CSV Downloads from Web Apps

One of the users of an intranet app I maintain was using copy/paste to put data from the app into Excel. She asked if there was a better way. The pages she was copying from have tables of datastore objects, so adding a CSV download feature was an obvious solution. Providing that feature turned out to be pretty easy with the help of the StringIO and csv modules in the standard library.

While the code below is from a Pylons controller class, I can't see it being difficult to implement this in Django, Pyramid, or other web framework stacks.

The request handler for the CSV download looks like:

import cString
import csv

def csv_download(self, ...):
    csv_buffer = cStringIO.StringIO()
    csv_writer = csv.writer(csv_buffer)
    header = self._build csv_header(...)
    query_result = self.get_data_for_csv(...)
    for result in query_result:
        row = self._build_csv_row(result)
    content = csv_buffer.getvalue()
    response.content_type = 'text/csv; charset=utf-8'
    response.content_disposition = (
        'attachment; filename="your_file.csv"')
    return content

This method uses StringIO to set up a file-like memory buffer, and instantiates a default CSV writer to write to the buffer. Next we build the header row and write it to the buffer. Then we get an iterator for the content that we want to write the the CSV file from the datastore, and format and write it to the buffer, one line at a time. Finally we get the CSV data from the buffer, set the response headers appropriately, and return the CSV data for download.

One thing I'm uncertain about: Is it necessary to explicitly call close method on a StringIO instance, or could I just do:

return csv_buffer.getvalue()

and let garbage collection take care of releasing the memory allocated for csv_buffer?

To get Excel to play nice with UTF-8 encoded data it's necessary to include 3 specific bytes as a Byte Order Mark (BOM) at the beginning of the file. I did that by prepending them to the heading string for the first column:

def _build_csv_header(self, ...)
    UTF_8_BOM = '\xef\xbb\xbf'
    header = [
        UTF_8_BOM + 'Column 1 Heading',
    return header

Building the content for each row of the CSV file is just a matter of formatting each query result into an array of strings. Fields containing non-ASCII characters stored as Unicode need to be encoded to UTF-8:

def _build_csv_row(self, result)
    row = [
    return row

I had an additional complication to deal with. The data for one of the CSV columns is stored in the database as HTML fragments that may contain non-ASCII characters. That data had to be rendered to Unicode before it could be added to the CSV row (encoded as UTF-8). It turns out that the Python standard library provides a fairly painless way of handling that complication too, but I'll leave that for another post.

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