Loading Geographic Data


OpenBlock needs several kinds of geographic data for your city or region. This document explains what you need and how to load it.

You will need the following:

  • Boundaries for local areas of interest to your users, such as neighborhoods, towns, ZIP codes, political districts, etc.

    It is recommended to set up ZIP codes first; if you are using a multiple_cities configuration, you should also load your city boundaries first.

  • A database of city streets and blocks. This is used for geocoding, for address searches, and for browsing news by block.

    Note that this data is not used to generate background tile images for your maps. Those are provided by a separate service such as Google Maps or a WMS server. See Choosing Your Map Base Layer for more on setting up your map base layer.

Admin UI or command line?

It is now possible to do all your geographic data loading via the OpenBlock's web admin UI at http://localhost:8000/admin, or via command-line scripts. It is purely a matter of preference.

Multiple Cities?

If the area you're interested in isn't a single city, be sure to read Configuring Cities / Towns: METRO_LIST, especially the multiple_cities section.

USA Only?

OpenBlock was originally written with the assumption that it will be installed in the USA, for a major metropolitan area. It may be possible to work around those assumptions, but using OpenBlock outside the USA is not officially supported at this time. We encourage experimentation and asking questions on the mailing list; we know of several people currently trying it in other countries.

Background Tasks

Several of the things you can do in the admin UI can potentially take a long time, so they are launched as background tasks. If you want to use these admin UI features, be sure to read this section.

You'll need to do this once at server start time:

$ export DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE=myblock.settings  # change as needed
$ django-admin.py process_tasks

Like the runserver command, this won't immediately exit. It will sit quietly until there are background jobs to process for installing geographic data.

NB. If you are installed on EC2, then django-admin.py process_tasks is already run via a cron job.

Why not Celery?

We use django-background-task for our background jobs. Celery is common in the Django world for handling asynchronous tasks, and is a more mature, robust, and featureful solution. However, our mandate was to make OpenBlock as easy as possible to install, and we could not justify burdening our users with yet another service to install, configure, and maintain.

US ZIP Codes

Load ZIP Codes via Admin UI

If you have a list of the ZIP codes you'd like to install, just be sure the background task daemon is running. Then you can surf to http://<your domain>/admin/db/location/ and click the link "Import ZIP Shapefiles". You can pick your state, paste your list of ZIPs, and wait for the import to finish.

You can do this several times if your area crosses state lines.

When this is done, skip down to Verifying ZIP Codes below.

(TODO: screen shot?)

Load ZIP Codes via Command Line

Alternately, you can use command-line scripts to install ZIP codes.

The US Census Bureau has shapefiles for all USA zip codes. Go to http://www2.census.gov/cgi-bin/shapefiles2009/national-files, select your state from the drop-down, and submit. Toward the bottom of the file list, you should see one labeled "5-Digit ZIP Code Tabulation Area (2002)".

Download that file. It should have a name that looks like tl_2009_36_zcta5.zip where 36 is a state ID (in this case, 36 is for New York).

Unzip the file. It should contain a number of files like this:

$ unzip tl_2009_36_zcta5.zip
inflating: tl_2009_36_zcta5.dbf
inflating: tl_2009_36_zcta5.prj
inflating: tl_2009_36_zcta5.shp
inflating: tl_2009_36_zcta5.shp.xml
inflating: tl_2009_36_zcta5.shx

The ZIP code file you downloaded is for an entire state. You're probably not setting up OpenBlock for an entire state, so you'll need to filter out those ZIP codes that are irrelevant to your area of interest. The zip import script allows you to do that, if you have configured your metro extent.

$ import_zips_tiger -v -b /path/to/where/you/unzipped/the/files/

The -b option tells it to filter out zip codes outside your metro extent, and -v tells it to give verbose output.

It will tell you which ZIP codes were skipped, and at the end, print a count of how many were created.

Verifying ZIP Codes

To verify that your ZIP codes loaded, point your browser at the home page. There should be a link to view "61 ZIP codes", or however many you loaded. Follow that to see a list of them all, and click on one to see a page about that ZIP code.

If you want to have a look "under the hood", you can use the django admin UI to do so. Browse to http://localhost:8000/admin , and enter your admin username / password when prompted.

Navigate to "Db" -> "Location Types". You should see that there is a Location Type called "ZIP Code" in the system now.

Navigate back to "Db", then go to "Db" -> "Locations". You should see a number of ZIP codes in the list. If you click on one, you should see an edit form that contains a map, showing you the borders of this ZIP code.

(TODO: screen shot?)

