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Parsing JSON in Flutter

Learn about getting and parsing JSON data from the internet when building a cross-platform app using Flutter.

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Version

  • Dart 2, Flutter 1.7, Android Studio 3

An app without something to show on its screen is pretty boring, right? But where can you get interesting information to display on your app? From the internet, of course!

There are thousands of websites that provide information you can use to spice up your apps through REST, or Representational State Transfer, APIs, which define a way to implement web services. Many sites allow you to create an account to access resources like images, data and more through REST APIs.

In this tutorial, you’ll sign up for a website that provides information about cats, and you’ll build a Flutter app to display that information (for you dog lovers out there, there are dog APIs as well). You’ll get a list of cat breeds along with information about each breed. Along with that information is an image you can display that shows how each cat breed looks.

But once you get that information, how do you put it on your app’s screen? This tutorial will also show you how to parse JSON data into model classes that you can display in your app. JSON stands for JavaScript Object Notation, a data format that most websites use to send data.

Note: If you’re new to Flutter, please check out our Getting Started With Flutter tutorial to for an overview of the basics of working with this SDK.

In this tutorial, you’ll see how Flutter implements the following:

  • Calling network APIs.
  • Parsing JSON data.
  • Showing JSON data in a ListView.
  • Displaying network images.

Getting Started

Download the starter project for this tutorial by using the Download Materials button at the top or bottom of the page.

This tutorial will be using Android Studio with the Flutter plugin installed. You can also use Visual Studio Code, IntelliJ IDEA or a text editor of your choice with Flutter at the command line.

To install the Flutter plugin, go to the Preferences dialog of Android Studio and find the Plugins section.

Click on the Marketplace tab and type Flutter, then click the install button. You may also need to install other plugins like Dart, but installing the Flutter plugin should install the other needed plugins for you.

With the plugins installed, open the starter project in Android Studio by choosing Open an existing Android Studio project and finding the root folder of the starter project zip file:

Android Studio may prompt you to fetch the packages needed for the project; go ahead and do so:

Once you’ve opened the project in Android Studio, in the device dropdown select either an Android emulator, or the iOS simulator if you are on a Mac and have Xcode installed. Then press Control + R or click the green Run button to build and run the starter project.

The starter app will show an empty screen, like this on iOS,

Starter on iOS

and like this on Android,

Starter on Android

In this tutorial, you’ll build on the starter project to first load a set of cat breeds with a short description of each breed. Then you’ll update the list of breeds so that clicking on a row takes the user to an image of a cat from that breed.

Understanding the UI

Right now, you can’t see anything on the screen because your app has no data. You’re going to start fixing that soon.

To start, first take a look at the code that builds the UI. Open cat_breeds.dart in the lib/screens folder, which contains the following code:

import 'package:flutter/material.dart';
import 'cat_info.dart';

class CatBreedsPage extends StatefulWidget {
  // 1
  CatBreedsPage({Key key, this.title}) : super(key: key);

  final String title;

  @override
  _CatBreedsPageState createState() => _CatBreedsPageState();
}
class _CatBreedsPageState extends State<CatBreedsPage> {
  @override
  void initState() {
    super.initState();
  }
  @override
  Widget build(BuildContext context) {

    return Scaffold(
      appBar: AppBar(
        // 2
        title: Text(widget.title),
      ),
      // 3
      body: ListView.builder(
          // 4
          itemCount: 0,
          itemBuilder: (context, index) {
            // 5
            return GestureDetector(
              onTap: () {
                Navigator.push(context, MaterialPageRoute(builder: (context) {
                  return CatInfo(catId: 'id', catBreed: 'Name');
                }));
              },
              // 6
              child: Card(
                child: Padding(
                  padding: const EdgeInsets.all(8.0),
                  // 7
                  child: ListTile(
                    title: Text('Breed Name'),
                    subtitle: Text('Breed Description'),
                  ),
                ),
              ),
            );
          }),
    );
  }
}

Here’s a description of what each section does:

  1. Constructs a CatBreedsPage with the title that the AppBar will use.
  2. Adds the title for the AppBar using the title field.
  3. Adds a body that uses the ListView.builder method.
  4. Sets the count to 0 for now, since you don’t have any items yet.
  5. For every card, you want to go to the CatInfo page. Here, you use the Navigator to push that card.
  6. Creates a Card widget with padding.
  7. Adds a ListTile that has a title and description.

You’ll update this UI code once you have download real data to show in it.

Using REST APIs

REST APIs consist of URLs to a server that allow you to retrieve data.

There are different methods that you can use with REST APIs. The most common method you’ll use is GET, which retrieves data rather than saving it. In addition, you can use POST for saving and PATCH or PUT for updating. There is also a DELETE method for deleting.

