How To: Working With Shapefiles

Posted by India Young on June 27, 2018

Another exceptional feature of the Population Explorer tool is the ability for users to upload and analyze shapefiles. Whether you're looking to retrieve population and demographic statistics for your target market (area of interest), or interested in statistics for an upcoming move to a new neighborhood, this convenient feature makes it easy to extract these data. In this post, we discuss more specifics about shapefiles and outline how you can effectively add these layers to your next project. 

Copy of Infrastructure Blog Pic 2



Simply put, a shapefile is a data layer with attribute information associated with a specific geographic location and dataset. Shapefiles are created with spatial features including points, lines, or polygons (areas). With our tool, when a shapefile layer is added to the map, the user can then view demographic and population data associated with that particular geometric feature. This data format is essential for countless applications from assessing a target market, to determining statistics about people affected by a disease outbreak, to planning and zoning for municipal and rural areas. Shapefile data are versatile. They can be applied to varied and dynamic Population Explorer projects from a point on the globe, to an outline of a zip code, to expansive regions affected by extreme weather and climate events.

Use Cases

Developers, planners, real estate agents, or anyone researching population trends can use administrative boundary shapefiles to examine statistics for their target areas. Before setting up a new business, entrepreneurs conduct market research on potential sites. Purchasing a building in an urban area for redevelopment? You'll need to check the population and demographic data first. Shapefile layers can also be used to analyze data in an area where schools, hospitals, and public utilities are needed, or for the savvy real estate investor looking to research a potential sale. The applications are endless. Below we look at the data for Cairo, Egypt, one of the most populous urban areas on the planet. At Population Explorer, we help you know your market before you invest, so you can build your business with confidence. 

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 2.30.22 PM-1

Shapefile of the urban area around Cairo, Egypt. 

Here are some other examples of shapefile layers that can be added in Population Explorer:

  1. Zip Codes
  2. Neighborhoods
  3. Communities
  4. Districts
  5. Blocks
  6. Administrative Areas
  7. Earthquake Intensity Boundaries
  8. Wildfire Boundaries
  9. Building Footprints

Best Practices

Now with the updated version (2018.06.05) of Population Explorer, you can upload KML/KMZ shapefiles directly into the application. With this feature, you can take shapefiles downloaded from an online database, such as the United States Geological Survey (USGS), upload them them into your "My Data" folder, and apply them to maps of your target area. You can then compare population and demographic data across various geometric layers. 

Step 1

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 10.39.38 AM-1The first step to using shapefiles is simply to find the data file format that fits Population Explorer's requirements and upload it. Our tool allows you to upload either a zip-compressed shapefile (.shp) or a KML/KMZ file, as long as its under 10 mb. Downloadable shapefiles can be found on open source platforms from government websites to open source databases (see some of our favorites in the last section). Once you find your dataset expand the "My Data" menu and click on the "Shapefiles" option.

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 12.41.12 PM-1


This selection will open a new frame where you will see all the shapefiles you have uploaded. At the bottom of the frame click on "+ Upload Shapefile", navigate to your file, open and click "✓Upload". If your file size is too large or does not have the right format, you will receive an error message detailing the problem.  If you upload the wrong file, you can easily "delete shapefile" and start again. Professional and Enterprise clients are allowed to upload 50 shapefiles to their account.



Example error message.

                                  Example error message

Step 2

Within Population Explorer, you can now add your shapefile layers to a map by selecting a Target Grouand then "+ Add Item". Once you click this option, the menu "My Shapefiles" appears to the right, and you can now add one or more shapefiles to your map by selecting it and clicking "✓Add".  

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 2.06.12 PMExample of adding zip code 80304 shapefile from Boulder, Colorado. 

After you"✓Add" the shapefile to the map, it will be highlighted and the associated population and demographic data will be revealed in the box below the map. 

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 2.08.45 PMPopulation data associated with zip code 80304 in the city of Boulder, Colorado. 


You are now ready to compare population and demographics between maps! Shapefile layers can be used to analyze population data after an extreme weather event occurs. Here we look at two maps, each showing different population and demographic statistics associated with different impact intensities that resulted from a 5.3 magnitude earthquake near Osaka, Japan. These shapefiles were downloaded from the USGS site under the "ShakeMap" menu. Within the 6.5 intensity polygon, Population Explorer's application reports 2,388,973 people were affected. You can also view the age and gender breakdown within this specific area. 

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 2.23.56 PM6.5  Earthquake Intensity Polygon overlaid on Google Terrain map of Osaka, Japan. 

Now you can compare data from two different USGS ShakeMap shapefiles associated with the same earthquake within your map. Just click on the desired polygon under the associated Target Group, and compare the statistics. In comparison, 38,986,608 people were affected at the 3.0 intensity level within the associated geographic area. All these data may also be exported as an Excel spreadsheet for further analysis. The possibilities are endless. 

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 8.24.43 PM3.0  Earthquake Intensity Polygon overlaid on Google Terrain map of Osaka, Japan. 

Some of Our Favorite Shapefile Data Sites!

USGS Earth Explorer

ESRI Open Data

Natural Earth Data

NASA's Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center

More Information

For additional support on working with shapefiles in Population Explorer, please see our overview video on YouTube or contact us

Tags: Population Mapping, Maps, population, Location, Demographics, Data

Recent Posts

Get Updates