Streets / Blocks

Finding Blocks Data

In the US, the Census Bureau's TIGER data website is a good source of data. From http://www2.census.gov/cgi-bin/shapefiles2009/national-files, you will need several files. First select the State you're interested in. Download the file labeled "Place (Current)".

Next, select the County you're interested in. From the county's page, download the files labeled "All Lines", "Topological Faces (Polygons With All Geocodes)", and "Feature Names Relationship File".

Loading Blocks using the Admin UI

It's easy to use the admin UI to load US Census shapefiles. First, be sure the background task daemon is running.

Then you can surf to http://<your domain>/admin/streets/blocks/ and click the link "Import Block Shapefiles". Type in the city name that these blocks are in, upload the four zip files you downloaded above, click "Import" and wait for it to finish.

(It is likely to take several minutes - more or less, depending on your hardware; this is the most computationally intensive thing that OpenBlock ever does.)

Streets, Intersections, and BlockIntersections will be done automatically.

You can repeat this process if your area spans multiple shapefiles. (It tends to get slower as the number of intersections grows.)

When done, skip down to Verifying Blocks.

(TODO: screen shot?)

Loading Blocks using the Command Line

You don't have to use the admin UI if you're happy at the command line. It takes several steps.

Loading Blocks from Census TIGER files

First, unzip all four files you downloaded in Finding Blocks Data.

The block importer can filter out blocks outside the city named by the --city option. It can also filter out blocks outside your metro extent by passing the --filter-bounds option.

You can run it like this (assuming all the unzipped shapefiles are in the current directory):

$ import_blocks_tiger --city=BOSTON --filter-bounds \
  tl_2009_25025_edges.shp tl_2009_25025_featnames.dbf \
  tl_2009_25025_faces.dbf tl_2009_25_place.shp

The order of file arguments is important. First give the edges.shp filename, then the featnames.dbf file, then the faces.dbf file, then the place.shp file.

The filenames would be different from the example shown for a different city/county, of course.

Be patient; it typically takes at least several minutes to run.

It can also filter out blocks outside of one or more locations by passing the --filter-location option with a LocationType slug and Location slug; for example:

$ import_blocks_tiger --filter-location="cities:cambridge" \
  --filter-location="cities:newton" ...

If you run it with the --help option, it will tell you how about all options:

$ import_blocks_tiger  --help
Usage: import_blocks_tiger edges.shp featnames.dbf faces.dbf place.shp

 -h, --help            show this help message and exit
 -v, --verbose
 -c CITY, --city=CITY  A city name to filter against
 -f, --fix-cities      Whether to override "city" attribute of blocks and
                       streets by finding an intersecting Location of a city-
                       ish type. Only makes sense if you have configured
                       multiple_cities=True in the METRO_LIST of your
                       settings.py, and after you have created some
                       appropriate Locations.
 -b, --filter-bounds   Whether to skip blocks outside the metro extent from
                       your settings.py. Default True.
 -e ENCODING, --encoding=ENCODING
                       Encoding to use when reading the shapefile

Loading Blocks from ESRI files

If you have access to proprietary ESRI blocks data, you can instead use the script ebpub/streets/blockimport/esri/importers/blocks.py.

Populating Streets and Intersections

After all your blocks have loaded, you must run another script to derive streets and intersections from the blocks data. This typically takes several minutes for a large city.

The following commands must be run once, in exactly this order:

$ populate_streets -v -v -v -v streets
$ populate_streets -v -v -v -v block_intersections
$ populate_streets -v -v -v -v intersections

The -v argument controls verbosity; give it fewer times for less output.

Verifying Blocks

Try starting up django and browsing or searching some blocks:

$ django-admin.py runserver

Now browse http://localhost:8000/streets/ and have a look around. You should see a comprehensive list of streets on that page, and each should link to a list of blocks. On the list of blocks, each block should link to a detail page that includes a map of a several-block radius.

You should also be able to search. In the search bar at top right, type in some addresses or intersections that you know should exist, and verify that they're found.

No Blocks?

If you don't get any blocks, it's possible that the shapefiles you downloaded don't correspond to the geographic area you configured in settings.py. Double-check that you downloaded the right file, and that your metro extent covers the same area.

Other Locations: Neighborhoods, Etc.

What kinds of locations?

Aside from ZIP codes, what kinds of geographic regions are you interested in?

OpenBlock can handle any number of types of locations. You can use the admin UI to create as many LocationTypes as you want, by visiting http://localhost:8000/admin/db/locationtype/ and click "Add". Fill out the fields as desired. You'll want to enable both 'is_browsable' and 'is_significant'.

(Note also that the shapefile import scripts described below can create LocationTypes for you automatically, so you may not need to do anything in the admin UI.)

