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Free and Open Source Countries Shapefile Data for Various Scales and Years

Countries Shapefile Download: A Guide for GIS Users

If you are a GIS user, you might have encountered the term "shapefile" before. Shapefiles are one of the most common and widely used data formats for storing geographic information. They can represent various types of features, such as points, lines, and polygons, along with their attributes. In this article, we will explain what shapefiles are, how to find and download countries shapefiles online, and how to use them in GIS software.

What is a shapefile and why is it useful for GIS?

A shapefile is a digital vector data format that was developed by Esri, the company behind ArcGIS, in the early 1990s. It is designed to store the location, shape, and attributes of geographic features in a simple and efficient way. Shapefiles are widely used in GIS desktop applications, as well as web mapping services.

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The components and structure of a shapefile

A shapefile is not a single file, but a collection of files with a common filename prefix, stored in the same directory. The three mandatory files have filename extensions .shp, .shx, and .dbf. They contain the following information:

  • The .shp file stores the feature geometry itself, such as the coordinates of points, vertices of lines, or boundaries of polygons.

  • The .shx file stores the shape index, which allows fast access to the feature geometry.

  • The .dbf file stores the attribute data in a dBase IV format. Each record in the .dbf file corresponds to a feature in the .shp file, and contains one or more fields that describe the feature's properties, such as name, population, or area.

In addition to these mandatory files, there are some optional files that can enhance the functionality of a shapefile. For example:

  • The .prj file stores the coordinate system information, which defines how the geographic coordinates are projected onto a flat map.

  • The .sbn and .sbx files store the spatial index, which improves the performance of spatial queries and analysis.

  • The .cpg file stores the code page information, which specifies the character encoding used for the attribute data.

The advantages and limitations of shapefiles

Shapefiles have some advantages that make them popular among GIS users. For instance:

  • They are simple and easy to use. They can be created, edited, and viewed with various GIS software and tools.

  • They are compatible and interoperable. They can be exchanged and shared among different GIS platforms and applications.

  • They are compact and efficient. They can store large amounts of data with minimal file size and memory usage.

However, shapefiles also have some limitations that need to be considered. For example:

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  • They lack topological information. They do not store the spatial relationships between features, such as adjacency or connectivity.

  • They have limited spatial representation. They do not support complex geometries, such as multipatches or multipoints. They also have problems with features that cross the dateline or have self-intersections.

  • They have limited data storage. They do not support long field names, null values, or multiple attribute tables. They also have a maximum file size of 2 GB.

  • They can mix different shape types. They can contain features of different geometry types (point, line, or polygon) in the same file, which can cause confusion and errors.

How to find and download countries shapefiles online?

If you need countries shapefiles for your GIS project, you might wonder where to find and download them online. There are many websites that offer free or paid shapefiles of countries and other administrative boundaries. However, not all of them are reliable or updated. Here are some tips on how to find and download countries shapefiles online:

Some reliable sources of countries shapefiles

One of the most reputable sources of countries shapefiles is the Natural Earth Data website. It provides free and public domain shapefiles of countries and regions at various scales and resolutions. The shapefiles are based on authoritative sources and are regularly updated. You can download the shapefiles as zip files or browse them online using a web map viewer.

Another reliable source of countries shapefiles is the GADM website. It provides free and high-resolution shapefiles of countries and their subnational divisions, such as states, provinces, districts, and municipalities. The shapefiles are derived from various sources and are validated by experts. You can download the shapefiles as zip files or access them through an API.

A third reliable source of countries shapefiles is the DIVA-GIS website. It provides free and low-resolution shapefiles of countries and their subnational divisions, as well as other geographic data, such as climate, land use, population, and biodiversity. The shapefiles are obtained from various sources and are suitable for thematic mapping. You can download the shapefiles as zip files or use them in the DIVA-GIS software.

How to choose the right scale and format of shapefiles

When you download countries shapefiles online, you need to consider the scale and format of the shapefiles that suit your needs. The scale refers to the level of detail and accuracy of the shapefile, while the format refers to the type and structure of the data. Here are some factors to consider when choosing the right scale and format of shapefiles:

  • The purpose and scope of your GIS project. Depending on your research question, analysis, or visualization, you might need a global, regional, or local scale of shapefile. You might also need a specific level of administrative boundary, such as country, state, or district.

  • The size and performance of your GIS software. Depending on your hardware and software capabilities, you might prefer a smaller or larger file size of shapefile. Larger files might have more detail and accuracy, but they might also take longer to load and process.

  • The compatibility and interoperability of your GIS software. Depending on your GIS platform and application, you might need a specific format or extension of shapefile. Some formats might have more features and functionality, but they might also require additional software or tools to use.

How to use countries shapefiles in GIS software?

Once you have downloaded the countries shapefiles that you need, you can use them in your GIS software for various purposes. You can import and open them as layers, edit and modify them as needed, perform spatial analysis and queries on them, or create maps and charts with them. Here are some examples of how to use countries shapefiles in two popular GIS software: Google Earth Pro and ArcGIS Online.

How to import and open shapefiles in Google Earth Pro

Google Earth Pro is a free desktop application that allows you to explore the world in 3D. You can import and open shapefiles in Google Earth Pro by following these steps:

  • Launch Google Earth Pro on your computer.

  • Go to File > Import.

  • Browse to the folder where you saved the zip file of the shapefile that you downloaded.

  • Select the zip file and click Open.

  • Select the .shp file from the list of files in the zip file and click OK.

  • The shapefile will appear as a layer in the Places panel on the left side of the screen.

  • You can rename, reorder, or delete the layer by right-clicking on it.

  • You can change the style, color, label, or altitude of the layer by double-clicking on it.

How to publish and share shapefiles in ArcGIS Online

ArcGIS Online is a


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