

To extract multiple values, you have to do the following:

  • List the key names on the command line.
  • Separate them with commas (,).
  • Enclose them in quotation marks (") or apostrophes (').

With that in mind, we type the following:

jq ".iss_position.latitude, .timestamp" iss.json

The two values print to the terminal window.

Working with Arrays

Let’s grab a different JSON object from NASA.

This time, we’ll use a list of the astronauts who are in space right now:

curl -s http://api.open-notify.org/astros.json

Okay, that worked, so let’s do it again.

We’ll type the following to pipe it through jq and redirect it to a file called “astro.json”:

curl -s http://api.open-notify.org/astros.json | jq . > astro.json

Now let’s type the following to check our file:

less astro.json

As shown below, we now see the list of astronauts in space, as well as their spacecrafts.

This JSON object contains an array called people. We know it’s an array because of the opening bracket ([) (highlighted in the screenshot above). It’s an array of objects that each contain two key:value pairs:  name and craft.

Like we did earlier, we can use the JSON dot notation to access the values. We must also include the brackets ([]) in the name of the array.

With all that in mind, we type the following:

jq ".people[].name" astro.json

This time, all the name values print to the terminal window. What we asked jq to do was print the name value for every object in the array. Pretty neat, huh?

We can retrieve the name of a single object if we put its position in the array in the brackets ([]) on the command line. The array uses zero-offset indexing, meaning the object in the first position of the array is zero.

To access the last object in the array you can use -1; to get the second to last object in the array, you can use -2, and so on.

Sometimes, the JSON object provides the number of elements in the array, which is the case with this one. Along with the array, it contains a key:name pair called number with a value of six.

The following number of objects are in this array:

jq ".people[1].name" astro.json
jq ".people[3].name" astro.json
jq ".people[-1].name" astro.json
jq ".people[-2].name" astro.json

You can also provide a start and end object within the array. This is called “slicing,” and it can be a little confusing. Remember the array uses a zero-offset.

To retrieve the objects from index position two, up to (but not including) the object at index position four, we type the following command:

jq ".people[2:4]" astro.json

This prints the objects at array index two (the third object in the array) and three (the fourth object in the array). It stops processing at array index four, which is the fifth object in the array.

The way to better understand this is to experiment on the command line. You’ll soon see how it works.

How to Use Pipes with Filters

You can pipe the output from one filter to another, and you don’t have to learn a new symbol. The same as the Linux command line, jq uses the vertical bar (|) to represent a pipe.

We’ll tell jq to pipe the people array into the .name filter, which should list the names of the astronauts in the terminal window.

We type the following:

jq ".people[] | .name" astro.json

RELATED: How to Use Pipes on Linux

Creating Arrays and Modifying Results

We can use jq to create new objects, such as arrays. In this example, we’ll extract three values and create a new array that contains those values. Note the opening ([) and closing brackets (]) are also the first and last characters in the filter string.

We type the following:

jq "[.iss-position.latitude, iss_position.longitude, .timestamp]" iss.json

The output is wrapped in brackets and separated by commas, making it a correctly formed array.

Numeric values can also be manipulated as they’re retrieved. Let’s pull the timestamp from the ISS position file, and then extract it again and change the value that’s returned.

To do so, we type the following:

jq ".timestamp" iss.json
jq ".timestamp - 1570000000" iss.json

This is useful if you need to add or remove a standard offset from an array of values.

Let’s type the following to remind ourselves what the iss.json file contains:

jq . iss.json

Let’s say we want to get rid of the message key:value pair. It doesn’t have anything to do with the position of the International Space Station. It’s just a flag that indicates the location was retrieved successfully. If it’s surplus to requirements, we can dispense with it. (You could also just ignore it.)

We can use jq‘s delete function, del(), to delete a key:value pair. To delete the message key:value pair, we type this command:

jq "del(.message)" iss.json

Note this doesn’t actually delete it from the “iss.json” file; it just removes it from the output of the command. If you need to create a new file without the message key:value pair in it, run the command, and then redirect the output into a new file.

More Complicated JSON Objects

Let’s retrieve some more NASA data. This time, we’ll use a JSON object that contains information on meteor impact sites from around the world. This is a bigger file with a far more complicated JSON structure than those we’ve dealt with previously.