You're limited only by the data you have available. Some suggestions: try looking for neighborhoods/districts/wards, police precincts, school districts, political districts...

Drawing Locations by Hand

If you don't have shapefiles available, it's always possible to hand-draw locations in the admin UI. This is a great option for relatively simple shapes where you don't need to be very precise with the edges. This might also be appropriate for areas whose boundaries are informal. For example, often local residents will have a general sense of where neighborhoods begin and end, but there may not be "official" boundaries published anywhere.

Just browse to /admin/db/locations, click "Add location", drag and zoom the map as desired, select a location type, and start clicking away on the map.

When happy with your polygon, double-click on the last point to stop drawing.

To modify it, click the "Modify features" icon in the map toolbar and then you can click and drag individual points, or click a point and hit the Delete key to remove a point.

There are Undo and Redo buttons, although the history will be forgotten once you click the Save button on the form.

(TODO: screen shots?)

For precise complex shapes, it's just not practical to draw a 500-point polygon in our admin UI.

Finding Location Data

The trouble with loading local place data is that, at least in the USA, there is no central agency responsible for all of it, and no standards for how local governments should publish their geospatial data. This means it's scattered all over the web, and we can't just tell you where to find it.

Try googling for the name of your area plus "shapefiles".

Loading Location Data

Once you have one or more Location Types defined, you can start populating them, either via the command line or the admin UI.

Admin UI: Importing Locations

Browse to /admin/db/locations, click "Upload Shapefile", and upload the zipped file you downloaded. Submit the form.

On the next screen, you can choose a Location Type, then choose from the "layers" available in this shapefile (often there is only one).

Then you get to choose which field contains the name of each location. The form will show you an example value from each field, so it's usually pretty obvious which field is the one to choose. (If none of them make any sense, it's possible that this shapefile isn't usable by OpenBlock.)

Submit the form and you're done.

Command Line: Importing Locations From Shapefiles

There is a script import_locations that can import any kind of location from a shapefile. If a LocationType with the given slug doesn't exist, it will be created when you run the script.

If you run it with the --help option, it will tell you how to use it:

$ import_locations  --help

Usage: import_locations [options] type_slug /path/to/shapefile

 -h, --help            show this help message and exit
 -n NAME_FIELD, --name-field=NAME_FIELD
                       field that contains location's name
 -i LAYER_ID, --layer-index=LAYER_ID
                       index of layer in shapefile
 -s SOURCE, --source=SOURCE
                       source metadata of the shapefile
 -v, --verbose         be verbose
 -b, --filter-bounds   exclude locations not within the lon/lat bounds of
                       your metro's extent (from your settings.py) (default
                       specifies the location type name
                       specifies the location type plural name

All of these are optional. The defaults often work fine, although --filter-bounds is usually a good idea, to exclude areas that don't overlap with your metro extent.

Command Line: Neighborhoods From Shapefiles

There is also a variant of the location importer just for neighborhoods. Historically, "neighborhoods" have been a bit special to OpenBlock - there are some URLs hard-coded to expect that there would be a LocationType with slug="neighborhoods".

Again, if you run this script with the --help option, it will tell you how to use it:

$ import_neighborhoods  --help
Usage: import_neighborhoods [options] /path/to/shapefile

 -h, --help            show this help message and exit
 -n NAME_FIELD, --name-field=NAME_FIELD
                       field that contains location's name
 -i LAYER_ID, --layer-index=LAYER_ID
                       index of layer in shapefile
 -s SOURCE, --source=SOURCE
                       source metadata of the shapefile
 -v, --verbose         be verbose
 -b, --filter-bounds   exclude locations not within the lon/lat bounds of
                       your metro's extent (from your settings.py) (default

Again, all of the options are really optional. The defaults often work fine, although --filter-bounds is usually a good idea, to exclude areas that don't overlap with your metro extent.

Can I load KML, GeoJSON, OpenStreetMap XML, or other kinds of files?

No, at this time the only files we can directly import are shapefiles. Try using tools like ogr2ogr to convert your data into shapefiles.


TODO: document what Places are, how they differ from Locations, and why you'd care.

Alternate Names / Misspellings

Often users will want to search your site for an address or location, but they may spell it wrong - or it may have multiple names.

OpenBlock provides a simple way that you can support these searches.

You can use the admin UI at /admin/streets/streetmisspelling/ to enter alternate street names. Click the "Add street misspelling" button, then type in the incorrect (alternate) and correct version of the street name.

Likewise, you can use the /admin/db/locationsynonym/ page to add alternate names for Locations, and the /admin/db/placesynonym page to add alternate names for Places.