Python Libraries for Geospatial Development

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Reading and writing geospatial data

While you could in theory write your own parser to read a particular geospatial data format, it is much easier to use an existing Python library to do this. We will look at two popular libraries for reading and writing geospatial data: GDAL and OGR.


Unfortunately, the naming of these two libraries is rather confusing. Geospatial Data Abstraction Library ( GDAL), was originally just a library for working with raster geospatial data, while the separate OGR library was intended to work with vector data. However, the two libraries are now partially merged, and are generally downloaded and installed together under the combined name of “GDAL”. To avoid confusion, we will call this combined library GDAL/OGR and use “GDAL” to refer to just the raster translation library.

A default installation of GDAL supports reading 116 different raster file formats, and writing to 58 different formats. OGR by default supports reading 56 different vector file formats, and writing to 30 formats. This makes GDAL/OGR one of the most powerful geospatial data translators available, and certainly the most useful freely-available library for reading and writing geospatial data.

GDAL design

GDAL uses the following data model for describing raster geospatial data:

Let’s take a look at the various parts of this model:

  • A dataset holds all the raster data, in the form of a collection of raster “bands”, along with information that is common to all these bands. A dataset normally represents the contents of a single file.

  • A raster band represents a band, channel, or layer within the image. For example, RGB image data would normally have separate bands for the red, green, and blue components of the image.

  • The raster size specifies the overall width and height of the image, in pixels.

  • The georeferencing transform converts from (x, y) raster coordinates into georeferenced coordinates—that is, coordinates on the surface of the earth. There are two types of georeferencing transforms supported by GDAL: affine transformations and ground control points.

    • An affine transformation is a mathematical formula allowing the following operations to be applied to the raster data:

      More than one of these operations can be applied at once; this allows you to perform sophisticated transforms such as rotations.

      Affine transformations are sometimes referred to as linear transformations.

    • Ground Control Points ( GCPs) relate one or more positions within the raster to their equivalent georeferenced coordinates, as shown in the following figure:

      Note that GDAL does not translate coordinates using GCPs— that is left up to the application, and generally involves complex mathematical functions to perform the transformation.

  • The coordinate system describes the georeferenced coordinates produced the georeferencing transform. The coordinate system includes the projection and datum, as well as the units and scale used by the raster data.

  • The metadata contains additional information about the dataset as a whole.

Each raster band contains the following (among other things):

  • The band raster size: This is the size (number of pixels across and number of lines high) for the data within the band. This may be the same as the raster size for the overall dataset, in which case the dataset is at full resolution, or the band’s data may need to be scaled to match the dataset.

  • Some band metadata providing extra information specific to this band.

  • A color table describing how pixel values are translated into colors.

  • The raster data itself.

GDAL provides a number of drivers which allow you to read (and sometimes write) various types of raster geospatial data. When reading a file, GDAL selects a suitable driver automatically based on the type of data; when writing, you first select the driver and then tell the driver to create the new dataset you want to write to.

GDAL example code

A Digital Elevation Model ( DEM) file contains height values. In the following example program, we use GDAL to calculate the average of the height values contained in a sample DEM file. In this case, we use a DEM file downloaded from the GLOBE elevation dataset:

from osgeo import gdal,gdalconst import struct dataset = gdal.Open("data/e10g") band = dataset.GetRasterBand(1) fmt = "<" + ("h" * band.XSize) totHeight = 0 for y in range(band.YSize): scanline = band.ReadRaster(0, y, band.XSize, 1, band.XSize, 1, band.DataType) values = struct.unpack(fmt, scanline) for value in values: if value == -500: # Special height value for the sea -> ignore. continue totHeight = totHeight + value average = totHeight / (band.XSize * band.YSize) print "Average height =", average

As you can see, this program obtains the single raster band from the DEM file, and then reads through it one scanline at a time. We then use the struct standard Python library module to read the individual height values out of the scanline. Because the GLOBE dataset uses a special height value of -500 to represent the ocean, we exclude these values from our calculations. Finally, we use the remaining height values to calculate the average height, in meters, over the entire DEM data file.

OGR design

OGR uses the following model for working with vector-based geospatial data:

Let’s take a look at this design in more detail:

  • The data source represents the file you are working with—though it doesn’t have to be a file. It could just as easily be a URL or some other source of data.

