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Pure Python read/write support for ESRI Shapefile format

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Joel Lawhead <>


August 31, 2011


The Python Shapefile Library (PSL) provides read and write support for the ESRI Shapefile format. The Shapefile format is a popular Geographic Information System vector data format.

This documentation covers the Python 2.x-compatible version of the library. A Python 3-compatible version is available in the Subversion trunk of the pyshp project on Google Code.

This document provides usage examples for using the Python Shapefile Library.

Currently the sample census blockgroup shapefile referenced in the examples is only available on the google code project site at These examples are straight-forward and you can also easily run these simple examples on your own shapefiles manually. Other examples for specific topics are continually added to the pyshp wiki on google code and the blog:

I sincerely hope this libarary eliminates the mundane distraction of simply reading and writing data, and allows you to focus on the challenging and FUN part of your project.


Before doing anything you must import the library.

>>> import shapefile

The examples below will use a shapefile created from the U.S. Census Bureau Blockgroups data set near San Francisco, CA and available in the subversion repository of the pyshp google code site.

Reading Shapefiles

To read a shapefile create a new “Reader” object and pass it the name of an existing shapefile. The shapefile format is acutally a collection of three files. You specify the base filename of the shapefile or the complete filename of any of the shapefile component files.

>>> sf = shapefile.Reader("shapefiles/blockgroups")


>>> sf = shapefile.Reader("shapefiles/blockgroups.shp")


>>> sf = shapefile.Reader("shapefiles/blockgroups.dbf")

OR any of the other 5+ formats which are potentially part of a shapefile.

Reading Geometry

A shapefile’s geometry is the collection of points or shapes made from verticies and implied arcs representing physical locations. All types of shapefiles just store points. The metadata about the points determine how they are handled by software.

You can get the a list of the shapefile’s geometry by calling the shapes() method.

>>> shapes = sf.shapes()

The shapes method returns a list of Shape objects describing the geometry of each shape record.

>>> len(shapes)

Each shape record contains the following attributes:

>>> dir(shapes[3])
['__doc__', '__init__', '__module__', 'bbox', 'parts', 'points', 'shapeType']
  • shapeType: an integer representing the type of shape as defined by the shapefile specification.

>>> shapes[3].shapeType
  • bbox: If the shape type contains multiple points this tuple describes the upper left (x,y) coordinate and lower right corner coordinate creating a complete box around the points. If the shapeType is a Null (shapeType == 0) then an AttributeError is raised.

>>> shapes[3].bbox
[-122.485792, 37.786931000000003, -122.446285, 37.811019000000002]
  • parts: Parts simply group collections of points into shapes. If the shape record has multiple parts this attribute contains the index of the first point of each part. If there is only one part then a list containing 0 is returned.

>>> shapes[3].parts
  • points: The points attribute contains a list of tuples containing an (x,y) coordinate for each point in the shape.

>>> len(shapes[3].points)
>>> shapes[3].points[7]
[-122.471063, 37.787402999999998]

To read a single shape by calling its index use the shape() method. The index is the shape’s count from 0. So to read the 8th shape record you would use its index which is 7.

>>> s = sf.shape(7)
>>> s.bbox
[-122.449637, 37.801490000000001, -122.442109, 37.807957999999999]

Reading Records

A record in a shapefile contains the attributes for each shape in the collection of geometry. Records are stored in the dbf file. The link between geometry and attributes is the foundation of Geographic Information Systems. This critical link is implied by the order of shapes and corresponding records in the shp geometry file and the dbf attribute file.

The field names of a shapefile are available as soon as you read a shapefile. You can call the “fields” attribute of the shapefile as a Python list. Each field is a Python list with the following information:

  • Field name: the name describing the data at this column index.

  • Field type: the type of data at this column index. Types can be: Character, Numbers, Longs, Dates, or Memo. The “Memo” type has no meaning within a GIS and is part of the xbase spec instead.

  • Field length: the length of the data found at this column index. Older GIS software may truncate this length to 8 or 11 characters for “Character” fields.

  • Decimal length: the number of decimal places found in “Number” fields.

To see the fields for the Reader object above (sf) call the “fields” attribute:

