Data and Code Guidance by Data Editors

Guidance for authors wishing to create data and code supplements, and for replicators.

Some (incomplete) guidance to creating reproducible maps with GIS software

On this page:

The following information was provided by several sources. We wish to thank Keith Jenkins (Cornell University).

Some readings

Focussing on R:

Mixing software:

GIS data files

One of the most commonly used geospatial data formats is a set of files collectively referred to as a “shapefile”. These are often distributed as ZIP archives, but for any given project, are generally within a separate directory. There are at least three mandatory files, ending in shp, shx, and dbf. The shp file contains the vector geometries (points, lines, polygons) that appear on a map (“features”). The dbf is an attribute table (in dBase IV format), and can be created and manipulated by other programs as well, including Stata, R, and Python. The shx file is an index that links the geometries to the corresponding attribute data. There are several other optional sidecar files that should be retained, if present. For example, a .prj file defines the projection, or coordinate system of the geometries. Shapefiles have notable technical limitations (such as 10-character attribute names, 254-character text field values, 255 attribute limit, and 2GB file size) but the format is well-understood and widely implemented.

Geospatial data also comes in many other formats. GeoPackage is a modern GIS data standard that overcomes many of the shapefile limitations, and is now widely supported. Like the shapefile, it supports vector data, but GeoPackage can also contain raster (pixel-based) data. The most widely-used raster data format is GeoTIFF, but large, multi-dimensional datasets are often shared in NetCDF format.

Non-geospatial tabular data is often combined with geospatial data for analysis. CSV is recommended as a well-known format. Geospatial point data may also be shared in CSV format, with the inclusion of two fields for the X and Y coordinates. Longitude and latitude is often used for global datasets, but there are hundreds of local coordinate systems in common use, so be sure to document the coordinate system being used.

Reproducibility principles

Because the dbf file is data, its sources should be clearly described in reproducible workflows. How is the core non-geographic data in the dbf being created, where does it come from?

Map information (typically in the base shp file) comes from cartographic or statistical sources. For instance, some shapefiles in the US will be sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau, which uses them for various statistical activities. These sources should be clearly outlined.

Any processing to combine data in preparation of creating a map, as well as the processing steps to create the map, need to be described in a reproducible workflow.

Creating reproducible ArcGIS-produced maps

ArcGIS has a tool called ModelBuilder, which is a graphical interface that lets you create a workflow of processing tools, their input parameters, and their outputs. These models can effectively turn a complex flow into something that looks like just another processing tool, so that the same model can be run on another input, or with different starting parameters. There may be some variations in the format between ArcGIS software versions that should be investigated when considering their use for reproducibility. Models can also be exported to a Python script, which might be better from a reproducibility perspective, although they will still depend on access to licensed ArcGIS python libraries in order to run. It is also possible to write ArcPy scripts by hand.

Esri’s newer ArcGIS Pro (as opposed to the older ArcMap) has “ArcGIS Notebooks” which are based on Jupyter.
However, it seems many Esri users are still using the older ArcMap.


Esri Academy has many ArcGIS tutorials and web courses. Some are marked as free. Some universities have site licenses.

Creating reproducible maps using QGIS

The open-source QGIS has a graphical modeler similar to the ArcGIS ModelBuilder, and it can also export models to Python scripts. PyQGIS is similar to ArcPy, and both are closely tied to their own software structures and functionalities.


Creating reproducible maps using Python

There are some great stand-alone Python packages like GeoPandas, Rasterio, and PySAL.

Creating reproducible maps using R

There are also ways to create maps in R.

You can help

We are always looking to expand this resource. Please suggest additions and expansions of this guide through a Github issue or pull request.