  • The data source has one or more layers , representing sets of related data. For example, a single data source representing a country may contain a “terrain” layer, a “contour lines” layer, a “roads” later, and a “city boundaries” layer. Other data sources may consist of just one layer. Each layer has a spatial reference and a list of features.

  • The spatial reference specifies the projection and datum used by the layer’s data.

  • A feature corresponds to some significant element within the layer. For example, a feature might represent a state, a city, a road, an island, and so on. Each feature has a list of attributes and a geometry.

  • The attributes provide additional meta-information about the feature. For example, an attribute might provide the name for a city’s feature, its population, or the feature’s unique ID used to retrieve additional information about the feature from an external database.

  • Finally, the geometry describes the physical shape or location of the feature. Geometries are recursive data structures that can themselves contain sub-geometries—for example, a “country” feature might consist of a geometry that encompasses several islands, each represented by a subgeometry within the main “country” geometry.

    The geometry design within OGR is based on the Open Geospatial Consortium’s “Simple Features” model for representing geospatial geometries. For more information, see .

Like GDAL, OGR also provides a number of drivers which allow you to read (and sometimes write) various types of vector-based geospatial data. When reading a file, OGR selects a suitable driver automatically; when writing, you first select the driver and then tell the driver to create the new data source to write to.

OGR example code

The following example program uses OGR to read through the contents of a shapefile, printing out the value of the NAME attribute for each feature along with the geometry type:

from osgeo import ogr shapefile = ogr.Open("TM_WORLD_BORDERS-0.3.shp") layer = shapefile.GetLayer(0) for i in range(layer.GetFeatureCount()): feature = layer.GetFeature(i) name = feature.GetField("NAME") geometry = feature.GetGeometryRef() print i, name, geometry.GetGeometryName()


GDAL and OGR are well documented, but with a catch for Python programmers. The GDAL/OGR library and associated command-line tools are all written in C and C++. Bindings are available which allow access from a variety of other languages, including Python, but the documentation is all written for the C++ version of the libraries. This can make reading the documentation rather challenging—not only are all the method signatures written in C++, but the Python bindings have changed many of the method and class names to make them more “pythonic”.

Fortunately, the Python libraries are largely self-documenting, thanks to all the docstrings embedded in the Python bindings themselves. This means you can explore the documentation using tools such as Python’s built-in pydoc utility, which can be run from the command line like this:

% pydoc -g osgeo

This will open up a GUI window allowing you to read the documentation using a web browser. Alternatively, if you want to find out about a single method or class, you can use Python’s built-in help() command from the Python command line, like this:

>>> import osgeo.ogr >>> help(osgeo.ogr.DataSource.CopyLayer)

Not all the methods are documented, so you may need to refer to the C++ docs on the GDAL website for more information, and some of the docstrings are copied directly from the C++ documentation—but in general the documentation for GDAL/OGR is excellent, and should allow you to quickly come up to speed using this library.


GDAL/OGR runs on modern Unix machines, including Linux and Mac OS X, as well as most versions of Microsoft Windows. The main website for GDAL can be found at:

The main website for OGR is at:

To download GDAL/OGR, follow the Downloads link on the main GDAL website. Windows users may find the FWTools package useful, as it provides a wide range of geospatial software for win32 machines, including GDAL/OGR and its Python bindings. FWTools can be found at:

For those running Mac OS X, prebuilt binaries can be obtained from:

Make sure that you install GDAL Version 1.9 or later, as you will need this version to work through the examples in this book.

Being an open source package, the complete source code for GDAL/OGR is available from the website, so you can compile it yourself. Most people, however, will simply want to use a prebuilt binary version.

Dealing with projections

One of the challenges of working with geospatial data is that geodetic locations (points on the Earth’s surface) are mapped into a two-dimensional Cartesian plane using a cartographic projection. Whenever you have some geospatial data, you need to know which projection that data uses. You also need to know the datum (model of the Earth’s shape) assumed by the data.

A common challenge when dealing with geospatial data is that you have to convert data from one projection/datum to another. Fortunately, there is a Python library pyproj which makes this task easy.


pyproj is a Python “wrapper” around another library called PROJ.4. “PROJ.4” is an abbreviation for Version 4 of the PROJ library. PROJ was originally written by the US Geological Survey for dealing with map projections, and has been widely used in geospatial software for many years. The pyproj library makes it possible to access the functionality of PROJ.4 from within your Python programs.


