Design ideas and goals for the GMT Python interface

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As you may already know, I'm away on a postdoct writing a Python interface for the Generic Mapping Tools. Recently, I started laying out our goals for the project and some of my design ideas. This all lives on the GenericMappingTools/gmt-python Github repository, which is where the code will eventually be as well. I thought it would be good to post it here as well to have a snapshot of this phase of the project for future reference.

I have also submitted a talk proposal for Scipy 2017 about the project.


  • Provide access to GMT modules from Python using the GMT C API (no system calls).
  • Input and output using Python native containers: numpy ndarray or pandas DataFrame for data tables and xarray Dataset for netCDF grids.
  • Integration with the Jupyter notebook to display plots and maps inline.
  • API design familiar for veteran GMT users (arguments R, J, etc) with more newbie-friendly alternatives/aliases (region=[10, 20, -30, -10], projection='M', etc).

Previous work

To my knowledge, there have been 3 attempts at a GMT Python interface:

Only gmtpy has received commits since 2014 and is the more mature alternative. However, the project doesn't seem to be very active. Both gmtpy and PyGMT use system class (through subprocess.Popen) and pass input and output through subprocess.PIPE. pygmt seems to call the GMT C API directly through a hand-coded Python C extension. This might compromise the portability of the package across operating systems and makes distribution very painful.


gmt-python is made for the future. We will support only Python 3.5 or later and require the new "modern" mode of GMT (currently only in the trunk of the SVN repository). The modern mode removes the need for -O -K and explicitly redirecting to a .ps file. This all happens in the background. A final call to gmt psconvert brings the plot out of hiding and finalizes the Postscript. This mode is perfect for the Python interface, which would have to handle generation of the Postscript file in the background anyway.

We will wrap the GMT C API using the ctypes module of the Python standard library. ctypes grants access to C data types and foreign functions in DDLs and shared libraries, making it possible to wrap these libraries with pure Python code. Not having compiled modules makes packaging and distribution of Python software a lot easier.

Wrappers for GMT data types and C functions will be implemented in a lower level wrapper library. These will be direct ctypes wrappers of the GMT module functions and any other function that is needed on the Python side. The low-level functions will not handle any data type conversion or setting up of argument list.

We'll also provide higher level functions that mirror all GMT modules. These functions will be built on top of the low-level library and will handle all data conversions and parsing of arguments. This is the part of the library with which the user will interact (the GMT Python API).

The GMT Python API

Each GMT module has a function in the gmt package. Command-line arguments are passes as function keyword arguments. Data can be passed as file names or in-memory data.

The simplest usage would be with data in a file and generating a PDF output figure, just as a normal GMT script:

import gmt

cpt = gmt.makecpt(C='cubhelix', T=[-4500, 4500])
gmt.grdimage(input='', J='M6i', B='af', P=True, C=cpt)
gmt.psscale(C=cpt, D='jTC+w6i/0.2i+h+e+o0/1i', B='af')
gmt.psconvert(T='f', F='my-figure')

Arguments can also be passed as in the GMT command-line by using a single string:

import gmt

gmt.makecpt('-Ccubhelix -T-4500/4500', output='my.cpt')
gmt.grdimage(' -JM6i -Baf -P -Cmy.cpt')
gmt.psscale('-Cmy.cpt -DjTC+w6i/0.2i+h+e+o0/1i -Baf')
gmt.psconvert('-Tf -Fmy-figure')

Notice that output that would be redirected to a file is specified using the output keyword argument.

You can also pass in data from Python. Grids in netCDF format are passed as xarray Datasets that can come from a netCDF file or generated in memory:

import gmt
import xarray as xr

data = xr.open_dataset('')

cpt = gmt.makecpt(C='cubhelix', T='-4500/4500')
gmt.grdimage(input=data, J='M6i', B='af', P=True, C=cpt)
gmt.psconvert(T='f', F='my-figure')

Tabular data can be passed as numpy arrays:

import numpy as np
import gmt

data = np.loadtxt('data_file.csv')

cpt = gmt.makecpt(C="red,green,blue", T="0,70,300,10000")
gmt.pscoast(R='g', J='N180/10i', G='bisque', S='azure1', B='af', X='c')
gmt.psxy(input=data, S='ci', C=cpt, h='i1', i='2,1,3,4+s0.02')
gmt.psconvert(T='f', F='my-figure')

In the Jupyter notebook, we can preview the plot by calling, which embeds the image in the notebook:

import numpy as np
import gmt

data = np.loadtxt('data_file.csv')

cpt = gmt.makecpt(C="red,green,blue", T="0,70,300,10000")
gmt.pscoast(R='g', J='N180/10i', G='bisque', S='azure1', B='af', X='c')
gmt.psxy(input=data, S='ci', C=cpt, h='i1', i='2,1,3,4+s0.02') will call psconvert in the background to get a PNG image back and use IPython.display.Image to insert it into the notebook.

