Digital geospatial data are encoded as alphanumeric symbols that represent locations and attributes of locations measured at or near Earth's surface. No geographic data set represents every possible location, of course. The Earth is too big, and the number of unique locations is too great. In much the same way that public opinion is measured through polls, geographic data are constructed by measuring representative samples of locations. Just as serious opinion polls are based on sound principles of statistical sampling, geographic data represent reality by measuring carefully chosen samples of locations. Vector and raster data are, in essence, two distinct sampling strategies.
The vector approach involves sampling locations at intervals along the length of linear entities (like roads), or around the perimeter of areal entities (like property parcels). When they are connected by lines, the sampled points form line features and polygon features that approximate the shapes of their real-world counterparts.
The aerial photograph in Figure 2.8 shows two entities, a reservoir and a highway. The graphic in Figure 2.8 illustrates how the entities might be represented with vector data. The small squares are nodes—point locations specified by latitude and longitude coordinates. Line segments connect nodes to form line features. In this case, the line feature colored red represents the highway. Series of line segments that begin and end at the same node form polygon features. In this case, two polygons (filled with blue) represent the reservoir.
The vector data model is how surveyors measure locations at intervals as they traverse a property boundary. Computer-aided drafting (CAD) software used by surveyors, engineers, and others, stores data in vector form. CAD operators encode the locations and extents of entities by tracing maps mounted on electronic drafting tables, or by key-entering location coordinates, angles, and distances. Instead of graphic features, CAD data consist of digital features, each of which is composed of a set of point locations.
The vector strategy is well suited to mapping entities with well-defined edges, such as highways or pipelines or property parcels. Many of the features shown on paper maps, including contour lines, transportation routes, and political boundaries, can be represented effectively in digital form using the vector data model.
The raster approach involves sampling attributes at fixed intervals. Each sample represents one cell in a checkerboard-shaped grid. Figure 2.9 illustrates a raster representation of the same reservoir and highway as shown in the vector representation. The area covered by the aerial photograph has been divided into a grid. Every grid cell that overlaps one of the two selected entities is encoded with an attribute that associates it with the entity it represents. Actual raster data would not consist of a picture of red and blue grid cells, of course; they would consist of a list of numbers, one number for each grid cell, each number representing an entity. For example, grid cells that represent the highway might be coded with the number "1" and grid cells representing the reservoir might be coded with the number "2."
The raster strategy is a smart choice for representing phenomena that lack clear-cut boundaries, such as terrain elevation, vegetation, and precipitation. Digital airborne imaging systems, which are replacing photographic cameras as primary sources of detailed geographic data, produce raster data by scanning the Earth's surface pixel by pixel and row by row.
Both the vector and raster approaches accomplish the same thing—they allow us to caricature the Earth's surface with a limited number of locations. What distinguishes the two is the sampling strategies they embody. The vector approach is like creating a picture of a landscape with shards of stained glass cut to various shapes and sizes. The raster approach, by contrast, is more like creating a mosaic with tiles of uniform size. Neither is well suited to all applications, however. Several variations on the vector and raster themes are in use for specialized applications, and the development of new object-oriented approaches is underway.
Note: Some or all of the above content is used with permission from GEOG 482—The Nature of Geographic Information, Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and licensed for use under CC BY 3.0.