Using MongoDB with MsPASS

Prof. Gary L. Pavlis

Overview and Roadmap

There are a huge number of internet and printed resources on the Database Management system used in MsPASS called MongoDB. The reason is that MongoDB is one of the most heavily used open source packages in the modern software ecosystem. For that reason in earlier versions of our User’s Manual we simply punted the ball and told User’s to consult online sources. It became clear, however, that the firehose of information that approach creates is not for everyone. Hence, we created this section to reduce the firehose to a, hopefully, manageable stream of information.

The first section, which is titled “Concepts”, is introductory material. The material, however, is broken into subsections directed at people with specific backgrounds. If the title matches you, start there. If you fit none of the descriptions, read them all. The sections after that are organized by the letters of the standard acronymn used in many sources on database system: CRUD (Create, Read, Update, and Delete), although not that order for pedagogic reasons. The final section covers an auxiliary issue of MongoDB: indexes. Indexes are critical for query performance, but are not required.


MongoDB for RDBMS Users

Users who are familiar with Relational DataBase Management Systems (RDBMS) will find MongoDB has many similar concepts, but also is fundamentally different from any RDBMS. In an RDBMS the conceptual model of the data structure the system manages is a table (A “relation” in database theory is synonymous with “table”.) That is, however, better thought of as an implementation detail for what the system is aiming to do. Computer science textbooks on database theory make heavy use of set theory and treat a database as an abstract set of “attributes” that each define some quantity of interest and have some relationship. Some kinds of data fit the tabular model well, but some do not fit the concept at all. Seismic data objects are a case in point; traditional “header” attributes like those in SAC or SEGY map well into the RDBMS mode. On the other hand, it is well known that things like the sample data and response information are awkward, at best, to handle that way. If you are a user of a system like Antelope that uses CSS3.0 you will know what I mean. The other fundamental weakness of the tabular model is handling the “null” problem. That is, if an attribute is optional the table has to define what defines a null value. MongoDB suffers neither of those issues, but has its own “implementation details” that we will discuss later.

A relation (table) indexes a given piece of data by row and column. Although a system like Antelope actually uses integers to efficiently access cells in a table, the normal abstraction is that both the columns (attributes) and rows (tuples) are defined by some index. Columns are always indexed by an “attribute name” that is a keyword associated with the concept that column of data define. The rows (tuples) in any RDBMS have an index defined by the “primary keys” of the relation. (They sometimes have alternate keys, but that is a detail.) The primary key always has some indexing scheme to speed lookup by that key. One way to think of MongoDB’s data model is to think of it a collection of binary blobs (a list) with one or more fast indexing methods that allow random retrieval of any of the things it stores by the index. It may be useful to think of a MongoDB collection as a relation with only 1 attribute per tuple, which MongoDB calls a “document”. That one attribute is itself a more complex data structure that maps into a python dictionary. That is in contrast to more traditional RDBMS tables where the cells are usually only allowed to be simple types (i.e. string, integers, real numbers, or boolean values). The tuple-level indexing is also very different as any key(s) in the document can serve as an index. The more profound difference is that a “document” is infinitely more flexible than an RDBMS table. In an RDBMS table every cell needs an entry even if the value is Null. In MongoDB a “document” can contain anything that can be reduced to a name-value pair (the data structure of a python dictionary). The “value” associated with the key has few restriction, but the approach makes no sense unless the “value” can be translated into something that matches the concept that key is supposed to reference. For example, a seismic station “name” is a unique tag seismologists use describe a particular observatory/site. Earthquake seismologists nearly always use human-generated names stored as a string. Multichannel seismic data managment systems (e.g. Seismic Unix) commonly use an integer index to define a given position because survey flags are commonly defined by sequential numbers defining positions along a line/profile. Conceptually, however, both approaches require the same thing. An index (station name or station index number) is used to define a particular geographic location. Different keywords (keys) are used to define particular concepts. For the case in point, in MsPASS we use “lat”, “lon”, and “elev” as keys to define an instruments geographic position. Fetching all three from a particular document will produce all the data required to define a unique position. The same thing is done in an RDBMS, but the table model is used to define the model of how to fetch a particular attribute by a similar key. e.g. in the CSS3.0 schema the same three attributes have the same keys. That is, the CSS3.0 standard defines the keys “lat”, “lon”, and “elev” as latitude, longitude, and elevation.

In MongoDB the equivalent of a table (relation) is called a “collection”. A more technical definition of a “collection” is a set of “documents” accessible with a random access iterator. What that means, in practice, is that a collection act like an RDBMS table in the sense that the contents can be sorted into any order or subsetted with a query.