If you go to the documentation page of the Cats API, you’ll see all of the different calls you can make. If you click on the Search by Breed link, you’ll see that you need an API key to complete the action.

You can also see that the API looks like this: https://api.thecatapi.com/v1/images/search?breed_ids={breed-id} where {breed-id} stands for the ID of the breed to search.

Signing Up for a Cats API

Head over to the Cats API sign up page now to sign up for an account.

You must sign up and get a key since you’d only be able to make a few calls without the key.

Making Network Calls

Making network calls is easy in Dart. All you have to do is use the HTTP library from the starter project. Open network.dart in the lib/api folder. It should look like this:

// 1
import 'package:http/http.dart';

class Network {
  final String url;
  //2
  Network(this.url);

  // 3
  Future getData() async {
    print('Calling uri: $url');
    // 4
    Response response = await get(url);
    // 5
    if (response.statusCode == 200) {
      // 6
      return response.body;
    } else {
      print(response.statusCode);
    }
  }
}

Here’s what this class does:

  1. Imports the HTTP library.
  2. The Network class has a constructor that takes a string URL.
  3. Includes one asynchronous method called getData().
  4. Uses the HTTP GET method with your URL and awaits a response.
  5. Checks the status code. If it’s 200 then the response is OK. Anything else is an error.
  6. Returns the result.

Understanding JSON

JSON is just a text format that most REST APIs use to return their data. Another common format is XML, but XML is quite a bit more verbose.

Here’s a small example of JSON:

{
  "user": {
      "name": "Kevin Moore",
      "occupation": "Programmer"
   }
}

Notice that the snippet starts with a brace {, which indicates an object. JSON can also start as an array, which uses the square bracket [ symbol to signify the start of the array. JSON needs to be properly formatted, so all beginning { and [ symbols need to have their ending symbols: } and ].

Once you have downloaded a JSON string, you can do a few different things:

  1. Keep it as a string and parse out the key/value pairs.
  2. Convert the string to a Dart Map from which you can get the key/value pairs.
  3. Convert the string to Dart model objects from which you can get the values from the object properties.

All of these options have different pros and cons. Dealing with a string can get complicated if you have a lot of data. Using Map values can make the code quite verbose. Converting to model objects takes more work, but is easier to use.

We’ll prefer the model object approach below.

Parsing JSON

There are a few different ways that you can parse JSON code.

By Hand

You can parse a JSON string by hand by using the dart:convert library.

Here’s an example:

import 'dart:convert';

Map<String, dynamic> user = jsonDecode(jsonString);
var name = user['user]['name'];

This doesn’t look too hard, but if you start working with complex JSON strings, it becomes very tedious to write and maintain.

Using Libraries

If you go to Pub.dev, a repository of Dart packages, and search for JSON Flutter libraries, you’ll find several libraries for dealing with JSON. For this tutorial, you’ll be using two Flutter libraries:

  • HTTP for network calls, as seen above.
  • json_annotation for annotating your JSON model classes.

You’ll also use two development libraries that create helper classes for converting JSON strings into your model objects:

  • build_runner, which runs your json_serializable library.
  • json_serializable, which creates the extra helper classes that convert strings into your models.

These two libraries will go into the dev_dependencies section of your pubspec.yaml.

To add them, start by opening pubspec.yaml in the root of the project. First, you’ll add the Flutter libraries.

In the dependencies section, add the json_annotation dependency underneath http:

dependencies:
  flutter:
    sdk: flutter

  cupertino_icons: ^0.1.2
  http: ^0.12.0+2
  json_annotation: ^2.0.0 

Next, go to the dev_dependencies section and add the build_runner and json_serializable dependencies:

dev_dependencies:
  flutter_test:
    sdk: flutter    
  build_runner: ^1.0.0
  json_serializable: ^2.0.0

Next, press the Packages get prompt that shows up in the top-right side of the Android Studio. If you have any problems, make sure you line up the dependecies to match what you see in the final project, since YAML file formatting is very strict.

The Cat API

Now, open cats_api.dart in the lib/api folder. The first line is a constant called apiKey. Replace Your Key with the key you obtained from the Cat API site, then take a look at the code:

const String apiKey = 'Your Key';
//1
const String catAPIURL = 'https://api.thecatapi.com/v1/breeds?';
// 2
const String catImageAPIURL = 'https://api.thecatapi.com/v1/images/search?';
// 3
const String breedString = 'breed_id=';
// 4
const String apiKeyString = 'x-api-key=$apiKey';

class CatAPI {
  // 5
  Future<dynamic> getCatBreeds() async {
     // 6
    Network network = Network('$catAPIURL$apiKeyString');
    // 7
    var catData = await network.getData();
    return catData;
  }
  // 8
  Future<dynamic> getCatBreed(String breedName) async {
    Network network =
        Network('$catImageAPIURL$breedString$breedName&$apiKeyString');
    var catData = await network.getData();
    return catData;
  }
}

Here’s what you see:

  1. A string value of the API to get the list of breeds.
  2. A string URL for running a cat image search.
  3. A string to capture the actual breed ID.
  4. A string that uses your API key to add to the final URL.
  5. A method getCatBreeds() to return the breed data.
  6. Use of your Network class from above to pass in your breed’s API string and your key.
  7. Awaiting the asynchronous result.
  8. A method getCatBreed(String breedName) to get the cat image for a given breed.

