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Exploring Data Formats and Fields

Raster data

Raster data in GIS are matrices of discrete cells that represent features on, above or below the earth’s surface. Each cell in the raster grid has the same size, and cells are usually rectangular (in QGIS they will always be rectangular). Typical raster datasets include remote sensing data, such as aerial photography, or satellite imagery and modelled data, such as an elevation matrix.

Unlike vector data, raster data typically do not have an associated database record for each cell. They are geocoded by pixel resolution and the x/y coordinate of a corner pixel of the raster layer. This allows QGIS to position the data correctly in the map canvas.

QGIS makes use of georeference information inside the raster layer (e.g., GeoTiff) or in an appropriate world file to properly display the data.

Vector Data

Many of the features available in QGIS work the same, regardless the vector data source. However, because of the differences in formats specifications (ESRI shapefiles, MapInfo and MicroStation file formats, AutoCAD DXF, PostGIS, SpatiaLite, DB2, Oracle Spatial and MSSQL Spatial databases, and many more), QGIS may handle differently some of their properties. This section describes how to work with these specificities.


QGIS supports (multi)point, (multi)line, (multi)polygon, CircularString, CompoundCurve, CurvePolygon, MultiCurve, MultiSurface feature types, all with Z and/or M values.

You should note also that some drivers don’t support some of these feature types like CircularString, CompoundCurve, CurvePolygon, MultiCurve, MultiSurface feature type. QGIS will convert them to (multi)polygon feature.

ESRI Shapefiles

The ESRI shapefile is still one of the most used vector file format in QGIS. However, this file format has some limitation that some other file format have not (like Geopackage, spatialite). Support is provided by the OGR Simple Feature Library.

A shapefile actually consists of several files. The following three are required:

  1. .shp file containing the feature geometries
  2. .dbf file containing the attributes in dBase format
  3. .shx index file

Shapefiles also can include a file with a .prj suffix, which contains the projection information. While it is very useful to have a projection file, it is not mandatory. A shapefile dataset can contain additional files. For further details, see the ESRI technical specification at http://www.esri.com/library/whitepapers/pdfs/shapefile.pdf.

Improving Performance for Shapefiles

To improve the performance of drawing a shapefile, you can create a spatial index. A spatial index will improve the speed of both zooming and panning. Spatial indexes used by QGIS have a .qix extension.

Use these steps to create the index:

  • Load a shapefile (see The Browser Panel);
  • Open the Layer Properties dialog by double-clicking on the shapefile name in the legend or by right-clicking and choosing Properties from the context menu.
  • In the General tab, click the [Create Spatial Index] button.

Problem loading a shape .prj file

If you load a shapefile with a .prj file and QGIS is not able to read the coordinate reference system from that file, you will need to define the proper projection manually within the General tab of the Layer Properties dialog of the layer by clicking the [Specify...] button. This is due to the fact that .prj files often do not provide the complete projection parameters as used in QGIS and listed in the CRS dialog.

For the same reason, if you create a new shapefile with QGIS, two different projection files are created: a .prj file with limited projection parameters, compatible with ESRI software, and a .qpj file, providing the complete parameters of the used CRS. Whenever QGIS finds a .qpj file, it will be used instead of the .prj.

Delimited Text Files

Tabular data is a very common and widely used format because of its simplicity and readability – data can be viewed and edited even in a plain text editor. A delimited text file is an attribute table with each column separated by a defined character and each row separated by a line break. The first row usually contains the column names. A common type of delimited text file is a CSV (Comma Separated Values), with each column separated by a comma.

Such data files can also contain positional information in two main forms:

  • As point coordinates in separate columns
  • As well-known text (WKT) representation of geometry

QGIS allows you to load a delimited text file as a layer or ordinal table. But first check that the file meets the following requirements:

  1. The file must have a delimited header row of field names. This must be the first line in the text file.
  2. The header row must contain field(s) with geometry definition. These field(s) can have any name.
  3. The X and Y coordinates (if geometry is defined by coordinates) must be specified as numbers. The coordinate system is not important.
  4. If you have any data that is not a string (text) and the file is a CSV file, you must have a CSVT file (see section CSVT Files).

