I do a lot of GIS work, and ArcGIS is my tool of choice—mostly because all of my collaborators use it. While I do a lot of stuff through the ArcMap interface, there are times when I need to do things programmatically. Model Builder helps a lot if you don’t do a lot of programming or need to do relatively simple tasks, but it can be pretty finicky and requires some weird workarounds for things that should be simple.

I frequently find myself faced with tasks that require complex chaining of ArcGIS functions. Consider, for example, applying area-weighted averaging as a dissolve statistic (which absolutely should be a standard method for the Dissolve tool, but isn’t). In order to accomplish this, you need to:

1. Create a new field which is the product of the shape area and the field you want to calculate the area-weighted average for;
2. Dissolve your feature class with the SUM statistic for your new field; and
3. Create a new field which is the SUM statistic divided by the dissolved shape area.

This is a pretty simple procedure in terms of logic, but it gets fairly messy in Model Builder because of the multiple calls to Add Field and Calculate Field, and the parameter exposure needed in order to maintain sensible field names. Doing it in ArcPy is much easier:

def wadissolve(inlayer, outlayer, wafield, dissolvefield):
# create the temporary field
tempfield = wafield + '_PROD'
prodexpr = '!' + wafield + '! * !SHAPE_AREA!'
CalculateField_management(inlayer, tempfield, prodexpr, "PYTHON_9.3")
# dissolve with the SUM statistics for the temporary field
Dissolve_management(inlayer, outlayer dissolvefield, tempfield + ' SUM')
# calculate the area-weighted average
divexpr = '!' + tempfield + '_SUM! / !SHAPE_AREA!'
CalculateField_management(outlayer, awfield, divexpr, "PYTHON_9.3")
# cleanup
DeleteField_management(inlayer, tempfield)
DeleteField_management(outlayer, tempfield + '_SUM')
return outlayer


I have a problem though, and that problem is that I’d rather not use Python. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the syntax, and there are some R packages that are indispensable for the types of analyses I’m doing. But there’s no R interface for ArcGIS. What other choice do I have?

There is the RPyGeo package, which claims to “provide access to (virtually any) ArcGIS Geoprocessing tool from within R by running Python geoprocessing scripts without writing Python code or touching ArcGIS”. It works, but it doesn’t really read like normal R code; except for a small number of functions that the authors wrote interfaces for, you call ArcPy functions through the rpygeo.geoprocessor with text strings and argument lists, and some specification of temporary python script files and message output files. I also don’t understand the dependency on RSAGA, or even shapefiles for that matter.

It turns out I’m stubborn enough to develop my own R interface for ArcPy rather than change my workflow a little bit. It seemed to me that the simplest approach was to use a virtual Python environment from which to access ArcPy. The PythonInR package does this, and it does it well—automatically creating the function interfaces required with the pyImport function so that it behaves just like a normal R function (except the arguments are not exposed,everything takes ...). There can be a little bit of weirdness with return values (e.g. the text ‘true’ instead of the logical value TRUE) but this really isn’t an issue for ArcPy, which generally returns the output file path as a string. The output file path is almost always an input argument as well, so you usually don’t need to access the return value.

I used PythonInR to build the package arcpyr, which provides a pretty straightforward interface to ArcPy. It’s not a complete solution; it provides access to ArcPy functions, but it can’t do a lot of the object-oriented stuff. I created a few functions to provide raster calculator and access some of the environment settings. But for examples like the one above, using ArcPy reads like any other R code:

wadissolve = function(inlayer, outlayer, wafield, dissolvefield){
# create the temporary field
tempfield = paste0(wafield, '_PROD')
prodexpr = paste0('!', wafield, '! * !SHAPE_AREA!')
CalculateField_management(inlayer, tempfield, prodexpr, "PYTHON_9.3")
# dissolve with the SUM statistics for the temporary field
Dissolve_management(inlayer, outlayer dissolvefield,
paste0(tempfield, ' SUM'))
# calculate the area-weighted average
divexpr = paste0('!' , tempfield, '_SUM! / !SHAPE_AREA!')

Having an R interface for ArcPy means I don’t have to juggle Python and R together to do my analysis, Making it way easier to maintain my codebase and rerun my analyses when needed. Of course, I could also use PythonInR to run entire python scripts if I needed to leverage the object-oriented aspects of ArcPy. One thing that got on my nerves was that loading the ArcPy functions using PythonInR::pyImport cluttered up the global R environment; I’ve now started a new implementation of the package that provides a cleaner interface.