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GIS Interpolation for beginners

GIS Interpolation for beginners

In this discussion, we will explore the different interpolation methods available in GIS, including Inverse Distance Weighting (IDW), Spline Interpolation, Kriging, Natural Neighbor Interpolation, Triangular Interpolation, and Multi-Linear Interpolation. We will also discuss how to choose the appropriate interpolation method for a given application and how to incorporate additional information and constraints into the interpolation process. Finally, we will explore methods for evaluating the accuracy and reliability of interpolation results.

Whether you are a GIS analyst, geoscientist, or simply interested in mapping and spatial analysis, this discussion will provide a comprehensive overview of interpolation and its applications in GIS.

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What is interpolation in a GIS context?

In a GIS context, interpolation is the process of estimating the value of a variable at locations where it has not been directly measured, based on the known values at surrounding sample points. The estimated values are used to create a continuous surface that can be used for mapping and analysis purposes. Interpolation techniques can be either deterministic or geostatistical.

Deterministic methods include techniques such as inverse distance weighting and spline interpolation, which use mathematical algorithms to estimate the values based on the proximity of the sample points. Geostatistical methods, such as kriging, model the spatial dependence of the variable and take into account the spatial autocorrelation to produce more accurate interpolated surfaces.

Common interpolation techniques

  1. Inverse Distance Weighting (IDW): This is a deterministic interpolation method that estimates the value of a cell based on the inverse distance to surrounding sample points.
  2. Triangular Interpolation: A deterministic method that interpolates the data using a triangular irregular network (TIN)
  3. Spline Interpolation: A deterministic method that uses spline functions to interpolate the data.
  4. Kriging: A geostatistical interpolation method that models the spatial dependence of the data and takes into account the spatial autocorrelation.
  5. Natural Neighbor Interpolation: A deterministic method that uses a weighted average of the values of surrounding sample points to estimate the value of a cell.
  6. Multi-Linear Interpolation: A deterministic method that estimates the value of a cell based on a weighted average of the values of surrounding sample points using linear functions.

Inverse Distance Weighting (IDW) Interpolation

Inverse Distance Weighting (IDW) is a type of interpolation method that is used to estimate the value of a continuous surface at unsampled locations based on the values of surrounding sample points. IDW works by assigning a weight to each sample point based on its distance to the target location, and the weights are used to estimate the value at the target location as a weighted average of the values of the surrounding sample points.

The basic idea behind IDW is that closer sample points should have a higher influence on the estimate than more distant sample points. The weight assigned to each sample point is proportional to the inverse of the distance between the sample point and the target location, hence the name “Inverse Distance Weighting.”

Here is how IDW works in more detail:

  1. Input Data: The input data for IDW is a set of sample points with known values, along with the location and the value of each sample point.
  2. Weight Calculation: For each target location, the distance between the target location and each sample point is calculated. The weight assigned to each sample point is then calculated as the inverse of the distance, raised to a power, which is usually set to 2.
  3. Estimation: The estimated value at the target location is then calculated as a weighted average of the values of the surrounding sample points, where the weights are determined by the inverse distances.
  4. Output: The output of the IDW process is a continuous surface that represents the estimated values at every location in the area of interest.

IDW is a simple and widely used interpolation method that is suitable for many applications, particularly in cases where the data is relatively homogeneous and the sample points are widely distributed. However, IDW has some limitations, such as a tendency to over-smooth the data and to produce artifacts in areas with high spatial variability, which can be addressed by using more advanced interpolation methods such as Kriging or Spline interpolation.

It’s important to note that the accuracy and suitability of the outputs depend on the quality of the inputs and the method used. Different interpolation techniques have their strengths and weaknesses and the choice of method should be based on the specific requirements of each project.

Spline Interpolation

Spline Interpolation is a type of interpolation method that uses mathematical functions called splines to estimate the value of a continuous surface at unsampled locations based on the values of surrounding sample points. Spline interpolation is a flexible and smooth method that can be used to model complex relationships between variables, and it is particularly useful in cases where the sample points have high spatial variability or complex spatial patterns.

Here is how Spline Interpolation works in more detail:

  1. Input Data: The input data for spline interpolation is a set of sample points with known values, along with the location and the value of each sample point.
  2. Spline Function: A mathematical spline function is fit to the sample points, which is used to estimate the value of the surface at every location in the area of interest. The spline function can be defined in various ways, including cubic splines, natural splines, and thin-plate splines, each of which has different properties and is suited for different types of data and applications.
  3. Estimation: The estimated value at any location in the area of interest is obtained by evaluating the spline function at that location. The spline function is defined in such a way that it fits the sample points and provides a smooth and continuous estimate of the surface.
  4. Output: The output of the spline interpolation process is a continuous surface that represents the estimated values at every location in the area of interest.