On the other hand, The thing that makes a relational database “relational” is not done well by MongoDB. That is, various forms of a “join” between two tables are a fundamental operation in most, if not all operational relational database systems. MongoDB has the equivalent in what it calls “normalization”, but our experience is it is much slower than comparable operations with an RDBMS. We discuss normalization at length in the related section of the User’s Manual titled Normalization. The results of a query can also be “grouped”, but require very different programming constructs than SQL.

Perhaps the most important common construct used by all RDBMS systems I know of that is also a part of MongoDB is the concept of a “cursor”. In an RDBMS a cursor is a forward-iterator (i.e. it can only be incremented) that loops over the set of tuples returned by a query. In MongoDB is is more-or-less the same thing with different words. A MongoDB cursor is a forward-iterator that can be used to work through a set of documents returned by a query. You will see numerous examples of using cursors in the MsPASS User’s manual and any source discussing MongoDB.

MongoDB for Python programmers

All python programmers will be familiar with the container commonly called a “dictionary” (dict). Other sources call the same concept an “associative array” (Antelope) or “map container” (C++ and Java). Why that is important for MongoDB is simple: the python bindings for MongoDB (pymongo) used a dict to structure the content of what MongoDB calls a “document” AND pymongo uses dict containers as the base of its query language. Two simple examples from the related tutorial notebook illustrate this.

Document output example:

from bson import json_util
doc = db.wf_minised.find_one()


  "_id": {
    "$oid": "65f6e45e4f0f9fe8183675eb"
  "sta": "IUGFS",
  "net": "2G",
  "chan": "BHE",
  "sampling_rate": 20.0,
  "delta": 0.05,
  "starttime": 1355020458.049998,
  "last_packet_time": 1355024042.649848,
  "foff": 0,
  "npts": 72000,
  "storage_mode": "file",
  "format": "mseed",
  "dir": "/N/slate/pavlis/usarray/wf/2012",
  "dfile": "event70.mseed",
  "time_standard": "UTC",

Here is the first of several example queries in this section:

Query example:

query['sta' : 'AAK']
query['chan'] : 'BHZ'
query['loc'] = '00'
print("query content in pretty form")
print("output of query")

MongoDB for Pandas Users

Most users who have had any significant experience with python will likely have encountered pandas. The name “pandas” is one of those strained acronyms. Multiple online sources indicate the name comes from “panel data”, which is basically a stretch of a synonym for a table. That insight is fundamental,however, as pandas can be thought of as little more than python version of a spreadsheet. In addition, more elaborate features of the panda API can be used to mimic much of an RDBMS functionality.

Since pandas are little more than an API for manipulating tables, linking pandas to MongoDB differs little from linking an RDBMS table to MongoDB. What I mean by that is perhaps best illustrated by an example. The Antelope software used by many seismologists is a “flat-file” RDBMS. It stores tabular data in simple text files that can be viewed with standard unix tools. (Note most RDBMS systems hide data behind the API like MongoDB does and the data are stored in some binary set of files accessible only through a server.) Antelope uses the CSS3.0 schema. One of the way pandas can be used with MsPASS is to import CSS3.0 tables. With Antelope files that can be done with the read_fsf function in pandas. The following illustrates an alternative way to create a site collection from an Antelope site table.

import pandas
from obspy import UTCDateTime
keys = ['sta','ondate','offdate','lat','lon','elev','statype','refsta','dnorth','deast','lddate']
widths = [6,8,8,9,9,9,50,4,6,9,9,17]  # need the antelope schema file to get these
df = pandas.read_fwf('',names=keys,widths=widths)
doclist = df.to_dict('records')
# This loop is needed to convert ondate and offdate to starttime and
# endtime used in MsPASS.
for doc in doclist:
  # In CSS3.0 these are integers for year day.  UTCDateTime
  # converts correctly ONLY if it is first converted to a string
# this script assumes db is a MongoDB Database handle set earlier

A few details worth noting about this example:

  • The list of keywords assigned to the symbol keys is needed because Antelope wfdisc fles do not have attribute names as the first line of the file. The list used above uses CSS3.0 attribute names. The order is significant as the names are tags on each column of data loaded with read_fsf.

  • The widths symbol is set to a list of fixed field widths. They ere derived from the antelope schema file.

  • The call to the pandas to_dict method converts the pandas table to a list of python dictionaries.

  • The for loop after the call to to_dict is not strictly necessary. It is used in this example to produce a “site collection” consistent with the MsPASS namespace. This is an example of a disconnect in concept between two database systems. CSS3.0 is an older standard and the committee that developed it elected to store the “ondate” and “offdate” fields as integers that specified time to the nearest day. The SEED standard changed the equivalent to a time stamp normally specified as a unix epoch time or a date string. Here we convert the time to a unix epoch time through obspy’s UTCDateTime class.

  • The last line is the only MongoDB component of this script. More examples like this are seen below. A key point here is that insert_many can handle any number of documents defined in doclist. It is, of course, memory limited because pandas and doclist are all in memory. The del call in the script demonstrates good practice to release potentially large memory objects like df after they are no longer needed.

