Geo Data Processing with Mapshaper

Mapshaper is a free and open-source tool that is best known for fast and easy simplification. Other tools for simplification – like QGIS or ogr2ogr – do not preserve topology while simplifying. This means you may get sliver polygons or missing intersections. Mapshaper performs topologically-aware simplification and gives you much more control on the process.

Other popular open-source tools, PostGIS and GRASS can do topologically-aware simplifications as well.
But Mapshaper is much more than a simplification tool. It is in active development and has many more data processing and editing capabilities now. It also has a command-line version of the tool which can be run from a terminal. In this post, we will explore the command-line tool to carry out some complex geoprocessing tasks.

Mapshaper is a Node.js application. Download and install Node.js for your platform. You will need the Node Package Manager (NPM) to install mapshaper, so make sure it is enabled while going through the installer.

Once Node.js is installed, launch the Windows Command Prompt (cmd.exe) and run the following command to install mapshaper.

npm install -g mapshaper

Get the Data

Review the data and problem statement from the Performing Table Joins tutorial. Download the Census Tracts shapefile and the Population CSV ca_tracts_pop.csv. Unzip the file and extract it to a folder.


Mapshaper command takes an input, an output and a sequence of commands to execute. Each command is followed by options specific to that command. All the commands and options are well documented at the Mapshaper Wiki.

Let’s start with simplification. We will take the census tracts shapefile and simplify it to reduce the number of vertices and the total size. The command for simplification is -simplify. You can supply a percentage value as an option to specify how aggressiveness of the simplification. Another useful option is keep-shapes which ensures that none of the polygons from the input will get deleted. Run the following command. Make sure you cd to the directory where the data has been downloaded.

Note: The percentage value in the -simplify command can be a little misleading. The value indicates how many vertices to keep and not how many to remove. So a lower value would result in MORE simplification

mapshaper -i tl_2013_06_tract\tl_2013_06_tract.shp -simplify 20% keep-shapes -o output.shp

Mapshaper can also do Table Joins. We can now join the population field D001 from the ca_tracts_pop.csv file. The join will match the fields we specify as keys and add it to the output file. For the join to work correctly, we need to specify the field types in the CSV file. (Similar to how a .csvt file is needed by QGIS). We can ‘chain’ the -join command after the -simplify command to perform both the operation in a single command.

mapshaper -i tl_2013_06_tract\tl_2013_06_tract.shp -simplify 20% keep-shapes -join ca_tracts_pop.csv keys=GEOID,GEO.id2 field-types GEO.id2:str,D001:num -o output.shp

Mapshaper can also dissolve features. In my testing, Mapshaper’s dissolve operation was many times faster than QGIS or GRASS. Let’s add a -dissolve command and merge all census tracts for a county. We can also sum up the values of the D001field to get the total population of the county from the sum of individual census tracts.

mapshaper -i tl_2013_06_tract\tl_2013_06_tract.shp -simplify 20% keep-shapes -join ca_tracts_pop.csv keys=GEOID,GEO.id2 field-types GEO.id2:str,D001:num -dissolve COUNTYFP sum-fields D001 -o output.shp

The output format needed by many web apps is geojson or topojson. Mapshaper can write the output in these formats as well. Let’s add a format=geojson option to the -o command to write a geojson output.

mapshaper -i tl_2013_06_tract\tl_2013_06_tract.shp -simplify 20% keep-shapes -join ca_tracts_pop.csv keys=GEOID,GEO.id2 field-types GEO.id2:str,D001:num -dissolve COUNTYFP sum-fields D001 -o format=geojson output.geojson

Finally, let’s visualize our output. Go to and upload the resulting output.geojson. You will be able to visualize the output shapes and their properties

By now, you must have figured out that we have a very powerful tool on our hands. In just a single line of command and just a few seconds of computing, we did Simplification, Table Join, Dissolve and Format translation.

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