Spline interpolation is a powerful and widely used interpolation method that is suitable for many applications, particularly in cases where the sample points have high spatial variability or complex spatial patterns. However, spline interpolation can also introduce over-fitting and under-fitting problems, particularly in cases where the sample points are sparse or the distribution of the sample points is not representative of the underlying pattern. To address these problems, it is important to choose an appropriate spline function and to carefully consider the sample points used for the interpolation.

Kriging Interpolation

Kriging is a type of geostatistical interpolation method that uses statistical models to estimate the value of a continuous surface at unsampled locations based on the values of surrounding sample points. Kriging is a powerful and flexible method that can be used to model complex spatial relationships between variables, and it is particularly useful in cases where the sample points have a spatial autocorrelation structure.

Here is how Kriging works in more detail:

  1. Input Data: The input data for Kriging is a set of sample points with known values, along with the location and the value of each sample point.
  2. Statistical Modeling: The first step in Kriging is to build a statistical model that describes the spatial autocorrelation structure of the data. This is typically done by calculating the semivariogram, which is a measure of the spatial autocorrelation between the sample points. The semivariogram is used to fit a theoretical model, such as an exponential, spherical, or Gaussian model, which is then used to describe the spatial autocorrelation structure of the data.
  3. Estimation: The next step in Kriging is to estimate the value of the surface at any unsampled location based on the values of the surrounding sample points. This is done by using the statistical model and the sample points to calculate the weights assigned to each sample point, which are used to estimate the value at the target location as a weighted average of the values of the surrounding sample points.
  4. Output: The output of the Kriging process is a continuous surface that represents the estimated values at every location in the area of interest.

Kriging is a widely used and powerful interpolation method that is particularly well-suited for modeling complex spatial relationships between variables and for estimating the values of continuous surfaces in areas with high spatial variability. However, Kriging requires a good understanding of geostatistics and can be computationally intensive, particularly in cases where the sample points are densely distributed. To address these issues, it is important to choose an appropriate statistical model and to carefully consider the sample points used for the interpolation.

Natural Neighbor Interpolation

Natural Neighbor Interpolation is a type of interpolation method that uses a weighted average of the values of the surrounding sample points to estimate the value of a continuous surface at unsampled locations. Natural Neighbor Interpolation is based on the concept of Voronoi diagrams, which divide the space into regions based on the proximity of sample points.

Here is how Natural Neighbor Interpolation works in more detail:

  1. Input Data: The input data for Natural Neighbor Interpolation is a set of sample points with known values, along with the location and the value of each sample point.
  2. Voronoi Diagrams: The first step in Natural Neighbor Interpolation is to calculate the Voronoi diagram for the sample points, which divides the space into regions based on the proximity of the sample points. Each region is defined as a set of locations that are closer to one sample point than to any other sample point.
  3. Estimation: The next step in Natural Neighbor Interpolation is to estimate the value of the surface at any unsampled location based on the values of the surrounding sample points. This is done by using the Voronoi diagram to determine which sample points are the natural neighbors of the target location and then using a weighted average of the values of these natural neighbors to estimate the value at the target location.
  4. Output: The output of the Natural Neighbor Interpolation process is a continuous surface that represents the estimated values at every location in the area of interest.

Natural Neighbor Interpolation is a flexible and computationally efficient interpolation method that is particularly well-suited for modeling complex spatial relationships between variables. However, Natural Neighbor Interpolation can be sensitive to the distribution of sample points and can introduce over-fitting or under-fitting problems, particularly in cases where the sample points are sparse or the distribution of the sample points is not representative of the underlying pattern. To address these problems, it is important to carefully consider the sample points used for the interpolation.

Triangular Interpolation

Triangular Interpolation is a type of interpolation method that uses Delaunay triangulation to estimate the value of a continuous surface at unsampled locations based on the values of surrounding sample points. Delaunay triangulation is a method of dividing a set of points into non-overlapping triangles such that no sample point is inside the circumcircle of any triangle.

Here is how Triangular Interpolation works in more detail:

  1. Input Data: The input data for Triangular Interpolation is a set of sample points with known values, along with the location and the value of each sample point.
  2. Delaunay Triangulation: The first step in Triangular Interpolation is to calculate the Delaunay triangulation for the sample points, which divides the space into non-overlapping triangles based on the proximity of the sample points.
  3. Estimation: The next step in Triangular Interpolation is to estimate the value of the surface at any unsampled location based on the values of the surrounding sample points. This is done by using the Delaunay triangulation to determine which triangle the target location is inside and then using barycentric interpolation to estimate the value at the target location as a weighted average of the values of the vertices of the triangle.
  4. Output: The output of the Triangular Interpolation process is a continuous surface that represents the estimated values at every location in the area of interest.

