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Basic Spatial Vector Format Conversions

For converting between vector formats (shapefile, Mapinfo etc) you can use the command line tool ogr2ogr as an alternative to Universal Translator in Mapinfo. It’s really easy to use. Here’s how to convert from shapefile to Mapinfo tab file:

ogr2ogr -f "MapInfo File" data.shp

Make a KML for use in Google Earth:

ogr2ogr -f KML data.kml data.shp

Back to shapefile from the KML:

ogr2ogr -f "ESRI Shapefile" data.shp data.kml

You get the hang of it. There’s a lot of formats, you can see the whole list by typing ogr2ogr --formats. ogr2ogr can also do other things like reprojecting and clipping vector data. As an example, for using Google Earth you probably want to use WGS84 instead of the usual MGA56. From doing way too much converting between projections I know that the EPSG numbers for these are 4326 and 28356. So:

ogr2ogr -f KML -a_srs EPSG:28356 -t_srs EPSG:4326 data.kml data.shp

Note that converting from Mapinfo to shapefile can cause some grief since Mapinfo files can have points/lines/polygons in the same file whereas shapefiles can only have a single type of geometry. You’re probably better off sticking with Universal Translator for this use case.

There’s also a tool for converting between raster formats (gdal_translate) but it’s slightly harder to use (tends to mess up nodata values if you don’t specify correctly).

Setting Up a Python Development Environment on Windows

Getting started with Python and looking for a good setup? Or maybe experienced Python-person looking to look down on someone else’s inferior setup? Either way, this might be the page for you! Here I’ll describe my general setup for writing world-changing software such as Todo for Windows. I originally wrote it after setting up the same environment on three of my co-workers’ computers - like any good programmer, I’m lazy and try my best to “automate” everything (in this case, “automate” just means “make someone else do it instead of me”).


I like Sublime Text 3. It is technically in beta, but works very well. It costs about $60, but has a free version that very occasionally nags you to buy. I bought it after a while because I thought it was really good. Get it.

Then install Package Control. It looks a bit daunting, but all you have to do is paste some text into the Sublime command prompt (accessed with ctrl+`). Then we get an excellent package management system, which is easily accessed with ctrl+shift+p, start typing “install package” until it comes up. Then you get a list of packages available. Get these to start with:

  • SublimeCodeIntel (gives you autocomplete and clickable functions)
  • SublimeLinter (gives you code linting - shows you any syntax errors you make)
  • SublimeLinter-pyflakes (python-specific linting)
  • AdvancedNewFile (ctrl+alt+n to easily create new files/folders)
  • SidebarEnhancements (gives a better context menu when you right click on sidebar items)
  • Theme - Spacegray (just looks nicer)

There are a few other good ones too, have a look around. Most of these work out of the box, but SublimeLinter needs a bit of extra work/love. You also have to install the Python pyflakes package and make sure it is on your system PATH. See the section on Python packages for details on how to do that.

Here are some things I like about Sublime Text:

  • Easy access to all commands with ctrl+shift+p
  • ctrl+p for easy switching between files
  • ctrl+click to make multiple cursors
  • ctrl+D to select next occurrence of a word/character
  • alt+f3 to select all occurrences
  • ctrl+l to select lines, then ctrl+shift+l to make cursors on each line
  • Making snippets
  • Split panes (and other options) with alt+shift+2
  • The find (ctrl+shift+f) functionality for all open files or all files in directory
  • Swapping lines with ctrl+shift+up or down arrow
  • Pretty good (though far from perfect) vim bindings

Here is my Settings (User) file:

    "auto_complete_commit_on_tab": true,
    "color_scheme": "Packages/User/base16-eighties.dark (SL).tmTheme",
    "detect_slow_plugins": true,
    "ensure_newline_at_eof_on_save": true,
    "find_selected_text": true,
    "fold_buttons": false,
    "font_face": "consolas",
    "font_size": 10,
    "highlight_line": false,
    "soda_classic_tabs": true,
    "soda_folder_icons": true,
    "spell_check": false,
    "theme": "Spacegray Eighties.sublime-theme",
    "translate_tabs_to_spaces": true,
    "trim_trailing_white_space_on_save": true,
    "vintage_start_in_command_mode": true,
    "word_wrap": false

##Source Control

I like git for source control. It’s basically standard these days, in large part due to GitHub. Get it by installing GitHub for Windows which is an easy to use (but somewhat limited in functionality - I still like it because it’s intuitive and very pretty) GUI for git.

GitHub is really good, but it’s only free if all your code repositories are public, which we can’t always do. There’s another site which is also quite good, BitBucket, that allows you to have private repositories for free. Get an account there. It is still possible to use the GitHub for Windows app to push code to BitBucket.

##Python Packages

For packages, first see if it’s available from here. If it’s not, use pip to install. To do this, download and install pip from the above site, then add C:\Python27\Scripts to your PATH environment variable. You do this by pressing the Windows key, starting to type “environment variable” until the option “Change the system environment variables” comes up. Scroll to the PATH variable and append C:\Python27;C:\Python27\Scripts to the end. Now you can start a command line prompt and type pip install <package> and it will be installed into your Python folder for future use in all your projects. If you have SublimeLinter with Pyflakes installed, it should also work now.

The reason we have to download precompiled installers for some packages is that pip doesn’t work on Windows for packages that have extensions written in C, which practically all the scientific computing packages do. But for most things it will work fine (requests, click, and so on).

The Python standard library is pretty extensive, and will have the tools to do most things you will want to do. But, in many cases, someone else has written a library that is easier to use and, well, more “Pythonic” (a word you will come across here and there). Here are some of my go-to external libraries:

  • pandas – If you do any scientific programming, this is where to start
  • click – super-easy command-line interfaces (over argparse/optparse)
  • funcy – intuitive, powerful manipulation of data structures and functions
  • requests – the best way to make HTTP requests (over urllib3/httplib)
  • unipath – file and folder path manipulation made easy (over os.path)

I use these all the time. They make Python much more enjoyable to write.

Accepting Arrays in the Query String with Flask

I’ve written an API with Flask that takes some input parameters, does some calculations and returns JSON. Pretty standard. Today I wanted to change it so that some of the parameters could be provided as lists and the API would return results for all combinations. So the original query string would look something like this:


which would return:

    "a": 10,
    "b": 20,
    "c": "hello",
    "result": 30

And I wanted to be able to do this:


which should return:

  "data": [
      "a": 10,
      "b": 20,
      "c": "hello",
      "result": 30
      "a": 10,
      "b": 30,
      "c": "hello",
      "result": 40,
      "a": 20,
      "b": 20,
      "c": "hello",
      "result": 40,
      "a": 20,
      "b": 30,
      "c": "hello",
      "result": 50,
  • step1: arrays
  • step2: ast.literal_eval - feels pretty hacky
  • step3: notice what the requests module does
  • step4: facilitate that
  • result: clearer but more verbose