The above example works for the special case of Antelope text-based database files. The pandas API, as experienced pandas users know, has a rich set of readers that can read nearly any imaginable tabular data format from files, sql servers, and online sources. These are documented here and include Excel, csv, and json formatted files, SQL servers, and jargon most of us have never seen. I have found that for research problems the fact that MongoDB documents are completely agnostic about content can be very helpful. For a new problem it is trivial to create a new collection and start putting things (documents) into it and have the data available by MongoDB queries. Readers should realize the schema we imposed on seismic waveform collections was imposed to provide a standardized namespace for keys to allow the framework to be extended without breaking lower level functionality. For the exploration stages of a research problem having now schema constraints is a very useful feature of MongoDB. Importing data through pandas is a particularly simple way to import many forms of data you may acquire from internet sources today.

A final key point about pandas is that both dask and pyspark have a parallel equivalent. Both refer to the equivalent of a pandas data structure as a DataFrame. A large fraction of the pandas API are available in the dask and pyspark DataFrame API. Experienced pandas users may find it helpful in handling large tabular data sets to develop applications with MsPASS that use the DataFrame API to manipulate the tabular data. With dask or pyspark most pandas operations can be parallelized.

Queries (Read of CRUD)

Query language

In my experience the single most important usage of a database like MongoDB in MsPASS research data processing is defining queries to select a subset of data holdings or to define groupings (ensembles) to be processed together. A barrier to usage, however, is that MongoDB uses a unique and rather strange query language that users familiar with a language like SQL will find foreign. Furthermore, the biggest weakness I’ve seen in any online source I’ve found on MongoDB usage is a failure to address the fundamental syntax of the query language. All sources seem to think the best way to understand the language is from examples. That is somewhat true, but many of us find it easier to remember a few basic rules than a long list of incantations. This section is an attempt to provide some simple rules that can, I hope, help you better understand the MongoDB query language. Here are what seem to me to be the fundamental rules:

  1. All queries use a python dictionary to contain the instructions.

  2. The key of a dictionary used for query normally refers to an attribute in documents of the collection being queried. There is an exception for the logical OR and logical AND operators (discussed below).

  3. The “value” of each key-value pair is normally itself a python dictionary. The contents of the dictionary define a simple language (Mongo Query Language) that resolves True for a match and False if there is no match. The key point is the overall expression the query dictionary has to resolve to a boolean condition.

  4. The keys of the dict containers that are on the value side of a query dict are normally operators. Operators are defined with strings that begin with the “$” symbol.

  5. Simple queries are a single key-value pair with the value either a constant or a dictionary with a single operator key. e.g. to a test for the “sta” attribute being the constant “AAK” the query could be either {“sta” : “AAK”} or {“sta” : {“$eq” : “AAK”}}. The form with constant value only works for “$eq”.

  6. Compound queries (e.g. time interval expressions) have a value with multiple operator keys.

  7. There is an implied logical AND operation between multiple key operations. An OR must be specified differently (see below).

In the examples below, refer back to these rules to help you remember these fundamentals.

Query methods

Querying (read) is again a “collection operation”. That is, if we set the symbol db to a MsPASS or MongoDB Database object, the query functions are “methods” of a collection object. (see longer discussion above in the “Create” section) There are three standard methods for the “Read” part of CRUD. We will show examples of all three below.

  1. find_one returns a document that is the first document found matching a query operator.

  2. find returns a MongoDB Cursor object that can be used to iterate through query that returns many documents.

  3. count_documents is a utility function used to bound how many documents match a particular query.

Examples of the use of each of the three functions above:

query={'sta' : 'AAK'}  # shorthand for {'sta' : {'$eq' : 'AAK'}}
doc =
print("First matching document in site collection for query=",query)
print("All documents in site collection for query=",query)
cursor =
for doc in cursor:
n_matches =
print("Number of documents matching query=",query," is ",n_matches)

find and find_one are the basic document-level fetching methods. The examples above show the most common, simple usage. Both, however, actually have three positional arguments with defaults you should be aware of.

  1. arg0 defines the query operator. The default is an empty dictionary that is interpreted as “all”.

  2. arg1 defines a “projection” operator. That means it is expected to be a python dictionary defining what attributes are to be retrieved or excluded from the returned value(s). For RDBMS users a “projection” in MongoDB is like the SELECT clause in SQL. That idea is best illustrated by examples below.

  3. arg2 is an “options” operator. I have personally never found a use for any of the listed options in the MongoDB documentation. I can’t even find an online example so “options” are clearly an example of “an advanced feature” you can ignore until needed.