As an example of a valid text file, we import the elevation point data file elevp.csv that comes with the QGIS sample dataset (see section Sample Data):


Some items to note about the text file:

  1. The example text file uses ; (semicolon) as delimiter. Any character can be used to delimit the fields.
  2. The first row is the header row. It contains the fields X, Y and ELEV.
  3. No quotes (") are used to delimit text fields.
  4. The X coordinates are contained in the X field.
  5. The Y coordinates are contained in the Y field.

CSVT Files

When loading CSV files, the OGR driver assumes all fields are strings (i.e. text) unless it is told otherwise. You can create a CSVT file to tell OGR (and QGIS) what data type the different columns are:

Type Name Example
Whole number Integer 4
Decimal number Real 3.456
Date Date (YYYY-MM-DD) 2016-07-28
Time Time (HH:MM:SS+nn) 18:33:12+00
Date & Time DateTime (YYYY-MM-DD HH:MM:SS+nn) 2016-07-28 18:33:12+00

The CSVT file is a ONE line plain text file with the data types in quotes and separated by commas, e.g.:


You can even specify width and precision of each column, e.g.:


This file is saved in the same folder as the .csv file, with the same name, but .csvt as the extension.

You can find more information at GDAL CSV Driver.

Others valuable informations for advanced users

Features with curved geometries (CircularString, CurvePolygon and CompoundCurve) are supported. Here are three examples of such geometry types as a delimited text with WKT geometries:

CircularString;CIRCULARSTRING(268 415,227 505,227 406)
CurvePolygon;CURVEPOLYGON(CIRCULARSTRING(1 3, 3 5, 4 7, 7 3, 1 3))
CompoundCurve;COMPOUNDCURVE((5 3, 5 13), CIRCULARSTRING(5 13, 7 15,
  9 13), (9 13, 9 3), CIRCULARSTRING(9 3, 7 1, 5 3))

Delimited Text supports also Z and M coordinates in geometries:

LINESTRINGM(10.0 20.0 30.0, 11.0 21.0 31.0)

PostGIS Layers

PostGIS layers are stored in a PostgreSQL database. The advantages of PostGIS are its spatial indexing, filtering and querying capabilities it provides. Using PostGIS, vector functions such as select and identify work more accurately than they do with OGR layers in QGIS.


PostGIS Layers

Normally, a PostGIS layer is defined by an entry in the geometry_columns table. QGIS can load layers that do not have an entry in the geometry_columns table. This includes both tables and views. Defining a spatial view provides a powerful means to visualize your data. Refer to your PostgreSQL manual for information on creating views.

This section contains some details on how QGIS accesses PostgreSQL layers. Most of the time, QGIS should simply provide you with a list of database tables that can be loaded, and it will load them on request. However, if you have trouble loading a PostgreSQL table into QGIS, the information below may help you understand any QGIS messages and give you direction on changing the PostgreSQL table or view definition to allow QGIS to load it.

Primary key

QGIS requires that PostgreSQL layers contain a column that can be used as a unique key for the layer. For tables, this usually means that the table needs a primary key, or a column with a unique constraint on it. In QGIS, this column needs to be of type int4 (an integer of size 4 bytes). Alternatively, the ctid column can be used as primary key. If a table lacks these items, the oid column will be used instead. Performance will be improved if the column is indexed (note that primary keys are automatically indexed in PostgreSQL).

QGIS offers a checkbox Select at id that is activated by default. This option gets the ids without the attributes which is faster in most cases.


If the PostgreSQL layer is a view, the same requirement exists, but views do not always have primary keys or columns with unique constraints on them. You have to define a primary key field (has to be integer) in the QGIS dialog before you can load the view. If a suitable column does not exist in the view, QGIS will not load the layer. If this occurs, the solution is to alter the view so that it does include a suitable column (a type of integer and either a primary key or with a unique constraint, preferably indexed).