>>> fields = sf.fields
>>> assert fields == [("DeletionFlag", "C", 1, 0), ["AREA", "N", 18, 5],
... ["BKG_KEY", "C", 12, 0], ["POP1990", "N", 9, 0], ["POP90_SQMI", "N", 10, 1],
... ["HOUSEHOLDS", "N", 9, 0],
... ["MALES", "N", 9, 0], ["FEMALES", "N", 9, 0], ["WHITE", "N", 9, 0],
... ["BLACK", "N", 8, 0], ["AMERI_ES", "N", 7, 0], ["ASIAN_PI", "N", 8, 0],
... ["OTHER", "N", 8, 0], ["HISPANIC", "N", 8, 0], ["AGE_UNDER5", "N", 8, 0],
... ["AGE_5_17", "N", 8, 0], ["AGE_18_29", "N", 8, 0], ["AGE_30_49", "N", 8, 0],
... ["AGE_50_64", "N", 8, 0], ["AGE_65_UP", "N", 8, 0],
... ["NEVERMARRY", "N", 8, 0], ["MARRIED", "N", 9, 0], ["SEPARATED", "N", 7, 0],
... ["WIDOWED", "N", 8, 0], ["DIVORCED", "N", 8, 0], ["HSEHLD_1_M", "N", 8, 0],
... ["HSEHLD_1_F", "N", 8, 0], ["MARHH_CHD", "N", 8, 0],
... ["MARHH_NO_C", "N", 8, 0], ["MHH_CHILD", "N", 7, 0],
... ["FHH_CHILD", "N", 7, 0], ["HSE_UNITS", "N", 9, 0], ["VACANT", "N", 7, 0],
... ["OWNER_OCC", "N", 8, 0], ["RENTER_OCC", "N", 8, 0],
... ["MEDIAN_VAL", "N", 7, 0], ["MEDIANRENT", "N", 4, 0],
... ["UNITS_1DET", "N", 8, 0], ["UNITS_1ATT", "N", 7, 0], ["UNITS2", "N", 7, 0],
... ["UNITS3_9", "N", 8, 0], ["UNITS10_49", "N", 8, 0],
... ["UNITS50_UP", "N", 8, 0], ["MOBILEHOME", "N", 7, 0]]

You can get a list of the shapefile’s records by calling the records() method:

>>> records = sf.records()
>>> len(records)

Each record is a list containing an attribute corresponding to each field in the field list.

For example in the 4th record of the blockgroups shapefile the 2nd and 3rd fields are the blockgroup id and the 1990 population count of that San Francisco blockgroup:

>>> records[3][1:3]
['060750601001', 4715]

To read a single record call the record() method with the record’s index:

>>> rec = sf.record(3)
>>> rec[1:3]
['060750601001', 4715]

Reading Geometry and Records Simultaneously

You way want to examine both the geometry and the attributes for a record at the same time. The shapeRecord() and shapeRecords() method let you do just that.

Calling the shapeRecords() method will return the geometry and attributes for all shapes as a list of ShapeRecord objects. Each ShapeRecord instance has a “shape” and “record” attribute. The shape attribute is a ShapeRecord object as dicussed in the first section “Reading Geometry”. The record attribute is a list of field values as demonstrated in the “Reading Records” section.

>>> shapeRecs = sf.shapeRecords()

Let’s read the blockgroup key and the population for the 4th blockgroup: >>> shapeRecs[3].record[1:3] [‘060750601001’, 4715]

Now let’s read the first two points for that same record:

>>> points = shapeRecs[3].shape.points[0:2]
>>> len(points)

The shapeRec() method reads a single shape/record pair at the specified index. To get the 4th shape record from the blockgroups shapfile use the third index:

>>> shapeRec = sf.shapeRecord(3)

The blockgroup key and population count:

>>> shapeRec.record[1:3]
['060750601001', 4715]
>>> points = shapeRec.shape.points[0:2]
>>> len(points)

Writing Shapefiles

The PSL tries to be as flexible as possible when writing shapefiles while maintaining some degree of automatic validation to make sure you don’t accidentally write an invalid file.

The PSL can write just one of the component files such as the shp or dbf file without writing the others. So in addition to being a complete shapefile library, it can also be used as a basic dbf (xbase) library. Dbf files are a common database format which are often useful as a standalone simple database format. And even shp files occasionaly have uses as a standalone format. Some web-based GIS systems use an user-uploaded shp file to specify an area of interest. Many precision agriculture chemical field sprayers also use the shp format as a control file for the sprayer system (usually in combination with custom database file formats).

To create a shapefile you add geometry and/or attributes using methods in the Writer class until you are ready to save the file.

Create an instance of the Writer class to begin creating a shapefile:

>>> w = shapefile.Writer()

Setting the Shape Type

The shape type defines the type of geometry contained in the shapefile. All of the shapes must match the shape type setting.

Shape types are represented by numbers between 0 and 31 as defined by the shapefile specification. It is important to note that numbering system has several reserved numbers which have not been used yet therefore the numbers of the existing shape types are not sequential.

There are three ways to set the shape type: - Set it when creating the class instance. - Set it by assigning a value to an existing class instance. - Set it automatically to the type of the first shape by saving the shapefile.

To manually set the shape type for a Writer object when creating the Writer:

>>> w = shapefile.Writer(shapeType=1)
>>> w.shapeType

OR you can set it after the Writer is created:

>>> w.shapeType = 3
>>> w.shapeType

Geometry and Record Balancing

Because every shape must have a corresponding record it is critical that the number of records equals the number of shapes to create a valid shapefile. To help prevent accidental misalignment the PSL has an “auto balance” feature to make sure when you add either a shape or a record the two sides of the equation line up. This feature is NOT turned on by default. To activate it set the attribute autoBalance to 1 (True):

>>> w.autoBalance = 1

You also have the option of manually calling the balance() method each time you add a shape or a record to ensure the other side is up to date. When balancing is used null shapes are created on the geometry side or a record with a value of “NULL” for each field is created on the attribute side.

