Python has a vast library of modules that are included with its distribution. The csv module gives the Python programmer the ability to parse CSV (Comma Separated Values) files. A CSV file is a human readable text file where each line has a number of fields, separated by commas or some other delimiter. You can think of each line as a row and each field as a column. The CSV format has no standard, but they are similar enough that the csv module will be able to read the vast majority of CSV files. You can also write CSV files using the csv module.


Reading a CSV File

There are two ways to read a CSV file. You can use the csv module’s reader function or you can use the DictReader class. We will look at both methods. But first, we need to get a CSV file so we have something to parse. There are many websites that provide interesting information in CSV format. We will be using the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website to download some information on Tuberculosis. You can go here to get it: http://www.who.int/tb/country/data/download/en/. Once you have the file, we’ll be ready to start. Ready? Then let’s look at some code!

import csv
 
#----------------------------------------------------------------------
def csv_reader(file_obj):
    """
    Read a csv file
    """
    reader = csv.reader(file_obj)
    for row in reader:
        print(" ".join(row))
 
#----------------------------------------------------------------------
if __name__ == "__main__":
    csv_path = "TB_data_dictionary_2014-02-26.csv"
    with open(csv_path, "rb") as f_obj:
        csv_reader(f_obj)

Let’s take a moment to break this down a bit. First off, we have to actually import the csv module. Then we create a very simple function called csv_reader that accepts a file object. Inside the function, we pass the file object into the csv_reader function, which returns a reader object. The reader object allows iteration, much like a regular file object does. This let’s us iterate over each row in the reader object and print out the line of data, minus the commas. This works because each row is a list and we can join each element in the list together, forming one long string.

Now let’s create our own CSV file and feed it into the DictReader class. Here’s a really simple one:


first_name,last_name,address,city,state,zip_code
Tyrese,Hirthe,1404 Turner Ville,Strackeport,NY,19106-8813
Jules,Dicki,2410 Estella Cape Suite 061,Lake Nickolasville,ME,00621-7435
Dedric,Medhurst,6912 Dayna Shoal,Stiedemannberg,SC,43259-2273

Let’s save this in a file named data.csv. Now we’re ready to parse the file using the DictReader class. Let’s try it out:

import csv
 
#----------------------------------------------------------------------
def csv_dict_reader(file_obj):
    """
    Read a CSV file using csv.DictReader
    """
    reader = csv.DictReader(file_obj, delimiter=',')
    for line in reader:
        print(line["first_name"]),
        print(line["last_name"])
 
#----------------------------------------------------------------------
if __name__ == "__main__":
    with open("data.csv") as f_obj:
        csv_dict_reader(f_obj)

In the example above, we open a file and pass the file object to our function as we did before. The function passes the file object to our DictReader class. We tell the DictReader that the delimiter is a comma. This isn’t actually required as the code will still work without that keyword argument. However, it’s a good idea to be explicit so you know what’s going on here. Next we loop over the reader object and discover that each line in the reader object is a dictionary. This makes printing out specific pieces of the line very easy.

Now we’re ready to learn how to write a csv file to disk.


Writing a CSV File

The csv module also has two methods that you can use to write a CSV file. You can use the writer function or the DictWriter class. We’ll look at both of these as well. We will be with the writer function. Let’s look at a simple example:

import csv
 
#----------------------------------------------------------------------
def csv_writer(data, path):
    """
    Write data to a CSV file path
    """
    with open(path, "wb") as csv_file:
        writer = csv.writer(csv_file, delimiter=',')
        for line in data:
            writer.writerow(line)
 
#----------------------------------------------------------------------
if __name__ == "__main__":
    data = ["first_name,last_name,city".split(","),
            "Tyrese,Hirthe,Strackeport".split(","),
            "Jules,Dicki,Lake Nickolasville".split(","),
            "Dedric,Medhurst,Stiedemannberg".split(",")
            ]
    path = "output.csv"
    csv_writer(data, path)

