GEOG 485:
GIS Programming and Automation

1.4.1 Introducing Python using the Python window in ArcGIS


The best way to introduce Python may be to look at a little bit of code. Let’s take the Buffer tool which you recently ran from the ArcToolbox GUI and run it in the ArcGIS Python window. This window allows you to type a simple series of Python commands without writing full permanent scripts. The Python Window is a great way to get a taste of Python.

This time, we’ll make buffers of 15 miles around the cities.

  1. Open ArcMap to a new empty map.
  2. Add the us_cities.shp dataset from the Lesson 1 data.
  3. On the Standard toolbar, click the Python window button Python window button. Once the window appears, drag it over to the side or bottom of the screen to dock it.
  4. Type the following in the Python window (Don't type the >>>. These are just included to show you where the new lines begin in the Python window.)

    >>> import arcpy
    >>> arcpy.Buffer_analysis("us_cities", "us_cities_buffered", "15 miles", "", "", "ALL")
  5. Zoom in and examine the buffers that were created.

You’ve just run your first bit of Python. You don’t have to understand everything about the code you wrote in this window, but here are a few important things to note.

The first line of the script import arcpy tells the Python interpreter (which was installed when you installed ArcGIS) that you’re going to work with some special scripting functions and tools included with ArcGIS. Without this line of code, Python knows nothing about ArcGIS, so you'll put it at the top of all ArcGIS-related code that you write in this class. You technically don't need this line when you work with the Python window in ArcMap because arcpy is already imported, but I wanted to show you this pattern early; you'll use it in all the scripts you write outside the Python window.

The second line of the script actually runs the tool. You can type arcpy, plus a dot, plus any tool name to run a tool in Python. Notice here that you also put an underscore followed by the name of the toolbox that includes the buffer tool. This is necessary because some tools in different toolboxes actually have the same name (like Clip, which is a tool for clipping vectors in the Analysis toolbox or tool for clipping rasters in the Data Management toolbox).

After you typed arcpy.Buffer_analysis, you typed all the parameters for the tool. Each parameter was separated by a comma, and the whole list of parameters was enclosed in parentheses. Get used to this pattern, since you'll follow it with every tool you run in this course.

In this code, we also supplied some optional parameters, leaving empty quotes where we wanted to take the default values, and truncating the parameter list at the final optional parameter we wanted to set.

How do you know the syntax, or structure, of the parameters to enter? For example, for the buffer distance, should you enter 15MILES, ‘15MILES’, 15 Miles, or ’15 Miles’? The best way to answer questions like these is to return to the Geoprocessing tool reference help topic for the Buffer tool. All of the topics in this reference section have a command line usage and example section to help you understand how to structure the parameters. Optional parameters are enclosed in braces, while the required parameters are not. From the example in this topic, you can see that the buffer distance should be specified as ’15 miles’. Because there is a space in this text, or string, you need to surround it with single quotes.

You might have noticed that the Python window helps you by popping up different options you can type for each parameter. This is called autocompletion, and it can be very helpful if you're trying to run a tool for the first time and you don't know exactly how to type the parameters.

There are a couple of differences between writing code in the Python window and writing code in some other program, such as Notepad or PythonWin. In the Python window, you can reference layers in the map document by their names only, instead of their file paths. Thus, we were able to type "us_cities" instead of something like "C:\\data\\us_cities.shp". We were also able to make up the name of a new layer "us_cities_buffered" and get it added to the map by default after the code ran. If you're going to use your code outside the Python window, make sure you use the full paths.

When you write more complex scripts, it will be helpful to use an integrated development environment (IDE), meaning a program specifically designed to help you write and test Python code. Later in this course we’ll explore the PythonWin IDE.

Earlier in this lesson you saw how tools can be chained together to solve a problem using ModelBuilder. The same can be done in Python, but it’s going to take a little groundwork to get to that point. For this reason we’ll spend the rest of Lesson 1 covering some of the basics of Python.


Take a few minutes to read Zandbergen Chapter 3, a fairly short chapter where he explains the Python window and some things you can do with it.