First, we’ll type the following to redirect it to a file called “strikes.json”:

curl -s https://data.nasa.gov/resource/y77d-th95.json | jq . > strikes.json

To see what JSON looks like, we type the following:

less strikes.json

As shown below, the file begins with an opening bracket ([), so the entire object is an array. The objects in the array are collections of key:value pairs, and there’s a nested object called geolocation. The geolocation object contains further key:value pairs, and an array called coordinates.

Let’s retrieve the names of the meteor strikes from the object at index position 995 through the end of the array.

We’ll type the following to pipe the JSON through three filters:

jq ".[995:] | .[] | .name" strikes.json

The filters function in the following ways:

  • .[995:]: This tells jq to process the objects from array index 995 through the end of the array. No number after the colon ( : ) is what tells jq to continue to the end of the array.
  • .[]: This array iterator tells jq to process each object in the array.
  • .name: This filter extracts the name value.

With a slight change, we can extract the last 10 objects from the array. A “-10” instructs jq to start processing objects 10 back from the end of the array.

We type the following:

jq ".[-10:] | .[] | .name" strikes.json

Just as we have in previous examples, we can type the following to select a single object:

jq ".[650].name" strikes.json

We can also apply slicing to strings. To do so, we’ll type the following to request the first four characters of the name of the object at array index 234:

jq ".[234].name[0:4]" strikes.json

We can also see a specific object in its entirety. To do this, we type the following and include an array index without any key:value filters:

jq ".[234]" strikes.json

If you want to see only the values, you can do the same thing without the key names.

For our example, we type this command:

jq ".[234][]" strikes.json

To retrieve multiple values from each object, we separate them with commas in the following command:

jq ".[450:455] | .[] | .name, .mass" strikes.json

If you want to retrieve nested values, you have to identify the objects that form the “path” to them.

For example, to reference the coordinates values, we have to include the all-encompassing array, the geolocation nested object, and the nested coordinates array, as shown below.

To see the coordinates values for the object at index position 121 of the array, we type the following command:

jq ".[121].geolocation.coordinates[]" strikes.json

The length Function

The jq length function gives different metrics according to what it’s been applied, such as:

  • Strings: The length of the string in bytes.
  • Objects: The number of key:value pairs in the object.
  • Arrays: The number of array elements in the array.

The following command returns the length of the name value in 10 of the objects in the JSON array, starting at index position 100:

jq ".[100:110] | .[].name | length" strikes.json

To see how many key:value pairs are in the first object in the array, we type this command:

jq ".[0] | length" strikes.json

The keys Function

You can use the keys function to find out about the JSON you’ve got to work with. It can tell you what the names of the keys are, and how many objects there are in an array.

To find the keys in the people object in the “astro.json” file, we type this command:

jq ".people.[0] | keys" astro.json

To see how many elements are in the people array, we type this command:

jq ".people | keys" astro.json

This shows there are six, zero-offset array elements, numbered zero to five.

The has() Function

You can use the has() function to interrogate the JSON and see whether an object has a particular key name. Note the key name must be wrapped in quotation marks. We’ll wrap the filter command in single quotes ('), as follows:

jq '.[] | has("nametype")' strikes.json

Each object in the array is checked, as shown below.

If you want to check a specific object, you include its index position in the array filter, as follows:

jq '.[678] | has("nametype")' strikes.json

Don’t Go Near JSON Without It

The jq utility is the perfect example of the professional, powerful, fast software that makes living in the Linux world such a pleasure.

This was just a brief introduction to the common functions of this command—there’s a whole lot more to it. Be sure to check out the comprehensive jq manual if you want to dig deeper.

RELATED: How to Convert XML to JSON on the Command Line

RELATED: Best Linux Laptops for Developers and Enthusiasts

Profile Photo for Dave McKay Dave McKay
Dave McKay first used computers when punched paper tape was in vogue, and he has been programming ever since. After over 30 years in the IT industry, he is now a full-time technology journalist. During his career, he has worked as a freelance programmer, manager of an international software development team, an IT services project manager, and, most recently, as a Data Protection Officer. His writing has been published by  howtogeek.com, cloudsavvyit.com, itenterpriser.com, and opensource.com. Dave is a Linux evangelist and open source advocate.
Read Full Bio »