In the code above, we create a csv_writer function that accepts two arguments: data and path. The data is a list of lists that we create at the bottom of the script. We use a shortened version of the data from the previous example and split the strings on the comma. This returns a list. So we end up with a nested list that looks like this:

[['first_name', 'last_name', 'city'],
 ['Tyrese', 'Hirthe', 'Strackeport'],
 ['Jules', 'Dicki', 'Lake Nickolasville'],
 ['Dedric', 'Medhurst', 'Stiedemannberg']]

The csv_writer function opens the path that we pass in and creates a csv writer object. Then we loop over the nested list structure and write each line out to disk. Note that we specified what the delimiter should be when we created the writer object. If you want the delimiter to be something besides a comma, this is where you would set it.

Now we’re ready to learn how to write a CSV file using the DictWriter class! We’re going to use the data from the previous version and transform it into a list of dictionaries that we can feed to our hungry DictWriter. Let’s take a look:

import csv
 
#----------------------------------------------------------------------
def csv_dict_writer(path, fieldnames, data):
    """
    Writes a CSV file using DictWriter
    """
    with open(path, "wb") as out_file:
        writer = csv.DictWriter(out_file, delimiter=',', fieldnames=fieldnames)
        writer.writeheader()
        for row in data:
            writer.writerow(row)
 
#----------------------------------------------------------------------
if __name__ == "__main__":
    data = ["first_name,last_name,city".split(","),
            "Tyrese,Hirthe,Strackeport".split(","),
            "Jules,Dicki,Lake Nickolasville".split(","),
            "Dedric,Medhurst,Stiedemannberg".split(",")
            ]
    my_list = []
    fieldnames = data[0]
    for values in data[1:]:
        inner_dict = dict(zip(fieldnames, values))
        my_list.append(inner_dict)
 
    path = "dict_output.csv"
    csv_dict_writer(path, fieldnames, my_list)

We will start in the second section first. As you can see, we start out with the nested list structure that we had before. Next we create and empty list and a list that contains the field names, which happens to be the first list inside the nested list. Remember, lists are zero-based, so the first element in a list starts at zero! Next we loop over the nested list construct, starting with the second element:

for values in data[1:]:
    inner_dict = dict(zip(fieldnames, values))
    my_list.append(inner_dict)

Inside the for loop, we use Python builtins to create dictionary. The **zip** method will take two iterators (lists in this case) and turn them into a list of tuples. Here’s an example:

zip(fieldnames, values)
[('first_name', 'Dedric'), ('last_name', 'Medhurst'), ('city', 'Stiedemannberg')]

Now when your wrap that call in **dict**, it turns that list of of tuples into a dictionary. Finally we append the dictionary to the list. When the **for** finishes, you’ll end up with a data structure that looks like this:

[{'city': 'Strackeport', 'first_name': 'Tyrese', 'last_name': 'Hirthe'},
{'city': 'Lake Nickolasville', 'first_name': 'Jules', 'last_name': 'Dicki'},
{'city': 'Stiedemannberg', 'first_name': 'Dedric', 'last_name': 'Medhurst'}]

At the end of the second session, we call our csv_dict_writer function and pass in all the required arguments. Inside the function, we create a DictWriter instance and pass it a file object, a delimiter value and our list of field names. Next we write the field names out to disk and loop over the data one row at a time, writing the data to disk. The DictWriter class also support the writerows method, which we could have used instead of the loop. The csv.writer function also supports this functionality.

You may be interested to know that you can also create Dialects with the csv module. This allows you to tell the csv module how to read or write a file in a very explicit manner. If you need this sort of thing because of an oddly formatted file from a client, then you’ll find this functionality invaluable.


Wrapping Up

Now you know how to use the csv module to read and write CSV files. There are many websites that put out their data in this format and it is used a lot in the business world. Have fun and happy coding!


Additional Reading

  • Python Documentation – Section 13.1 csv
  • Reading and Writing CSV Files with Python DictReader and DictWriter
  • Python Module of the Week: csv
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