Using the Cat API

Open cat_breeds.dart in the lib/screens folder.

Inside _CatBreedsPageState, add the following:

void getCatData() async {
  var result = await CatAPI().getCatBreeds();
  print(result);
}

This method calls the cat API to get the cat breeds.

You’ll need to import the CatAPI class from cat_info.dart. You can do that manually or, if you like, put the cursor over the call to the CatAPI constructor and press Option + Enter and choose Import.

Next, call the new method you’ve added to get the cat data by adding the following to the bottom of initState():

getCatData();

Now, run your app to check if your connection to the API works. Take a look at the output in the run tab and you should see the JSON string printed out.

Output in the console

Now that your your initial call to the Cat API works, you’ll create the model classes you need in the next step.

Creating Models

Get started by opening cats.dart in the Models folder. You’ll see commented out an example of the JSON data returned by the API.

Add a class that describes a cat breed:

class Breed {
  String id;
  String name;
  String description;
  String temperament;

  Breed({this.id, this.name, this.description, this.temperament});
}

This class defines the fields you’ll pull from the JSON. You need the id to get the image of the cat breed. You’ll display name and description on the card view.

If you look at the data you printed to the console above, you’ll see that it starts with the square bracket [ character, meaning that you’ll get a JSON array of breeds. Add a class to hold that array of data now:

class BreedList {
  List<Breed> breeds;

  BreedList({this.breeds});
}

This class holds a Dart list of cat breeds.

For the image search, you need to describe the cat, the cat breed and the list of cat breeds, like so:

class Cat {
  String name;
  String description;
  String life_span;

  Cat({this.name, this.description, this.life_span});
}

class CatBreed {
  String id;
  String url;
  int width;
  int height;
  List<Cat> breeds;

  CatBreed({this.id, this.url, this.width, this.height, this.breeds});
}

class CatList {
  List<CatBreed> breeds;

  CatList({this.breeds});
}

Add those classes to cats.dart now.

For this tutorial, you won’t use the temperament or life_span fields, but you could use them if you wanted to enhance the app.

Using JSON Annotations

Now you’ll use the json_annotation library to parse the JSON data into objects of your model classes.

Go to the top of cats.dart and add:

import 'package:json_annotation/json_annotation.dart';
part 'cats.g.dart';

The part statement imports a file and allows you to use its private variables. You’ll see an error on this statement for now, until you later use build_runner to generate the file cats.g.dart.

Next, you need to add the @JsonSerializable() annotation to each class. For example, your Breed class should look like this when the annotation is added:

@JsonSerializable()
class Breed {
  String id;
  String name;
  String description;
  String temperament;

  Breed({this.id, this.name, this.description, this.temperament});
}

Make sure you add the annotation before every class in cats.dart.

JSON Conversion Methods

In the next step, you’ll add some factory methods to each class. The build runner plugin will use these methods to create a Dart file that will do all the hard work of parsing the JSON data for you.

In the Breed class add the following after the constructor:

factory Breed.fromJson(Map<String, dynamic> json) => _$BreedFromJson(json);

Map<String, dynamic> toJson() => _$BreedToJson(this);

Each class will include fromJson and toJson. These methods call the generated code that parses the JSON. At this point, you’ll notice some more errors in Android Studio. Don’t worry about those at the moment; you’ll clear them up later.

In BreedList, add the following after the constructor:

factory BreedList.fromJson(List<dynamic> json) {
  return BreedList(
      breeds: json
          .map((e) => Breed.fromJson(e as Map<String, dynamic>))
          .toList());
}

This is the fromJson you need to parse the JSON array to a list of breeds.

Add fromJson and toJson after the constructor in Cat:

factory Cat.fromJson(Map<String, dynamic> json) => _$CatFromJson(json);

Map<String, dynamic> toJson() => _$CatToJson(this);

Next, after the constructor in CatBreed, add:

factory CatBreed.fromJson(Map<String, dynamic> json) =>
    _$CatBreedFromJson(json);

Map<String, dynamic> toJson() => _$CatBreedToJson(this);

Finally, add the following after the constructor in CatList:

factory CatList.fromJson(List<dynamic> json) {
  return CatList(
      breeds: json
          .map((e) => CatBreed.fromJson(e as Map<String, dynamic>))
          .toList());
}

You’ve now added all the fromJson and toJson methods you need in your model classes.