Note also that a find_one returns only a single “document”, which pymongo converts to a python dictionary. The find method, in contrast returns a pymongo Cursor object. A Cursor is, in the the jargon of data structures, a “forward iterator”. That means it can only be traversed in one direction from the first to last document retrieved by the MongoDB server. There is a rewind method for the cursor object but it is of use largely for interactive debugging.

We will next consider a series of increasingly complicated examples.

Simple (single key) queries

Single key queries are always of the form: {key : expression} where key is the attribute that is to be tested by the query and expression is either: (1) another dictionary or (2) a single value. An example is the same one we used above.

query={'sta' : 'AAK'}
query2={'sta' : {'$eq' : 'AAK'}}

query1 and `query1 are completely equivalent. Both are equality tests for the attribute with the key “sta” matching a particular, unique name “AAK”.

A similar inequality test for waveforms having starttime values after a particular date is the following:

from obspy import UTCDateTime
t_cutoff = UTCDateTime('2012-07-28T00:00:00.00')
# query here needs to convert to a unix epoch time (timestamp method)
# for numerical comparison to work
query = {'starttime' : {'$gt' : t_cutoff.timestamp()}}
cursor = db.wf_miniseed.find(query)

MQL has a rich collection of operators. This page of the MongoDB documentation has the complete list. A particularly useful one for most seismologists that is typically omitted from introductory tutorials is the $regex operator. $regex can be used to apply a unix regular expression in a query operation. Most seismologists are familiar with the regular expression syntax from using the unix shell. The following, for example, could be used to select only PASSCAL temporary experiments from a site collection:

query={'net' : {'$regex' : 'X.'}}

Note that works because of an FDSN convention that net codes starting with “X” are shorter term deployments. Regular expressions are a rich language for text-based filtering. See the link above or do a web search for more examples.

Multiple key queries

A query to test the value of more than one attribute uses a dictionary with multiple keys. In most cases each key defines an attribute to be each tested for matches by the query operation. The key can, however, also sometimes be an operator, in which case the dictionary would be called a “compound query” (see example below). For a normal example, the following can be used to find all documents for all channels for station with net code “II” and station code “PFO”:

query = dict()
query['net'] = 'II'
query['sta'] = 'PFO'
cursor = db.find(query)
for doc in cursor:

I used an explicit code to set the query dict container for instructional purposes. That form emphasizes that query is a python dictionary and the query uses ‘net’ and ‘sta’ attributes. Most online sources use the inline form for defining a python dictionary. That is, the following could be used to replace the query definition above:

query = {'net' : 'II', 'sta' : 'PFO'}

For simple queries the inline form is generally easier. I have found, however, that for complex queries like some examples below the form using key-value setting pairs is less error prone. Complex inline expressions can easily get confused by confusions about which curly backet belongs where.

A final important point about multiple attribute queries is that there is an implied “AND” operations between the dictionary components. For example, the example query above could be stated in works as: net attribute is ‘II’ AND sta attribute is ‘PFO’. A logical “OR” query equivalent requires a compound query (next section).

Compound queries

Compound queries mean multiple conditions applied to one or more attributes. A type example is a very common one in seismology. That is, waveform data are always stored as segments with each segment having a start time (starttime in the stock MsPASS namespace) and ending time (endtime in the MsPASS namespace). We often want to extract a waveform segment with a particular time span from a database indexing an entire dataset. That dataset may be larger windows downloaded previously or an archive of continuous data commonly stored as day files. The problem is complicated by the fact that a requested time window may span the artificial gap at day boundaries in continuous data or data gaps that are marked in the set of wf documents as a break with a particular time window.

With that long introduction, here is an example for a single channel request. In particular, this example reads a month of “LHZ” channel data for station “PFO” and loads the results into a TimeSeriesEnsemble:

from obspy import UTCDateTime
# Example to select the month of June of 2012
tsutc = UTCDateTime('2012-06-01T00:00:00.0')
teutc = UTCDateTime('2012-07-01T00:00:00.0')
query = dict()
query['net'] = 'II'
query['sta'] = 'PFO'
query['chan'] = 'LHZ'
query['loc'] = '00'
query['$and'] = [
   {'starttime' : {'$lte' : te} },
   {'endtime' : {'$gte' : ts} }
cursor = db.wf_miniseed.find(query)
ens = db.read_data(cursor,collection='wf_miniseed')

That is a complex query by any definition, but it illustrates several features of MQL, some of which are new and some of which were discussed earlier:

  1. The dictionary of this key uses both attribute names (‘net’,’sta’,’chan’, and ‘loc’) and an operator (‘$and’).

  2. The four attribute keys defined implied == (equality) matches on the seed channel code keywords. As noted above there is an implied logical AND between the four seed station code matching components. (The “$and” is different.)

  3. Notice the subtle detail that the ‘$and’ operator key is associated with a python list (implied by the [] symbols) instead of a python dict or simple value like all previous examples. The logical AND is applied to all components of the list. This example has two components but it could be as many as needed. The components of the list are MQL dictionary expressions that resolve True or False.

