Giving GRASS GIS a Try

I’ve been taking the plunge in learning GRASS GIS this summer, as I’ve been working at home (and thus don’t have access to ArcGIS) on a larger and more long-term project (and thus don’t want to mess around with shapefiles and csv tables). I liked the idea of working with GRASS vectors, as everything is contained in one folder and all my attributes are stored rather neatly in a SQLite database.

I started out using QGIS to create my mapset and to connect it to my SQLite db which I had created and loaded with some census data. Then I thought, why not give the GRASS interface a try? I started using the newer Python-wx GUI and as I’m trying different things, I bounce back and forth between using the GUI for launching commands and the command line for typing them in – all the while I have Open Source GIS A GRASS GIS Approach at my side and the online manual a click away . So far, so good.

I loaded and cleaned a shapefile with the GRASS GUI (the GUI launches,, abd v.clean) and it’s attributes were loaded into the SQLite database I had set (using db.connect – need to do this otherwise a DBF is created by default for storing attributes). Then I had an age-old task to perform – the US Census FIPS / ANSI codes where stored in separate fields, and in order to join them to my attribute tables I had to concatenate them. I also needed to append some zeros to census tract IDs that lacked them – FIPS codes for states are two digits long, counties are three digits, and tracts are between four and six digits, but to standardize them four digit tracts should have two zeros appended.

Added the new JOIN_ID column using v.db.addcol, then did the following using db.execute:

UPDATE tracts_us99_nad83


UPDATE tracts_us99_nad83
WHERE length(JOIN_ID)=9

So this:

01 077 0113
01 077 0114
01 077 011502
01 077 011602

Becomes this:


db.execute GRASS GUI

I could have done this a few different ways from within GRASS: instead of the separate v.db.addcol command I could have written a SQL statement in db.execute to alter the table and add a column. Or, instead of db.execute I could have used the v.db.update command.

My plan is to use GRASS for geoprocessing and analysis (will be doing some buffering, geographic selection, and basic spatial stats), and QGIS for displaying and creating final maps. I just used to transform an attribute table with coordinates in my db to a point vector. But now I’m realizing that in order to draw buffers, I’ll need a projected coordinate system that uses meters or feet, as inputting degrees for a buffer distance (for points throughout the US) isn’t going to work too well. I’m also having trouble figuring out how to link my attribute data to my vectors – I can easily use v.db.join to fuse the two together, but there is a way to link them more loosely using the CAT ID number for each vector, but I’m getting stuck. We’ll see how it goes.

Some final notes – since I’m working with large datasets (every census tract in the US) and GRASS uses a topological data model where common node and boundaries between polygons are shared, geoprocessing can take awhile. I’ve gotten in the habit of testing things out on a small subset of my vectors, and once I get it right I run the process on the total set.

Lastly, there are times where I read about commands in the manual and for the life of me I can’t find them in the GUI – for example, finding a menu to delete (i.e. permanently remove) layers. But if you type the command without any of its parameters in the command line (in this case, g.remove) it will launch the right window in the GUI.

GRASS GIS Interface

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