Using build_runner

Your next step is to run the tool that generates the files that will parse the JSON. Open the Terminal tab at the bottom of Android Studio, and enter the following:

flutter packages pub run build_runner build

When the command completes, if everything ran correctly, the errors you saw earlier in cats.dart should be gone, and you should now see cats.g.dart in the same directory as cats.dart. If you open cats.g.dart, you’ll notice methods for converting JSON to your model classes and back.

Using the Models

Now that you’ve created and generated your models, it’s time to put them to work.

Go back to cat_breeds.dart. In getCatData(), you can now parse the JSON you got from the internet into your model classes.

To start, at the top of _CatBreedsPageState, add a property for the breed list:

class _CatBreedsPageState extends State<CatBreedsPage> {  
  BreedList breedList = BreedList();
  ...

Import cats.dart at the top of the file to clear the errors you see.

In getCatData(), add these lines after the print statement:

// 1
var catMap = json.decode(result);
// 2 
setState(() {
  // 3
  breedList = BreedList.fromJson(catMap);
});

Here you:

  1. Use json.decode(result) to turn the JSON string into a map.
  2. Call setState to rebuild your widget due to changes in the data.
  3. Use fromJson(catMap) to convert the map into a list of breeds.

Be sure to import the dart:convert library for the json.decode() statement. You have now converted your JSON data into a list of cat breeds!

But wait! You still need to get that list into the UI. How do you do that?

Since you have a list of cat breeds, what better way to display them than with a ListView widget?

Go down to the body: ListView.builder statement and replace the itemCount: 0 with:

itemCount: (breedList == null || breedList.breeds == null || breedList.breeds.length == 0) ? 0 : breedList.breeds.length,

This sets the itemCount to the length of the breeds list.

Next, replace the title and subtitle of the ListTile with the following:

title: Text(breedList.breeds[index].name),
subtitle: Text(breedList.breeds[index].description),

Now build and run the app and see how it looks. You should see a list of cat breed names and their descriptions.

List of cats on iOS

Congratulations!

Happy Cat

Building the Cat Detail Page

Your next step is to set up the onTap listener so that tapping on a row shows the breed image.

Inside the Navigator.push call of GestureDetector in the ListView.Builder, replace the call in the onTap() with:

return CatInfo(catId: breedList.breeds[index].id, catBreed: breedList.breeds[index].name);

This adds the actual id and name of the tapped row into the constructor call for CatInfo.

Now, open cat_info.dart in lib/screens. In _CatInfoState, add the following above the initState override:

CatList catList = CatList();

void getCatData() async {
  var catJson = await CatAPI().getCatBreed(widget.catId);
  print(catJson);

  var catMap = json.decode(catJson);
  print(catMap);
  setState(() {
    catList = CatList.fromJson(catMap);
  });
}

Next, add a call to the getCatData() method you added within initState:

@override
void initState() {
  super.initState();
  getCatData();
}

Be sure to import all the class files you need.

Now, in getCat(), after the mediaSize property declaration, add:

  if (catList == null ||
      catList.breeds == null ||
      catList.breeds.length == 0) {
    return Container();
  }

This will return an empty Container if the list of cat breeds is null or empty.

In the return statement for the non-empty Container, after the height: argument, add the following:

// 1
decoration: BoxDecoration(image: DecorationImage(
  // 2
  image: NetworkImage(catList.breeds[0].url),fit: BoxFit.contain,
)),

Here you have:

  1. BoxDecoration to let you draw an image in a box area.
  2. NetworkImage to load an image URL from the network.

Notice how you’re using a decoration to display a network image. You don’t have to do a thing, just wrap the cat URL in a NetworkImage widget. Awesome, right? :]

Build and run your app and tap on any breed. You should now see cat images for each breed. Congratulations!

Breed image

Where to Go From Here?

You can download the final completed project using the Download Materials button at the top or bottom of this tutorial.

Wow, that was a lot of work, but you learned:

  1. Using the HTTP library to issue network API requests.
  2. making API calls to return data.
  3. Parsing returned JSON into model classes.
  4. Displaying lists of items in a ListView.
  5. Displaying a network image.

You can learn more about Flutter JSON parsing by visiting JSON and serialization in the Flutter docs and the docs for JSON Serializable.

Stay tuned for more Flutter tutorials and screencasts!

Feel free to share your feedback and findings or ask any questions in the comments below or in the forums. I hope you enjoyed learning about JSON parsing in Flutter!

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