QGIS: Data Defined Labeling and Table Joins

A little while ago I posted a text file with geographic centroids (centers) for each of the world’s countries. The reason why I put this together was that I wanted to test the data defined labeling features in QGIS. While automatic labeling in QGIS isn’t so hot (overlapping labels, multiple lables for each polygon), there are some powerful features for storing and referencing columns for annotation within the attribute table of shapefiles. One of the neat features is the ability to place labels based on coordinates stored in the attribute table.

The first step was to take the centroids file and join in to a shapefile of the worlds countries based on a common ID field, in this case FIPS country codes. QGIS doesn’t support table joins directly, but you can accomplish this with a good plugin called fTools, which includes a lot of additional and useful features. The instructions for getting fTools up and running are available on the fTools website; the installation doesn’t require you to download any files, you just handle everything through the QGIS plugin manager (if you have trouble seeing the plugin manager or getting fTools to appear, check to make sure that you have python installed on your machine). Once fTools is up and running, you’ll see a Tools dropdown menu next to your other menus – drop it down, select data management tools and join attribute tables. You’ll get a dialog box asking which shapefile and field you want to join and which shapefile or table you want to join to it. The plugin only supports joins from other shapefiles and dbf tables, so you have to save the save the country centroids text file as a dbf before you do the join (you can do this in Calc or a pre-2007 version of Excel). These aren’t dynamic joins; fTools will create a new shapefile with the table fields attached.

Once the join is complete, you can add the new shapefile with the new fields, click on the layer, and navigate to the labels tab. Hit the checkbox to turn the labels on, select the field that contains the label in the dropdown box at the top, then select data defined position from the menu below. You’ll see a new series of dropdowns on the right, and you can select your longitude column for the X coordinate and latitude column for the Y coordinate. Hit OK, and voila! You’ll have labels that are centered in the middle of each country.

Of course, the label placement will not be perfect in every case. There will be label overlap in areas with small countries, areas with many countries clustered together, and with countries that have long names. The scale and size of the font will also be a factor, and placing the country name in the center is not always ideal for small island nations. However, you can easily change the label placement by going into an edit mode and changing the coordinates in the attribute table to get optimal placement. You can mouse over the map and use the coordinate information that’s displayed beside the scale in the lower right-hand corner of the window to determine which coordinates are most optimal for a given situation. If you produce several maps at the same area and scale, you can use the same settings over and over again. You can also globally change the placement of all the labels using some of the other label options, such as placing all labels above or to the top-right of the centroid.

Now in order for all of this to work, the coordinates in the country centroid file must be in the same coordinate system as the shapefile. Since the country centroid file uses basic latitude and longitude, I was able to do this with a shapefile that was in the basic WGS 84 geographic coordinate system. If you’re using a different geographic coordinate system or a projected coordinate system, you’ll have to convert the coordinates in the centroid file to match that system. I haven’t delved into this too deeply yet, but there are a number of free tools that you can download that should do this – one of them is called GEOTRANS, and it’s available for free download from the NGA. It can handle batch transformations of coordinate data stored in text files, and supports conversions to several different geographic and projected systems.

QGIS Label Placement With XY Coordinates

QGIS Label Placement With XY Coordinates

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