What Is a Data Type in a Shapefile?


Larry Thompson

A data type in a shapefile refers to the format or structure of the data that is stored within the file. It defines how the data is organized and interpreted by software applications. Understanding data types is essential for effectively working with shapefiles and performing various spatial analysis tasks.

What are Shapefiles?

Shapefiles are a popular geospatial vector data format developed by ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute). They consist of multiple files that collectively store geographic features such as points, lines, and polygons. Each shapefile contains attributes associated with these features, which are stored in a separate database file.

The Importance of Data Types

Data types play a crucial role in shapefiles as they define how attribute values are interpreted and displayed. Different data types allow for the storage of various kinds of information, ensuring accurate representation and analysis of geographic features.

Common Data Types

  • Integer: This data type represents whole numbers without decimal places. It is commonly used for storing unique identifiers, counts, or categorical values.
  • Float: The float data type stores numeric values with decimal places. It is suitable for storing measurements, coordinates, or any continuous numerical data.
  • Text/String: Text or string data type stores alphanumeric characters or words.

    It is often used to store names, descriptions, or any non-numeric information associated with features.

  • Date/Time: This data type stores temporal information such as dates or timestamps. It allows for temporal analysis and visualization over time.
  • Boolean: The boolean data type stores logical values – either true or false. It is useful for storing binary information like presence/absence or yes/no conditions.

Defining Data Types

When creating a shapefile, it is important to assign the appropriate data type to each attribute field. This ensures data integrity and prevents errors during data entry or analysis. Most GIS software provides options to define the data type for each field, along with additional properties such as field length or precision.

The chosen data type affects how the attribute values are validated, queried, and displayed. For example, a numeric field may not allow non-numeric characters, while a string field may have limitations on its length.


Data types in shapefiles determine how attribute values are stored and interpreted. Choosing the correct data type for each attribute field is crucial for accurate representation and analysis of geographic features. Understanding different data types allows you to effectively work with shapefiles and perform various spatial analyses in GIS software.

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