How the HTML data attribute works

by Luca Sbardella on May 17, 2014

HTML5 custom data attribute is useful, how is it used and why.

HTML custom data attribute

The HTML custom data attribute data-* has become one of the most important parts in modern front-end development, especially since [HTML5][] has become the de-facto standard mark-up language for the world wide web. This attribute is extremely useful because it allows one to inject custom data values directly into the DOM tree.

It is intended for use by the site's own scripts, for example:

<div class="user" data-username="pippo" data-email=""></div>

Before this important change in the mark-up language, developers could not add data to the DOM in a clean and elegant way. Instead they were forced to use all sorts of hacks and tricks to get the job done.


Each custom data-* attribute is valid if the name replacing the * follows these rules:

  • it must not start with xml, whatever case
  • it must not contain any semicolon
  • it must not contain spaces

These attributes are converted into a dictionary like container of String key and String value pairs called the DOMStringMap. The conversion follows these rules:

  • any dash (U+002D) in the name is removed
  • any letter following a dash, before its removal, is set in its upper case counterpart

In other words, the data-date-of-birth attribute becomes the dateOfBirth key in the data container.

I'm not sure why the decision to change the attribute names to their camel-cased versions was taken, I'm not sure it is the right decision, but it is a decision we can live with.

Another important fact to notice is that you don't need to set a data attribute to a given value, instead you can simply add the attribute to the element:

<div id="test" data-an-empty-name></div>

The value associated with the above data attribute is an empty string:

const el = document.getElementById("test");
const data = JSON.stringify(el.dataset, null, 2);

Javascript plugins

Several JavaScript library/plugins use the custom data attribute to activate their API and to obtain configuration options. For example, the popular [bootstrap][] library can be used through the markup API without writing a single line of JavaScript.

By setting:

<div id="carousel1" class="carousel slide" data-ride="carousel">

A carousel is activated.

Data driven documents

Another important use of the data attribute is with JavaScript libraries such as d3:

D3.js is a JavaScript library for manipulating documents based on data. D3 helps you bring data to life using HTML, SVG and CSS. D3’s emphasis on web standards gives you the full capabilities of modern browsers without tying yourself to a proprietary framework, combining powerful visualization components and a data-driven approach to DOM manipulation.

Lets take this example:

<div id="barchart" data-values="[45, 63, 7]"></div>

The following script generates the bar chart above:

notebook.require("d3-selection").then((d3) => {
  const chart = d3
      .style("text-align", "right")
      .style("color", "#fff"),
    data = JSON.parse(chart.node().dataset.values);

    .style("width", (d) => `${d}px`)
    .style("background", "#007d1c")
    .style("margin", "1px")
    .style("padding", "3px")
    .text((d) => d);

And that is all.