RFC 67 : Null values in OGR

Author: Even Rouault

Contact: even.rouault at spatialys.com

Status: Adopted, implemented

Implementation version: 2.2


This RFC implement the concept of null value for the field of a feature, in addition to the existing unset status.


Currently, OGR supports one single concept to indicate that a field value is missing : the concept of unset field.

So assuming a JSON feature collection with 2 features would properties would be { "foo": "bar" } and { "foo": "bar", "other_field": null }, OGR currently returns that the other_field is unset in both cases.

What is proposed here is that in the first case where the "other_field" keyword is totally absent, we use the current unset field concept. And for the other case, we add a new concept of null field.

This distinction between both concepts apply to all GeoJSON based formats and protocols, so GeoJSON, ElasticSearch, MongoDB, CouchDB, Cloudant.

This also applies for GML where the semantics of a missing element would be mapped to unset field and an element with a xsi:nil="true" attribute would be mapped to a null field.



The Set structure in the "raw field" union is modified to add a third marker

struct {
    int     nMarker1;
    int     nMarker2;
    int     nMarker3;
} Set;

This is not strictly related to this work but the 3rd marker decreases the likelihood of a genuine value to be misinterpreted as unset / null. This does not increase the size of the structure that is already at least 12 bytes large.

The current special value of OGRUnsetMarker = -21121 will be set in the 3 markers for unset field (currently set to the first 2 markers).

Similarly for the new Null state, the new value OGRNullMarker = -21122 will be set to the 3 markers.


The methods int IsFieldNull( int nFieldIdx ) and void SetNullField ( int nFieldIdx ) are added.

The accessors GetFieldXXXX() are modified to take into account the null case, in the same way as if they are called on a unset field, so returning 0 for numeric field types, empty string for string fields, FALSE for date time fields and NULL for list-based types.

A convenience method OGRFeature::IsFieldSetAndNotNull() is added to ease the porting of existing code that used previously IsFieldSet() and doesn't need to distinguish between the unset and null states.


The following functions will be added:

int    CPL_DLL OGR_F_IsFieldNull( OGRFeatureH, int );
void   CPL_DLL OGR_F_SetFieldNull( OGRFeatureH, int );

int    CPL_DLL OGR_F_IsFieldSetAndNotNull( OGRFeatureH, int );

Lower-level functions will be added to manipulate directly the raw field union (for use mostly in core and a few drivers), instead of directly testing/ setting the markers :

int    CPL_DLL OGR_RawField_IsUnset( OGRField* );
int    CPL_DLL OGR_RawField_IsNull( OGRField* );
void   CPL_DLL OGR_RawField_SetUnset( OGRField* );
void   CPL_DLL OGR_RawField_SetNull( OGRField* );

SWIG bindings (Python / Java / C# / Perl) changes

The new methods will mapped to SWIG.


The following drivers will be modified to take into account the unset and NULL state as distinct states: GeoJSON, ElasticSearch, MongoDB, CouchDB, Cloudant, GML, GMLAS, WFS.

Note: regarding the GMLAS driver, the previous behavior to have both xxxx and xxxx_nil fields when xxxx is an optional nillable XML elements is preserved by default (can be changed through a configuration setting in the gmlasconf.xml file). The rationale is that the GMLAS driver is mostly used to convert to SQL capable formats that cannot distinguish between the unset and null states, hence the need for the 2 dedicated fields.

The CSV driver will be modified so that when EMPTY_STRING_AS_NULL open option is specified, the new Null state is used.

All drivers that in their writing part test if the source feature has a field unset will also test if the field is null.

For SQL based drivers (PG, PGDump, Carto, MySQL, OCI, SQLite, GPKG), on reading a SQL NULL value will be mapped to the new Null state. On writing, a unset field will not be mentioned in the corresponding INSERT or UPDATE statement. Whereas a Null field will be mentioned and set to NULL. On insertion, there will generally be no difference of behavior, unless a default value is defined on the field, in which case it will be used by the database engine to set the value in the unset case. On update, a unset field will not see its content updated by the database, where as a field set to NULL will be updated to NULL.


No direct changes, but as the OGRFeature::DumpReadable() method is modified so that unset fields of features are no longer displayed, the output of ogrinfo will be affected.


All new methods/functions are documented.

Test Suite

Core changes and updated drivers will be tested.

Compatibility Issues

All code, in GDAL source code, and in calling external code, that currently uses OGRFeature::IsFieldSet() / OGR_F_IsFieldSet() should also be updated to used IsFieldNull() / OGR_F_IsFieldNull(), either to act exactly as in the unset case, or add a new appropriate behavior. A convenience method and function OGRFeature::IsFieldSetAndNotNull() / OGR_F_IsFieldSetAndNotNull() is added to ease the porting of existing code.

Failure to do so, the existing code will see 0 for numeric field types, empty string for string fields, FALSE for date time fields and NULL for list-based types.

On the write side, for the GeoJSON driver, in GDAL 2.1 or before, a unset field was written as field_name: null. Starting with GDAL 2.2, only fields explicitly set as null with OGR_F_SetFieldNull() will be written with a null value. Unset fields of a feature will not be present in the corresponding JSON feature element.

MIGRATION_GUIDE.TXT is updated to discuss those compatibility issues.


The implementation will be done by Even Rouault (Spatialys) and be sponsored by Safe Software.

The proposed implementation is available in https://github.com/rouault/gdal2/tree/rfc67

Voting history

+1 from JukkaR, DanielM, HowardB and EvenR