The pyproj library consists of the following pieces:

pyproj consists of just two classes: Proj and Geod. Proj converts from longitude and latitude values to native map (x, y) coordinates, and vice versa. Geod performs various Great Circle distance and angle calculations. Both are built on top of the PROJ.4 library. Let’s take a closer look at these two classes.


Proj is a cartographic transformation class, allowing you to convert geographic coordinates (that is, latitude and longitude values) into cartographic coordinates (x, y values, by default in meters) and vice versa.

When you create a new Proj instance, you specify the projection, datum, and other values used to describe how the projection is to be done. For example, to use the Transverse Mercator projection and the WGS84 ellipsoid, you would do the following:

projection = pyproj.Proj(proj='tmerc', ellps='WGS84')

Once you have created a Proj instance, you can use it to convert a latitude and longitude to an (x, y) coordinate using the given projection. You can also use it to do an inverse projection—that is, converting from an (x, y) coordinate back into a latitude and longitude value again.

The helpful transform() function can be used to directly convert coordinates from one projection to another. You simply provide the starting coordinates, the Proj object that describes the starting coordinates’ projection, and the desired ending projection. This can be very useful when converting coordinates, either singly or en masse.


Geod is a geodetic computation class, which allows you to perform various Great Circle calculations. We looked at Great Circle calculations earlier, when considering how to accurately calculate the distance between two points on the Earth’s surface. The Geod class, however, can do more than this:

  • The fwd() method takes a starting point, an azimuth (angular direction) and a distance, and returns the ending point and the back azimuth (the angle from the end point back to the start point again):


  • The inv() method takes two coordinates and returns the forward and back azimuth as well as the distance between them:


  • The npts() method calculates the coordinates of a number of points spaced equidistantly along a geodesic line running from the start to the end point:


When you create a new Geod object, you specify the ellipsoid to use when performing the geodetic calculations. The ellipsoid can be selected from a number of predefined ellipsoids, or you can enter the parameters for the ellipsoid (equatorial radius, polar radius, and so on) directly.

Example code

The following example starts with a location specified using UTM zone 17 coordinates. Using two Proj objects to define the UTM Zone 17 and lat/long projections, it translates this location’s coordinates into latitude and longitude values:

import pyproj UTM_X = 565718.5235 UTM_Y = 3980998.9244 srcProj = pyproj.Proj(proj="utm", zone="11", ellps="clrk66", units="m") dstProj = pyproj.Proj(proj="longlat", ellps="WGS84", datum="WGS84") long,lat = pyproj.transform(srcProj, dstProj, UTM_X, UTM_Y) print "UTM zone 11 coordinate (%0.4f, %0.4f) = %0.4f, %0.4f" % (UTM_X, UTM_Y, lat, long)

Continuing on with this example, let’s take the calculated lat/long values and, using a Geod object, calculate another point 10 kilometers northeast of that location:

angle = 315 # 315 degrees = northeast. distance = 10000 geod = pyproj.Geod(ellps="WGS84") long2,lat2,invAngle = geod.fwd(long, lat, angle, distance) print "%0.4f, %0.4f is 10km northeast of %0.4f, %0.4f" % (lat2, long2, lat, long)


The documentation available on the pyproj website, and in the docs directory provided with the source code, is excellent as far as it goes. It describes how to use the various classes and methods, what they do and what parameters are required. However, the documentation is rather sparse when it comes to the parameters used when creating a new Proj object. As the documentation says:

A Proj class instance is initialized with proj map projection control parameter key/value pairs. The key/value pairs can either be passed in a dictionary, or as keyword arguments, or as a proj4 string (compatible with the proj command).

The documentation does provide a link to a website listing a number of standard map projections and their associated parameters, but understanding what these parameters mean generally requires you to delve into the PROJ documentation itself. The documentation for PROJ is dense and confusing, even more so because the main manual is written for PROJ Version 3, with addendums for later versions. Attempting to make sense of all this can be quite challenging.

Fortunately, in most cases you won’t need to refer to the PROJ documentation at all. When working with geospatial data using GDAL or OGR, you can easily extract the projection as a “proj4 string” which can be passed directly to the Proj initializer. If you want to hardwire the projection, you can generally choose a projection and ellipsoid using the proj=”…” and ellps=”…” parameters, respectively. If you want to do more than this, though, you will need to refer to the PROJ documentation for more details.

To find out more about PROJ, and to read the original documentation, you can find everything you need at:


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