The balancing option gives you flexibility in how you build the shapefile.

Without auto balancing you can add geometry or records at anytime. You can create all of the shapes and then create all of the records or vice versa. You can use the balance method after creating a shape or record each time and make updates later. If you do not use the balance method and forget to manually balance the geometry and attributes the shapefile will be viewed as corrupt by most shapefile software.

With auto balanacing you can add either shapes or geometry and update blank entries on either side as needed. Even if you forget to update an entry the shapefile will still be valid and handled correctly by most shapefile software.

Adding Geometry

Geometry is added using one of three methods: “null”, “point”, or “poly”. The “null” method is used for null shapes, “point” is used for point shapes, and “poly” is used for everything else.

Adding a Null shape

Because Null shape types (shape type 0) have no geometry the “null” method is called without any arguments.

>>> w = shapefile.Writer()
>>> w.null()

The writer object’s shapes list will now have one null shape:

>>> assert w.shapes()[0].shapeType == shapefile.NULL

Adding a Point shape

Point shapes are added using the “point” method. A point is specified by an x, y, and optional z (elevation) and m (measure) value.

>>> w = shapefile.Writer()
>>> w.point(122, 37) # No elevation or measure values
>>> w.shapes()[0].points
[[122, 37, 0, 0]]
>>> w.point(118, 36, 4, 8)
>>> w.shapes()[1].points
[[118, 36, 4, 8]]

Adding a Poly shape

“Poly” shapes can be either polygons or lines. Shapefile polygons must have at least 5 points and the last point must be the same as the first (i.e. you can’t have a triangle accoring to the shapefile specification even though many popular GIS programs support such shapefiles.) A line must have at least two points. Because of the similarities between these two shape types they are created using a single method called “poly”.

>>> w = shapefile.Writer()
>>> w.poly(shapeType=3, parts=[[[122,37,4,9], [117,36,3,4]], [[115,32,8,8],
... [118,20,6,4], [113,24]]])

Creating Attributes

Creating attributes involves two steps. Step 1 is to create fields to contain attribute values and step 2 is to populate the fields with values for each shape record.

The following attempts to create a complete shapefile:

>>> w = shapefile.Writer(shapefile.POINT)
>>> w.point(1,1)
>>> w.point(3,1)
>>> w.point(4,3)
>>> w.point(2,2)
>>> w.field('FIRST_FLD')
>>> w.field('SECOND_FLD','C','40')
>>> w.record('First','Point')
>>> w.record('Second','Point')
>>> w.record('Third','Point')
>>> w.record('Fourth','Point')
>>> w = shapefile.Writer(shapefile.POLYGON)
>>> w.poly(parts=[[[1,5],[5,5],[5,1],[3,3],[1,1]]])
>>> w.field('FIRST_FLD','C','40')
>>> w.field('SECOND_FLD','C','40')
>>> w.record('First','Polygon')
>>> w = shapefile.Writer(shapefile.POLYLINE)
>>> w.line(parts=[[[1,5],[5,5],[5,1],[3,3],[1,1]]])
>>> w.poly(parts=[[[1,3],[5,3]]], shapeType=shapefile.POLYLINE)
>>> w.field('FIRST_FLD','C','40')
>>> w.field('SECOND_FLD','C','40')
>>> w.record('First','Line')
>>> w.record('Second','Line')

You can also add attributes using keyword arguments where the keys are field names.

>>> w = shapefile.Writer(shapefile.POLYLINE)
>>> w.line(parts=[[[1,5],[5,5],[5,1],[3,3],[1,1]]])
>>> w.field('FIRST_FLD','C','40')
>>> w.field('SECOND_FLD','C','40')
>>> w.record(FIRST_FLD='First', SECOND_FLD='Line')

Editor Class

The Editor class attempts to make changing existing shapefiles easier by handling the reading and writing details behind the scenes.

Let’s add shapes to existing shapefiles:

Add a point to a point shapefile:

>>> e = shapefile.Editor(shapefile="shapefiles/test/point.shp")
>>> e.point(0,0,10,2)
>>> e.record("Appended","Point")

Add a new line to a line shapefile:

>>> e = shapefile.Editor(shapefile="shapefiles/test/line.shp")
>>> e.line(parts=[[[10,5],[15,5],[15,1],[13,3],[11,1]]])
>>> e.record('Appended','Line')

Add a new polygon to a polygon shapefile:

>>> e = shapefile.Editor(shapefile="shapefiles/test/polygon.shp")
>>> e.poly(parts=[[[5.1,5],[9.9,5],[9.9,1],[7.5,3],[5.1,1]]])
>>> e.record("Appended","Polygon")

Remove the first point in each shapefile - for a point shapefile that is the first shape and record”

>>> e = shapefile.Editor(shapefile="shapefiles/test/point.shp")
>>> e.delete(0)

Remove the last shape in the polygon shapefile.

>>> e = shapefile.Editor(shapefile="shapefiles/test/polygon.shp")
>>> e.delete(-1)

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