  4. This example shows the application of a query to create a cursor passed to the read_data method of Database. That is the standard way in MsPASS to get a bundle of data we call a TimeSeriesEnsemble. In this case, the ensemble will contain all waveform segments for the LHZ channel of the IRIS-Ida station PFO (loc code 00) that have any samples recorded in the month of June 2012.

A final point for this section is another shorthand allowed in the MQL language. That is, the “$and” operator above is not actually required. The same query as above could, in fact, have been written as follows:

query = {
  'net' : 'II',
  'sta' : 'PFO',
  'chan' : 'LHZ',
  'loc' : '00',
  {'starttime' : {'$lte' : te} },
  {'endtime' : {'$gte' : ts} }

In this case I used the inline syntax because it more clearly shows the point. That is, a query defined by a series of expressions has an implied “AND” logical operator for all separate expressions. For this example, you would say that in words as: net code is II AND sta code is PFO AND channel code is LHZ AND … For that reason the $and opertor above is not actually required. Note, however, if a query logical expression involves an OR clause the list of expressions syntax is required. Here, for example, is a similar query to above with an OR clause. This query would always retrieve horizontal components and handle the obnoxious channel code variation of E,N,Z naming versus 1,2,Z naming. It also drops the “loc” matching and would thus ignore the loc code and retrieve data from all sensors at PFO.

query = {
  'net' : 'II',
  'sta' : 'PFO',
  '$or' : ['chan' : 'LHE', 'chan' : 'LHN', 'chan' : 'LH1', 'chan' : 'LH2'],
  {'starttime' : {'$lte' : te} },
  {'endtime' : {'$gte' : ts} }

Finally, the previous example also can be used to illustrate a clearer solution with the $regex operator. Most $or clauses I’ve encountered are easier to express with a regular expression. The above could thus be express equivalently with this one:

query = {
  'net' : 'II',
  'sta' : 'PFO',
  'chan' :  {'$regex' : 'LH.'},
  {'starttime' : {'$lte' : te} },
  {'endtime' : {'$gte' : ts} }

Geospatial queries

MongoDB has a fairly sophisticated geospatial querying feature. A first order thing you must realize about geospatial indexing is that to be useful two things are required:

  1. The attribute(s) you want to query should be structured into a special data type called a GeoJSON object. The only example packaged that way by MsPASS is the coordinates of seismic instruments stored in the “site” and”channel” collections and source spatial coordinates defined in the standard “source” collection. For all three the “lat” and “lon” keys define the latitude and longitude directly, but copies are stored in a GeoJSON point object with the key location in “site” and “channel” and “epicenter” in “source”. A limitation of MongoDB’s geospatial query engine is it is much like ArcGIS and is tuned to coordinate-based queries. To add a depth constraint requires a compound query mixing geospatial and a range query over depth.

  2. All geospatial queries REQUIRE creating a geospatial index. Most MsPASS users will ALWAYS want to use what MongoDB calls a “2dsphere” index. Their “2d” index uses a map projection and is designed only for local scale software apps at a city scale. The “2d” index is not accurate for the scale of most seismology research problems. An exception is that UTM coordinates may work with a “2d” index, but I have no direct experience with that approach. That could be useful with active source data where survey coordinates often use UTM coordinates.

The most common usage for geespatial queries I know in seismology is limiting the set of seismic instruments and/or sources based on a geographical area. MQL implements geospatial queries as a special type of operator. i.e. the definitions of the query are used like ‘$gt’, ‘$eq’, etc., but use different keywords.

Here is a simple example to retrieve documents from the site collection for all stations within 500 km of my home in Bloomington, Indiana. It is a minor variant of a similar example in the tutorial linked to this page.

query = {"location":{
      '$nearSphere': {
          '$geometry' : {
              'type' : 'Point',
              'coordinates' : [-86.5264, 39.1653]
          '$maxDistance' : 500000.0,
  cursor =
  for doc in cursor:

Note the complex, nested operators that characterize all MongoDB geospatial queries. I trust the verbose names make clear how this query works provided you realize the location of Bloomington is around 39 degrees latitude and the distance parameters have to be defined in meters. Note a few key details:

  1. MQL’s geospatial query language is best done with geoJSON. This example defines a geoJSON point and a search radius. In all cases, the key at the top level of the query is an MQL operator. In this case the operator is “$nearSphere”. Note the first character “$” that is universally used to define a key as an operator in MQL. This example is a typical geospatial query made up of a multi-level document/dictionary with multiple operators at different levels.

  2. The distance specification is in meters and the geographical coordinate data are in degrees. As far as I can tell that is the norm for MongoDB. (Some older sources suggest some operators once used radian units, but that seems to be the distant past.)

