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A short tour of Open Geospatial Tools of the scientific Python ecosystem

One of my favorite statistics is that about 80% of data in the world, contain some element that is spatial. For instance, take the list of gas stations in a city or restaurants in a city, revenue from medical industry, there is always some element of this data that can be categorized as being spatial - be it locations, routes the products take, cost variations in gas prices etc.

This spatial relationship is of significant interest to me and I have been analyzing them for over a decade and have been building software to analyze them for more than half of the past decade. While majority of what I built were proprietary, this blog is a look at what is available in the open-source ecosystem and when to use which tool.

Something that is common and beautiful about the opensource Python data analysis ecosystem is, a number of these libraries have self-organized themselves around a common platform or standard of interoperability. You will find many libraries interchangeably using each other for parts they are good at, emphasizing the 'dont reinvent the wheel' philosophy. For then end user, even though the number of libraries is large, it is possible to mark a clear boundary of what lib does what functionality and why it is needed.

This blog is just a high level overview to navigate this python-open-geospatial community and packages.

Data IO

Fiona is a GDAL Python wrapper and is for reading vector data. Fiona is written to be a clean Pythonic wrapper at the cost of performance and memory usage.

An alternate is PyShape which reads and writes Esri Shape files in pure Python vs Fiona which is a GDAL wrapper for libs in C.

OSMnx is a library used to retrieve network and vector data from Open Street Maps database. This library pairs well with networkx library that can perform network analysis

Raster data IO

rasterio is a popular library from Mapbox that is a Pythonic wrapper over GDAL Python bindings. This library makes it easy to read satellite images, DEMs (and all formats supported by GDAL) quickly into a numpy array. In addition, it has some handy methods such as plotting, histogram to quickly visualize the images.

Once in numpy, you can perform any analysis over raw arrays. However, rasterio provides modules to perform several different processing such as Georeferencing, masking, mosaicing, reprojecting, resampling and writing to disk.

Geometry and projection engines

Geopandas provides a spatial extension to the famous pandas library. It uses shapely for geometry, fiona for reading vector data, descartes and matplotlib for plotting. Geopandas allows spatial operations that would otherwise require PostGIS.

Shapely is a Python package for manipulation and analysis of geometries. Shapely cannot IO datasets, but can help in projections. Shapely is a Pythonic wrapper to GEOS (Geometry Engine, Open Source), which in turn is a C++ port of Java Topology Suite. You can already see a heavy re-use of libraries. Shapely forms the geometry backbone of geopandas

Pyproj is used by Geopandas to perform conversions to and between different crs (coordinate reference system). In addition, PyCRS appears to be an alternate implementation in pure Python for the same functionality.

Spatial indexing

Data wrangling

Geopandas supports pretty much all data wrangling provided by pandas. Thus you can treat it as a regular data frame and work with its non-spatial columns.


Descartes uses Shapely to convert them to matplotlib paths and patches. Thus it uses matplotlib for plotting geometries. The GeoDataFrame.plot() method of GeoPandas directly integrates with Descartes making it easy to directly plot your data frames.

Folium uses Leaflet.js to plot an interactive map on the Jupyter notebook. It is pretty slick and looks great. Folium, in its current release does not seem to support reading Geopandas dataframes. You need to serialize it to a GeoJSON and then add it to the map. Although this can happen in memory, it may become problematic for large datasets. Another option to look into is IpyLeaflet.

GeoViews is a spatial extension for Holoviews viz project. Geoviews is based on Cartopy and renders the plot either using matplotlib or bokeh (interactive) general plotting libraries. Cartopy is a common library that is used by many other high level plotting libraries.

Geoplot has an ambitious goal of being a seaborn like library for plotting spatial data. Similar at GeoViews, it is an extension to Cartopy and matplotlib.

Sharing - web GIS

Spatial analysis

Geopandas allows for basic overlay and set operations. You can do - intersection, - union, - symmetrical difference, - difference, - buffer - dissolve and aggregation - attribute and spatial joins - geocoding using google, bing, googlev3, yahoo, mapquest, openmapquest.

A number of data wrangling such as reclassification is possible through regular pandas expressions and functionality.


Python spatial analysis library, is the go-to for spatial data analysis in open source world.


geopy is a Pythonic wrapper for a number of different providers (including Google, Esri, Yahoo, Mapzen etc.) geopandas integrates with geopy and returns the hits as a geodataframe, how neat! Another option is geocoder


By no means this is an exhaustive list, and that is the beauty of open source ecosystem. There are parallel efforts around the world to improve existing packages and building simpler and more powerful packages. Here is a blog that lists a few more packages for Python geospatial work.

Learning resources - Geohackweek has a nice tutorial for vector, raster data processing using open source Python packages. - Python GIS course by Henrikki Tenkanen