As for table, a checkbox Select at id is activated by default (see above for the meaning of the checkbox). It can make sense to disable this option when you use expensive views.

QGIS layer_style table and database backup

If you want to make a backup of your PostGIS database using the pg_dump and pg_restore commands, and the default layer styles as saved by QGIS fail to restore afterwards, you need to set the XML option to DOCUMENT and the restore will work.


Filter database side

QGIS allows to filter features already on server side. Check the Settings ‣ Options ‣ Data Sources ‣ checkbox Execute expressions on postgres server-side if possible checkbox to do so. Only supported expressions will be sent to the database. Expressions using unsupported operators or functions will gracefully fallback to local evaluation.

Support of PostgreSQL data types

Most of common data types are supported by the PostgreSQL provider: integer, float, varchar, geometry and timestamp.

Array data types are not supported.

Importing Data into PostgreSQL

Data can be imported into PostgreSQL/PostGIS using several tools, including the DB Manager plugin and the command line tools shp2pgsql and ogr2ogr.

DB Manager

QGIS comes with a core plugin named dbManager DB Manager. It can be used to load shapefiles and other data formats, and it includes support for schemas. See section DB Manager Plugin for more information.


PostGIS includes an utility called shp2pgsql that can be used to import shapefiles into a PostGIS-enabled database. For example, to import a shapefile named lakes.shp into a PostgreSQL database named gis_data, use the following command:

shp2pgsql -s 2964 lakes.shp lakes_new | psql gis_data

This creates a new layer named lakes_new in the gis_data database. The new layer will have a spatial reference identifier (SRID) of 2964. See section Working with Projections for more information on spatial reference systems and projections.


Exporting datasets from PostGIS

Like the import tool shp2pgsql, there is also a tool to export PostGIS datasets as shapefiles: pgsql2shp. This is shipped within your PostGIS distribution.


Besides shp2pgsql and DB Manager, there is another tool for feeding geodata in PostGIS: ogr2ogr. This is part of your GDAL installation.

To import a shapefile into PostGIS, do the following:

ogr2ogr -f "PostgreSQL" PG:"dbname=postgis host=myhost.de user=postgres
password=topsecret" alaska.shp

This will import the shapefile alaska.shp into the PostGIS database postgis using the user postgres with the password topsecret on host server myhost.de.

Note that OGR must be built with PostgreSQL to support PostGIS. You can verify this by typing (in nix)

ogrinfo --formats | grep -i post

If you prefer to use PostgreSQL’s COPY command instead of the default INSERT INTO method, you can export the following environment variable (at least available on nix and osx):


ogr2ogr does not create spatial indexes like shp2pgsl does. You need to create them manually, using the normal SQL command CREATE INDEX afterwards as an extra step (as described in the next section Improving Performance).

Improving Performance

Retrieving features from a PostgreSQL database can be time-consuming, especially over a network. You can improve the drawing performance of PostgreSQL layers by ensuring that a PostGIS spatial index exists on each layer in the database. PostGIS supports creation of a GiST (Generalized Search Tree) index to speed up spatial searches of the data (GiST index information is taken from the PostGIS documentation available at http://postgis.net).


You can use the DBManager to create an index to your layer. You should first select the layer and click on Table ‣ Edit table, go to Indexes tab and click on [Add spatial index].

The syntax for creating a GiST index is:

CREATE INDEX [indexname] ON [tablename]
  USING GIST ( [geometryfield] GIST_GEOMETRY_OPS );

Note that for large tables, creating the index can take a long time. Once the index is created, you should perform a VACUUM ANALYZE. See the PostGIS documentation (POSTGIS-PROJECT Literature and Web References) for more information.

The following is an example of creating a GiST index:

gsherman@madison:~/current$ psql gis_data
Welcome to psql 8.3.0, the PostgreSQL interactive terminal.