  3. Once constructed the query is used like any other dictionary passed to find. This example doesn’t use any projection to keep the example simple, but it could have.

The set of spatial query operators are document in this page of the MongoDB documentation. Most of the complexity is in the second level of attributes passed to the operator specified in geoJSON. That is, for spherical geometry, which I again stress is the only thing you should use, there are only three operator: (1) nearSphere that I illustrated above, and (2) geoWithin used to search inside a specified geometric shape (e.g. a polygon but can be other things), and (3) geoIntersects that “selects documents whose geospatial data intersects with a specified GeoJSON object …”.

Although the spatial query operators are a powerful tool to allow geospatial queries comparable to some elements of a GIS system, there are some major caveats and warnings:

  1. It is quite clear that the geospatial features of MongoDB have evolved significantly in recent years. Why that matters is I find a lot of online sources contain out-of-date information. To make matters worse, MongoDB’s documentation on the topic does a poor job of describing this evolution and older documentation has examples that I found wouldn’t work. That may change, but be warned you are likely in for some hacking.

  2. From what I can glean from fighting with this feature, the current problem was created by a evolution of MongoDB that seems to have begun around 2020. It appears the earliest attempts to add geospatial queries to MongoDB used a “legacy” format to define coordinates. e.g. a specific lon-lat can be specified in “legacy” format like this:{ “coords” : [-102.7724, 33.969601]}. The same information defined in geoJSON is:

    { "coords" :
          "type": "Point",
          "coordinates": [

    From my experience you should avoid the legacy format and only use geoJSON specifications in MongoDB documents. To make that easier there is a convenience function in the mspasspy.db.database module called geoJSON_doc. It can be used to create the obscure document structure MongoDB requires for simple lat,lon point data.

  3. A limitation of the (current) MongoDB implementation is the count_documents method does not seem to work for any valid query I can construct. Internet chatter suggests that is the norm. I have found count_documents a useful tool to test a query while developing a workflow script. Since all geospatial queries are complex by almost any definition that is problematic. I find that to debug a geospatial query it is helpful to isolate the query in a jupyter notebook box run it until the query runs without an error. The example code block immediately above is a good model. Use the same structure, but remove the print loop until you get the query to work.

I would stress that in spite of these caveats, the integration of geospatial query functions in the MongoDB are an important functionality that can simplify a lot of research workflows. If your work requires any kind of geospatial grouping, it is worth investing the effort to understand MongoDB’s geospatial operators and how we use them in MsPASS.


There are many situations where an algorithm using input from a MongoDB query requires a list sorted by one or more keys. Defining a sort is straightforward but a little bit weird until you understand the logic. It will be easier to explain that with a simple example. Here is a query that returns a cursor to retrieve documents defining LHZ waveforms from station PFO (it uses a duplicate of one of the compound queries from above) but this time we sort the result by starttime (a type example of a sort requirement):

# ts and te are epoch times defing the time range as above
query = {
  'net' : 'II',
  'sta' : 'PFO',
  'chan' : 'LHZ',
  'loc' : '00',
  {'starttime' : {'$le' : te} },
  {'endtime' : {'$ge' : ts} }
cursor = db.wf_miniseed.find(query).sort("starttime",1)
ens = db.read_data(cursor,collection='wf_miniseed')

There are two key points this example illustrates:

  1. sort is defined as a “method” of the “Cursor” object returned by find. That is more than a little weird but a common construct in python which is an object-oriented language. Most of us can remember it better by just thinking of it as a clause added after find and separated by the “.” symbol. Because it is a method of cursor the sort clause could have been expressed as another statement after the find operator done like this: cursor = cursor.sort(“starttime,1)”)

  2. The sort expression for a single key can be thought of as calling a function with two arguments. The first is the key to use for the sort and the second defines the direction of the sort. Here I used “1” which means sort into an ascending sequence. When the result is passed to the read_data it guarantees the waveforms in the ensemble created by read_data will be in increasing starttime order. You would use -1 if you wanted to sort in descending order. (Note: some sources will use the verbose symbols pymongo.ASCENDING instead of 1 and pymongo.DESCENDING instead of -1. For me 1 and -1 are a lot easier to remember.) In a typical python way there is also a default for the sort order of 1. i.e. in the sort call above we could have omitted the second argument.

Sorting on multiple keys requires a slightly different syntax. Again, an example will make this clearer. This code segment prints a report for the entire contents of the channel collection sorted by seed channel code:

sort_clause = [
cursor =
cursor = cursor.sort(sort_clause)
print("net sta chan loc starttime")
for doc in cursor:
  # conditional to handle common case with loc undefined
  if 'loc' in doc:

The main thing to notice is that when using multiple keys for a sort they must be defined as a python list of python tuples (arrays defined with [] will also work). That usage is potentially confusing for two reasons you should be aware of:

  1. Most examples you will see of a single key sort use just the key name (ascending order is the default) or two arguments version like that I used above. Multiple key sorts require a completely different type for arg0; a python list of tuples.

