Google Cloud Platform
App Engine

Extending Model Properties

Rafe Kaplan, Software Engineer
August 2008


The App Engine DB library provides you with most of what you need to store any kind of data you would like in the datastore through its range of property types. Occasionally, these types are not adequate for representing a new piece of information and it would be nice if you could write your own types. It turns out you can! This article will tell you what you need to know to get started making your own properties.

When exactly was my grandpa born?

In a previous article on modeling entity relationships I demonstrated how to build a contacts model for a simple address book feature of an application. This address book allowed the user to capture information about people they knew, including their name, date of birth, phone numbers and addresses. For a while, this model works pretty well, and is good at capturing the structure of contacts and their relationship to things. If I were using this application, however, I would run in to problems when I was ready to enter information for my grandpa into my address book.

In the old days (and in some countries today) people are less precise when it comes to things like dates and times. My grandpa was born in such a time and place. The only thing we know about his date of birth is that it was some time during the month of November in 1904. One easy thing we could do is just enter his birth date as 11/1/1904. However, if you're like me (and suffer from a mild form of OCD) you would prefer to have a way to store the date in a way that shows that it is imprecise, and not to place the day arbitrarily on November 1st. Since the DateProperty type is not able to represent imprecise dates, it would be nice to implement a date type that correctly models missing information and be able to put it in the datastore.

Let's take a moment to revisit this class definition. Here is the basic Contact class containing only the contact's personal information.

class Contact(db.Model):

    # Basic info.
    name = db.StringProperty()
    birth_day = db.DateProperty()

We need to create a class that we can use to define the birth_day property to use instead of DateProperty.

A fuzzy date

A really simple way to represent a missing part of a date is if you could set one or more of the fields to zero to indicate that this information is missing. So, in the case of my grandfather's date of birth, we could represent it at 11/0/1904. Similarly, let's say his brother was born two years afterward, but we don't even know what month. We could simply indicate the while year as 0/0/1906. First, lets create a class to keep dates like this in memory. Mind you, this is just an ordinary Python object that we can use in our application.

class FuzzyDate(object):

    def __init__(self, year=0, month=0, day=0):
        self.year = year
        self.month = month = day

    def has_day(self):
        return > 0

    def has_month(self):
        return self.month > 0

    def has_year(self):
        return self.year > 0

    def __str__(self):
        if self.has_day():
            return '%02d/%02d/%04d' % (self.month, self. day, self.year)
        if self.has_month():
            return '%02d/%04d' % (self.month, self.year)
        if self.has_year():
            return '%04d' % self.year
        return 'Unknown'

    def __not__(self):
        return (not(self.has_year() or
                self.has_month() or

Putting fuzzy dates in the datastore

Representing fuzzy dates by replacing unknown fields with zero has the additional benefit of being capable of storage as a simple packed integer. For example, the number 19041100 represents November of 1904.

A date converted to a number this way has the added advantage of automatically being sorted correctly!

You could add a method to the FuzzyDate class that would tell it how to convert itself to and from this kind of encoded integer and then just use an IntegerProperty on your model. The problem with that, however, is you would have to convert the FuzzyDate to an integer whenever you assigned it to a property on a Contact object and then back again whenever you wanted to use it! It would be better if App Engine DB could be taught how to automatically convert a FuzzyDate to and from and integer when it saved and loaded your model from the datastore. To do this, you need to create a sub-class of Property that will mediate between your FuzzyDate class and the datastore.

To create a new property type, simply extend Property from the App Engine DB library and override these four attributes:

get_value_for_datastore Extract the value from a model instance and convert it to one the type that goes in the datastore.
make_value_from_datastore Convert a value as found in the datastore to your new user type.
validate (optional) Called when an assignment is made to a property to make sure that it is compatible with your assigned attributes.
empty (optional) Used to indicate to the datastore whether a given user type value is 'empty' and should be stored as None.

You also need to indicate to the datastore what your user type will be by specifying a data_type class attribute.

We can define a FuzzyDateProperty like so:

class FuzzyDateProperty(db.Property):

    # Tell what the user type is.
    data_type = FuzzyDate

    # For writing to datastore.
    def get_value_for_datastore(self, model_instance):
        date = super(FuzzyDateProperty,
        return (date.year * 10000) + (date.month * 100) +

    # For reading from datastore.
    def make_value_from_datastore(self, value):
        if value is None:
            return None
        return FuzzyDate(year=value / 10000,
                         month=(value / 100) % 100,
                         day=value % 100)

    def validate(self, value):
        if value is not None and not isinstance(value, FuzzyDate):
            raise BadValueError('Property %s must be convertible '
                                'to a FuzzyDate instance (%s)' %
                                (, value))
        return super(FuzzyDateProperty, self).validate(value)

    def empty(self, value):
        return not value

Using FuzzyDateProperty in a model

Now that we have defined FuzzyDate and FuzzyDateProperty that can work with the datastore, we are ready to use the FuzzyDateProperty in our model.  Here is the Contact model using the FuzzyDateProperty instead of the built-in DateProperty:

class Contact(db.Model):

    # Basic info.
    name = db.StringProperty()
    birth_day = FuzzyDateProperty()

Now when we create Contact objects, we assign them FuzzyDate birthdays rather than the normal precise ones. For example, I might create my grandpa like this:

grandpa = Contact(name='Milton', birth_day=FuzzyDate(1904, 11))

Searching for fuzzy dates using GQL

Right now, there is no way to extend GQL so that it is easy to look for custom types. In some cases, this might make it very difficult to write GQL to search for records using the new data-type. Luckily, searching fuzzy dates is not very difficult as long as you realize that you are searching over integers in the datastore.

So, for example, let's say I wanted to find everyone that was born before 1950. I could write a GQL query to do that like this:

Contact.gql('WHERE birth_day < 19500000')

Let's say I wanted to find everyone born in the same year as my grandpa.  It's a little more complicated:

Contact.gql('WHERE birth_day < 19050000 AND birth_day >= 19040000')

And that's when my grandpa was born, more or less

As has been demonstrated it is possible to customize App Engine models to work more closely with your custom data types by extending and using the Property class. In this article we were able to create a new custom type with a simple storage representation, make a new Property sub-class to mediate between this type and the datastore, use it in a model and perform searches over it.