GDAL and OGR libraries come with handy command-line tools. These tools are quite powerful and can save you a lot of effort if you know how to use them. Here I will show how to use the ogrinfo and ogr2ogr tools to perform spatial joins. A single command can do complex operations on your spatial data and save you a lot of clicking-around and data-munging in a GIS.

Get the Tools

The best way to get the command-line tools on Windows is via the OSGeo4W Installer. If you are on Linux or Mac, see these instructions to get the package for your platform.

Get the Data

Review the data and problem statement from the Performing Spatial Joins tutorial. Download the Borough Boundaries and Nursing Homes shapefiles.


OGR command line tools accept only 1 input. But we have 2 inputs for the spatial join. An easy way to fix this, is to use a VRT file. A VRT file allows us to specify multiple inputs and pass them to the command-line tool as layers of a single input.

  1. Unzip the input shapefiles in a single folder on your drive. Create a file named input.vrt in the same folder with the following content.
    <OGRVRTLayer name="boroughs">
    <OGRVRTLayer name="nursinghomes">
  1. Open the OSGeo4W shell and cd to the directory containing the shapefiles and the vrt file. Run the ogrinfo command to check if the VRT file is correct.
ogrinfo input.vrt
  1. OGR tools can run SQL queries on the input layers. We will use the ST_INTERSECTS function to find all nursing homes that intersect the boundary of a borough and use the SUM function to find the total nursing home capacity of a borough. Run the following command.
ogrinfo -sql "SELECT b.BoroName, sum(n.Capacity) as total_capacity from
boroughs b, nursinghomes n WHERE ST_INTERSECTS(b.geometry, n.geometry) group
by b.BoroName" -dialect SQLITE input.vrt
  1. You can see that in a single command we got the results by doing a spatial join that takes a lot of clicking around in a GIS environment. We can do a reverse spatial join as well. We can join the name of the Borough to each feature of the Nursing Homes layer. Using the ogr2ogr tool we can write out a shapefile from the resulting join. Note that we are adding a geometry column in the SELECT statement which results in a spatial output. Run the following command:
ogr2ogr -sql "SELECT n.Name, n.Capacity, n.geometry, b.BoroName from
boroughs b, nursinghomes n WHERE ST_INTERSECTS(b.geometry, n.geometry)"
-dialect SQLITE output.shp input.vrt
  1. Open the output.shp in a GIS to verify that the new shapefile as attributes joined from the intersecting borough. You can use ogrinfo command to check that as well.
ogrinfo -al output.shp


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