  2. Most examples you will find in a routine internet search with a phrase like “mongodb sort with mutiple keys” will show the syntax you can use with the “mongo shell”. The problem is that the mongo shell speaks a different language (Javascript) that uses a syntax that looks like it is defining an inline python dictionary definition, but it is not. That is, with the mongo shell the sort above could be written as: {‘net’:1, ‘sta’:1, ‘chan’:1, ‘starttime’:1}. That is not a python dictionary, however, even though the syntax is exactly the same. In Javascript that is a list where the order of the list means something. If that were translated to a python dictionary it would not work because order of input is not preserved in a python dictionary. Hence, the pymongo API has to use a list to preserve order.

Report generators

One of the important applications of queries in MsPASS is to generate a human readable report on the content of a database that is to be used as input for processing. An option for experienced programmers familiar with the incantations of detailed formatting of text output is to create a custom formatting function to generate a report from a cursor input. For mere mortals, however, there are two much simpler options:

  1. For small numbers of documents the json_util package can be useful.

  2. Pandas are your friend for producing output visualized well with a table.

The examples in this section show how to set up both. The related tutorial notebook for this section of the User’s Manual provide hands on examples and why raw output can be ugly.

A typical example of json_util is that you might want to look at the gross structure of one or more documents created by running something like the MsPASS index_mseed_file method of Database. Something like the following can be useful to use in a python notebook run interactively to work out data problems:

from bson import json_util
doc = db.wf_miniseed.find_one()

The indent=2 argument is essential to create an output that is more readable than what would be otherwise produced by the much simpler to write expression print(doc).

Many quality control reports are conveniently visualized with a well formatted table display. As noted above pandas are your friend in creating such a report. Here is an example that creates a report of all stations listed in the site collection with coordinates and the time range of recording. It is a variant of a code block in our mongodb_tutorial

import pandas{})
for doc in cursor:
  # Not essential, but produces a more readable table with date strings
df = pandas.DataFrame.from_dict(doclist)

Saves (Create of CRUD)

The first letter of CRUD is the save operation. A save of some kind is usually the first thing one does in building a seismic dataset as there needs to be some what to populate the database collections. Our “getting_started” tutorial illustrates the most common workflow: populating the “site”, “channel”, “source”, and (usually) “wf_miniseed”. This section focuses more on the general problem of loading some other data that doesn’t match the standard mspass schema. An example, which we use for the hands on supplement to this section in our notebook tutorials, is downloading and loading the current CMT catalog and loading it into a nonstandard collection we all “CMT”. In this manual we focus on the fundamentals of the pymongo API for saving documents. See the mongodb_tutorial for the examples.

There are two methods of Database.collection that you can use to save “documents” in a MongoDB collection. They are:

  1. insert_one as the name implies is used to save one and only one document. It is usually run with one argument that is assumed to be a python dictionary containing the name-value pairs that define the document to be saved and subsequently managed by MongoDB.

  2. insert_many is used to insert multiple documents. It expects to receive a python list of dictionaries as arg0 each of which is like input sent to insert_one.

An important thing to realize is that insert_many is not at all the same thing as running a loop like this:

# Wrong way to do insert_many
for doc in doclist:

The reason is that the loop above does an independent transaction for each document and the loop blocks until the MongoDB server acknowledges success. insert_many, in contrast, does a bulk update. It automatically breaks up the list into chunk sizes it handles as one transaction. With a large save insert_many can be orders of magnitude faster than the same number of one-at-a-time transactions.

Here is a partial example of save from the related tutorial notebook:

doclist = ndk2docs(fname)
print("Number of CMT records in file=",fname,' is ',len(doclist))
print("Number of documents in CMT collection is now ",n)

Updates (U of CRUD)

Updates have a similar API to the insert/create API. That is, there are again two different collection methods:

  1. update_one is used to replace all or some of the data in one document.

  2. update_many is used to replace all or some attributes of many documents in a single transaction.

There is, however, a special feature called a bulk_write that can be useful in some situations. I cover that more specialized function at the end of this section.

Although they have options, both update_one and update_many are usually called with two arguments. arg0 is an MQL matching query and arg1 defines what is to be changed/added. The only real difference between update_one and update_many is that update_one will only change the first occurrence it finds if the match query is not unique. For that reason, update_one is most commonly used with an ObjectId match key. For example, this segment would be a (slow) way to add a cross-reference id link to wf_TimeSeries documents with documents from a channel collection created by loading from an Antelope sitechan table. It uses the foreign key “chanid” in CSS3.0 to find a record and then uses update_one to set the MsPASS standard cross-reference name channel_id in wf_TimeSeries.