TODO: We're still thinking of the best way to call gmt.psconvert first to generate a high-quality PDF and right after call for an inline preview. The issue is that psconvert deletes the temporary Postscript file that was being constructed on the background, this calling it a second time through would not work. Any suggestions are welcome!

Package organization

The general layout of the Python package will probably look something like this:

    c_api/     # Package with low-level wrappers for the C API
    modules/  # Defines the functions corresponding to GMT modules

The module functions

The functions corresponding to GMT modules (pscoast, psconvert, etc) are how the user interacts with the Python API. They will be organized in different files in the gmt.modules package but will all be accessible from the gmt package namespace. For example, pscoast can live in gmt/modules/ but can be called as gmt.pscoast.

Here is what a module function will look like:

def module_function(**kwargs):
    Docstring explaining what each option is and all the aliases.

    Likely derived from the GMT documentation.
    # Convert any inputs into things the C API can digest
    # Parse the keyword arguments and make an "args" list
    # Call the module function from the C API with the inputs
    # Process any outputs from the C API into Python data types
    return output

We will automate this process as much as possible:

  • Common options in the docstrings can be reused from an OPTIONS dictionary.
  • Parsing of common arguments (R, J, etc) can be done by a function.
  • Creating the GMT session and calling the module can be automated.
  • Conversion of inputs and outputs will most likely be: tables to numpy arrays, grids to xarray Datasets, text to Python text.

Most of the work in this part will be wrapping all of the many GMT modules, parsing non-standard options, and making sure the docstrings are accurate. It might even be possible to automatically generate the docstrings or parts of them from the command-line help messages by passing a Python callback as the print_func when creating a GMT session.

The low-level wrappers

The low-level wrapper functions will be bare-bones ctypes foreign functions from the shared library. The functions can be accessed from Python like so:

import ctypes as ct

libgmt = ct.cdll.LoadLibrary("")

# Functions are accessed as members of the 'libgmt' object
GMT_Call_Module = libgmt.GMT_Call_Module

# Call them like normal Python functions
GMT_Call_Module(... inputs ...)

The tricky part is making sure the functions get the input types they need. ctypes provides access to C data types and a way to specify the data type conversions that the function requires:

GMT_Call_Module.argstypes = [ct.c_void_p, ct.c_char_p, ct.c_int, ct.c_void_p]

This is fine for standard data types like int, char, etc, but will need extra work for custom GMT struct. These data types will need to be wrapped by Python classes that inherit from ctypes.Structure.

The gmt.c_api module will expose these foreign functions (with output and input types specified) and GMT data types for the modules to use.

The main entry point into GMT will be through the GMT_Call_Module function. This is what the gmt command-line application uses to run a given module, like GMT_pscoast for example. We will use it to run the modules from the Python side as well. It has the following signature:

int GMT_Call_Module (void *V_API, const char *module, int mode, void *args)

The arguments module, mode, and args (the command-line argument list) are plain C types and can be generated easily using ctypes. The Python module code will need to generate the args array from the given function arguments. The V_API argument is a "GMT Session" and is created through the GMT_Create_Session function, which will have to be wrapped as well.

The input and output of Python data will be handled through the GMT virtual file machinery. This allows us to write data to a memory location instead of a file without GMT knowing the difference. For input, we can use GMT_Open_VirtualFile and point it to the location in memory of the Python data, for example using numpy.ndarray.ctypes. We can also translate the Python data into ctypes compatible types. The virtual file pointer can also be passed as the output option for the module, for example as -G or through redirection (->). We can read the contents of the virtual file using GMT_Read_VirtualFile.

Final thoughts

There are gonna be some rough edges on the C API that will have to get sorted before all of this is usable. The API is new (from 2013) and hasn't been much used by third-party libraries. Some of the details aren't documented and require diving into the GMT source code or having access to a GMT guru, like I have. Hopefully this work will make it more robust and new GMT wrappers can be made for other languages without so much effort.

All of this work in its very early stages and I'd love to get some feedback and ideas! You can leave a comment below or create an issue on the Github repository.