For this tutorial we will be using the following datasets:

  • Boroughs - New York City boroughs. Download from NYC Planning - Open Data. Choose "Borough Boundaries (Clipped to Shoreline)", under "Borough Boundaries & Community Districts".

  • NYC Parking Violations - Stopping, standing or parking within a marked bicycle lane. Downloaded from NYC OpenData.

What is Geocoding

Geocoding is the process of taking address data and locating it on a map, giving it geographic coordinates. This process, as simple as it sounds, requires two important things: first, that the addresses be properly formatted, and second, a detailed street database, containing the names of all streets, as well as the numbering for each street segment.

In the past geocoding involved taking a street database, such as the LION Single Line Street Base Map, and using ArcGIS to build a "street locator" file which would act like a dictionary for the street database. Once the "locator" file was built, ArcGIS would be able to place the addresses on the map based on the street database.

Even though this process is still in use, for smaller datasets there are simpler alternatives that use QGIS and bypass getting a detailed street database, as well as building the "street locator" file. In this tutorial, we will use the MMQGIS plugin for QGIS, which accesses either the Google Maps Geocoding API or the OpenStreetMap/Nominatum API. The big drawback is that both these APIs have limits on the number of addresses you can geocode. In the case of the Nominatum API, there is a limit of 1 request per second, and in the case of the Google Maps Geocoding API there is a limit of 50 requests per minute and a maximum of 2,500 requests per day (per API key).

Even though these limits seem not too stringent, once you have a dataset of a few thousand addresses you will start facing difficulties. Just as an example, take the dataset of parking violations for New York City for just October 12, 2016, which contains almost 30,000 entries. If you were to use the Google Maps Geocoding API, it would take over 10 days at a rate of 2,500 requests per day; or if you used the Nominatum API, it would take more than 8 hours. If you need to geocode a large amount of addresses, the classic way, using ArcGIS, might still be the most efficient way.

Filtering and Downloading Parking Violations

  • The first step in this tutorial is to select, filter and download the parking violation data. Just like in the working with point data tutorial we will use the NYC OpenData portal to access, filter and download the data. The main dataset we are looking for is called Parking Violations Issued - Fiscal Year 2017. Once you click there , select View Data from the Explore Data dropdown menu.

  • Ideally, we would use the whole dataset, but because of the geocoding rate limits we will have to filter the dataset and just use violations related to parking on a bike lane for October 12, 2016. I have chosen that day for no particular reason other than it is a weekday.

  • You probably also want to check out the DOF Parking Violation Codes file, which explains all the different codes for parking violations. We will be using code 48, which relates to Stopping, standing or parking within a marked bicycle lane.

  • Just like on the working with point data tutorial you should create two filters to select just the data we want:

    • Violation Code is 48

    • Issue Date is 10/12/2016

  • Finally, click on the Export button at the top right-hand corner of the site and choose the CSV (comma separated values) format. Your file should start downloading then.

  • If you open your .csv file in Excel or Google Sheets you will see that there are about 390 records.

Formatting Address Data

Most geocoding services take addresses in a specific format, something like Address City Zip code County State Country, or a variation of this. So the first thing we need to do is make sure the dataset we just downloaded has a much address information as possible in the right format. For this we will use either Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets.

  • First, open your dataset in Excel or Google Sheets

  • You will notice that the dataset has a column for Violation County, another for House Number and another for Street Name. Now, we know that all of these traffic violations occurred in New York City and in New York State, so we can just infer those. However, we still need to combine the House Number and the Street Name into one field and transform the Violation County data into something more than just the initials of the counties.

  • Start by adding 4 new columns to your spreadsheet. It doesn't really matter where you add them (I'm adding them right after the Street Name field). Name these columns Address, City, State, and County.

  • Now you need to combine the House Number column with the Street Name one. This operations is called a concatenation. In the first Address cell, write the following formula =X2&" "&Y2. Here, X2 and Y2 refer to the cells where the House Number and Street Name fields are located. Verify that this formula worked for the first cell and copy it to the rest of the column.

  • Once you've copied the formula for the rest of the cells in the column (and it has worked), you need to select the whole column Copy it and in the same location right click and choose Paste Special and then Values. That way you are making sure that the new values are hard-coded and not a formula anymore.

  • For the City and State fields you can just fill them in with New York and NY respectively.

  • Finally, the process to fill in the County field is a little more complex:

    • First, if you take a look at the Violation County column, you will notice that the way the counties have been coded is not consistent. For example, some of the entries for Brooklyn have been coded as Bk and others as K, which stands for "Kings County". To solve this and to make all the county codes consistent we need to build a small table and use the VLOOKUP function.

    • In a separate part of your spreadsheet (I'm doing this on the right hand side), create the following table:

    • BK







      New York


      New York









    • These are all the variations of the county names in the table and their corresponding value. Now we need to write the formula stating that when you find the value on the left, in the Violation County column you should fill the County column with the value on the right of the table.

    • In the first cell of the County column write the following formula =VLOOKUP(V2,$AW$2:$AX$10,2,FALSE). The V2 refers to where the Violation County value is, the $AW$2:$AX$10 point to the table we created (the $ signs make sure that even if the formula is copied it will always point to those fields), the 2 tells the program to place the second value in the table as the result, and the FALSE makes sure that only exact matches are used.

    • Once the formula works for the first cell, copy it for the whole column and then, just as we did with the concatenation formula, copy the whole column and paste it again as values only.

    • Once this is done, delete the table that we added.

  • Finally, save your file as a Windows Comma Separated (.csv) file. If you are working with Google Sheets, download your file as Comma-separated values.


Now, finally, we are ready to go to QGIS and start geocoding.

  • The first step is to open QGIS and download the MMQGIS plugin. To do this click on Plugins and select Manage and Install Plugins...

  • Once the list of plugins has been refreshed, look for the MMQGIS plugin and install it.

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  • Now, open a new map and add the Boroughs shapefile. This is not necessary but it will help us verify the results of the geocoding.

  • Finally, open the geocoding window by clicking on MMQGIS and selecting Geocode and Geocode CSV with Google/OpenStreetMap

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  • Now select the file that we prepared as the input, and the appropriate fields for address, county, city, and state.

  • Leave the web service as Google Maps initially. If this one doesn't work, you can try the OpenStretMaps/Nominatim.

  • And set the Output Shapefile as well as the Not Found Output List.

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  • Once you are ready click OK (and cross your fingers...). It will take a while because the plugin takes into account the limits of the API and delays the request accordingly. For our 300 or so requests it should take between 5 and 10 minutes.

  • Once the geocoding process finishes you should have a new layer in your map with your geocoded points. This layer will still have all the data present in the base file. In addition, you should also have on your computer (wherever you placed it) a file with the records that were the service was unable to geocode.

Additional Options

  • In many cases you might need to geocode more than two or three hundred records. In these cases you should probably use your own Google Maps Geocoding API key. However, remember that even if you use your own key, Google still has a limit of 50 requests per minute and a total of 2,500 requests per day.

  • To obtain a key you should use a Google account to access the Google Developer Console. Once you sign in, you should go to the Google API Console (link at the bottom of the Google Developer Console page) and create a new project.

  • Once the project has been created, click on Enable APIs and Services, search for "geocoding" and once you find it, enable the Google Maps Geocoding API for this project.

  • Finally, return to your Google API project page and on the left hand panel click on Credentials. There, click on Create credentials and choose API key from the dropdown menu. This is the key you should add to the MMQGIS plugin menu when geocoding.