# some previous magic has been assumed to have set chanid in
# wf_TimeSeries (feasible with a CSS3.0 wfdisc table)
# This examplei is for illustration only and is not of direct use
cursor = db.wf_TimeSeries.find({})
for doc in cursor:
  if 'chanid' in doc:
    chandoc ={'chanid' : doc['chanid']})
    # find_one failures return None so this is a test for a valid return
    if chandoc:
      cid = chandoc['_id']
      wfid = doc['_id']
      db.wf_TimeSeries.update_one({'_id' : wfid},{'channel_id' : cid })

The update_many method is more commonly used with more complex queries to set a constant for the group of documents. The example below uses update_many to build source cross-reference ids for a dataset created by extracting waveforms using event origin times as the start times. We can then do a match (arg0) using a range test with a small tolerance around the origin time. This fragment, unlike the update_one example, is a useful prototype for a common organization of a dataset that initiates from common source gathers:

# define a +- range relative to origin time for starttime
# loop over all source records to drive this process
cursor = db.source.find({})
for doc in cursor:
  otime = doc['time']
  ts = otime - ot_range
  te = otime + ot_range
  match_query = {
    'starttime' : {
      {'$gte'  ts, '$lte' : te}
  srcid = doc['_id']  # ObjectId of this source document
  update_doc = {'source_id' : srcid}

Finally, a more advanced approach that is useful for large numbers of random updates with a large data set is the pymongo collection method called bulk_write. An example of how to use this method can be found in the MsPASS function bulk_normalize. Briefly, the idea is to manually build up blocks of atomic-level updates. That approach is necessary only in the case where there is no simple recipe for creating smaller number of matching operators like my insert_many example above. That is, the bulk_normalize function uses does unique matches for each wf document with an object_id. It makes sense in that context because it assumes the matching was done externally with one of the MsPASS matchers.

Delete (D of CRUD)

As noted elsewhere, we take the position that for most design uses of MsPASS delete operations should be rare. To reiterate, the reason is that MsPASS was designed with the idea that the database is used to manage an assembled data set. Appending more data is expected to be the norm, but deleting data unusual. For most cases, for example, it is easier to rebuild something like a wf_miniseed collection than design a deletion operation to selectively remove some data. Nonetheless, that statement motivates the example we give below.

The API for deletion has a strong parallel to insert and update. That is, there are two basic method: delete_one deletes one document and delete_many can be used to delete a set of documents matching a query defined with arg0.

As an example, suppose we have a large dataset assembled into Seismogram objects indexed with wf_Seismogram and we find station “XYZ” had something fundamentally wrong with it for the entire duration of the dataset. Assume “XYZ” doesn’t require a “net” qualifier to be unique this code fragment could be used to delete all entries for “XYZ”. It is complicated by a bit by the fact that multiple site entries can occur for the same station due to time-dependent metadata:

cursor ={'sta': 'XYZ'})
for doc in cursor:
  sid = doc['_id']
  query = {'site_id' : sid}
  n = db.wf_Seismogram.count_documents(query)
  print("Number of documents to be deleted for station XYZ =",n)
  print("for time period ",UTCDateTime(doc['starttime']),UTCDateTime(doc['endtime']))


An index is desirable in any database system to improve read performance. Without an index a query requires a linear search through the entire database to find matching records. As a result read and update performance on any database system can be improved by orders of magnitude with a properly constructed index. On the other hand, an indexes can slow write performance significantly. I have found that in data processing with MsPASS there are two primary uses of indices: (1) normalizing collections, and (2) ensemble processing (index is the key(s) used for grouping). Both fit the constraint above. In particular, the model you should use is to build the index(indices) as the last phase before running the workflow on an assembled data set.

A first point to recognize is that MongoDB ALWAYS defines an index on the magic attribute key “_id” for any collection. Any additional index needs to be created with the collection method called create_index. The index can be defined for one or more keys and set to define an increasing or decreasing sequence. e.g. the following will create an index on the channel collection appropriate for miniseed metadata that require at least the four keys used to provide a unique match:
  ("sta", pymongo.DESCENDING),

Note arg0 is a list of attribute names and/or 2-element tuples. Tuples are needed only if the default ascending order is to be switch to descending. I did that for illustration above for “sta”, but it wouldn’t normally be necessary.

There are two utility functions for managing indexes in a collection:

  1. list_indexes returns a Cursor that can be iterated to show details of all indexes defined for a collection. e.g. the above section to create a special index for channel might be followed by this line to verify it worked:

cursor =
for doc in cursor:
  1. There is a delete_index that can be used to remove an index from a collection. It uses the index name that is returned on creation by create_index or can be obtained by running list_indexes.

A final point about indexes is special case of “geospatial indexes” discussed above. A geospatial index is a very different thing than a “normal” index on one or more keys. Consult online sources if you need to learn more about that topic.