Type:  \copyright for distribution terms
       \h for help with SQL commands
       \? for help with psql commands
       \g or terminate with semicolon to execute query
       \q to quit

gis_data=# CREATE INDEX sidx_alaska_lakes ON alaska_lakes
gis_data-# USING GIST (the_geom GIST_GEOMETRY_OPS);
gis_data=# VACUUM ANALYZE alaska_lakes;
gis_data=# \q

Vector layers crossing 180° longitude

Many GIS packages don’t wrap vector maps with a geographic reference system (lat/lon) crossing the 180 degrees longitude line (http://postgis.refractions.net/documentation/manual-2.0/ST_Shift_Longitude.html). As result, if we open such a map in QGIS, we will see two far, distinct locations, that should appear near each other. In Figure_vector_crossing, the tiny point on the far left of the map canvas (Chatham Islands) should be within the grid, to the right of the New Zealand main islands.


Map in lat/lon crossing the 180° longitude line

A work-around is to transform the longitude values using PostGIS and the ST_Shift_Longitude function. This function reads every point/vertex in every component of every feature in a geometry, and if the longitude coordinate is < 0°, it adds 360° to it. The result is a 0° - 360° version of the data to be plotted in a 180°-centric map.


Crossing 180° longitude applying the ST_Shift_Longitude function


  • Import data into PostGIS (Importing Data into PostgreSQL) using, for example, the DB Manager plugin.
  • Use the PostGIS command line interface to issue the following command (in this example, “TABLE” is the actual name of your PostGIS table): gis_data=# update TABLE set the_geom=ST_Shift_Longitude(the_geom);
  • If everything went well, you should receive a confirmation about the number of features that were updated. Then you’ll be able to load the map and see the difference (Figure_vector_crossing_map).

SpatiaLite Layers

If you want to save a vector layer to SpatiaLite format, you can do this by right clicking the layer in the legend. Then, click on Save as..., define the name of the output file, and select ‘SpatiaLite’ as format and the CRS. Also, you can select ‘SQLite’ as format and then add SPATIALITE=YES in the OGR data source creation option field. This tells OGR to create a SpatiaLite database. See also http://www.gdal.org/ogr/drv_sqlite.html.

QGIS also supports editable views in SpatiaLite.

If you want to create a new SpatiaLite layer, please refer to section Creating a new SpatiaLite layer.


SpatiaLite data management Plugins

For SpatiaLite data management, you can also use several Python plugins: QSpatiaLite, SpatiaLite Manager or DB Manager (core plugin, recommended). If necessary, they can be downloaded and installed with the Plugin Installer.

DB2 Spatial Layers

IBM DB2 for Linux, Unix and Windows (DB2 LUW), IBM DB2 for z/OS (mainframe) and IBM DashDB products allow users to store and analyse spatial data in relational table columns. The DB2 provider for QGIS supports the full range of visualization, analysis and manipulation of spatial data in these databases.

User documentation on these capabilities can be found at the DB2 z/OS KnowledgeCenter, DB2 LUW KnowledgeCenter and DB2 DashDB KnowledgeCenter.

For more information about working with the DB2 spatial capabilities, check out the DB2 Spatial Tutorial on IBM DeveloperWorks.

The DB2 provider currently only supports the Windows environment through the Windows ODBC driver.

The client running QGIS needs to have one of the following installed:

  • DB2 LUW
  • IBM Data Server Driver Package
  • IBM Data Server Client

If you are accessing a DB2 LUW database on the same machine or using DB2 LUW as a client, the DB2 executables and supporting files need to be included in the Windows path. This can be done by creating a batch file like the following with the name db2.bat and including it in the directory %OSGEO4W_ROOT%/etc/ini.

@echo off
REM Point the following to where DB2 is installed
SET db2path=C:\Program Files (x86)\sqllib
REM This should usually be ok - modify if necessary
SET gskpath=C:\Program Files (x86)\ibm\gsk8
SET Path=%db2path%\BIN;%db2path%\FUNCTION;%gskpath%\lib64;%gskpath%\lib;%path%