Triangular Interpolation is a fast and computationally efficient interpolation method that is particularly well-suited for cases where the sample points are densely distributed. However, Triangular Interpolation can produce over-fitting or under-fitting problems, particularly in cases where the sample points are sparse or the distribution of the sample points is not representative of the underlying pattern. To address these problems, it is important to carefully consider the sample points used for the interpolation.

Multi-Linear Interpolation

Multi-Linear Interpolation is a type of interpolation method that uses a piecewise linear approximation to estimate the value of a continuous surface at unsampled locations based on the values of surrounding sample points. In Multi-Linear Interpolation, the surface is represented as a series of plane segments, each connecting two or more sample points.

Here is how Multi-Linear Interpolation works in more detail:

  1. Input Data: The input data for Multi-Linear Interpolation is a set of sample points with known values, along with the location and the value of each sample point.
  2. Surface Approximation: The first step in Multi-Linear Interpolation is to approximate the surface as a series of plane segments connecting the sample points. This can be done using methods such as Delaunay triangulation or k-nearest neighbors to determine the sample points to be used in each plane segment.
  3. Estimation: The next step in Multi-Linear Interpolation is to estimate the value of the surface at any unsampled location based on the values of the surrounding sample points. This is done by using the location of the target location relative to the plane segments to estimate the value as a weighted average of the values of the sample points that define the plane segments.
  4. Output: The output of the Multi-Linear Interpolation process is a continuous surface that represents the estimated values at every location in the area of interest.

Multi-Linear Interpolation is a fast and computationally efficient interpolation method that is well-suited for cases where the sample points are densely distributed. However, Multi-Linear Interpolation can produce over-fitting or under-fitting problems, particularly in cases where the sample points are sparse or the distribution of the sample points is not representative of the underlying pattern. To address these problems, it is important to carefully consider the sample points used for the interpolation.

Are heat maps a form of interpolation?

Heat maps can be considered a form of interpolation in the sense that they are used to represent the density or distribution of data points over an area. Heat maps use color to represent the density of data points in a given area, with hotter colors representing higher densities and cooler colors representing lower densities.

Heat maps are typically generated by transforming the original data points into a grid of cells, with each cell representing a small area on the map. The value of each cell is then calculated as a function of the number of data points contained in that cell. This can be done using methods such as kernel density estimation (KDE) or inverse distance weighting (IDW) interpolation.

The result of this process is a continuous surface that represents the estimated density of data points over the entire area of interest. This surface can be represented as a raster image, where each cell is colored according to the density value, or as a vector image, where the density is represented as a set of contour lines.

Choosing the appropriate interpolation method depends on several factors, including:

  1. The type of data: Different interpolation methods are better suited for different types of data, such as points, lines, polygons, or raster data.
  2. The nature of the relationship between the variables: Some methods are better suited for linear relationships, while others are better suited for non-linear relationships.
  3. The spatial continuity of the data: Some methods, such as Kriging, are designed to preserve spatial continuity, while others, such as Inverse Distance Weighting (IDW), may produce results that are less spatially smooth.
  4. The accuracy required: Some methods, such as Spline Interpolation, can produce very accurate results, but may require a large number of data points, while others, such as Natural Neighbor Interpolation, may be less accurate but require fewer data points.
  5. The computational resources available: Some methods, such as Kriging, can be computationally intensive, while others, such as IDW, are relatively fast and simple to implement.
  6. The scale of the data: Some methods, such as Triangular Interpolation, are well suited for small-scale data, while others, such as Kriging, can be applied to large-scale data.

In general, it is recommended to use multiple interpolation methods and compare their results to determine the most appropriate method for a given dataset. This can be done by comparing the results to a set of validation data, or by assessing the spatial continuity and accuracy of the results.

Interpolation in 3D and with multivariate data can be performed using a variety of methods, including:

  1. Kriging: Kriging can be extended to 3D to handle multiple variables by modeling the covariance between the variables. This requires a more complex mathematical model and may be more computationally intensive than 2D or univariate interpolation.
  2. Multivariate Spline Interpolation: Multivariate spline interpolation involves modeling the relationship between multiple variables using spline functions. This method can handle multivariate data but may require a large number of data points to produce accurate results.
  3. Multivariate Natural Neighbor Interpolation: Multivariate natural neighbor interpolation is similar to natural neighbor interpolation, but can handle multiple variables. This method uses a Delaunay triangulation to estimate the values at unsampled locations based on the values of the surrounding sample points.
  4. Multiple Regression: Multiple regression is a statistical method that can be used to model the relationship between multiple independent variables and a dependent variable. This method can be used to perform interpolation with multivariate data but may be less suitable for data with complex relationships.
  5. Artificial Neural Networks: Artificial neural networks can be used to model complex relationships between multiple variables. This method can be used for interpolation in 3D and with multivariate data, but requires a large amount of training data and may be computationally intensive.

In general, the choice of interpolation method for 3D and multivariate data depends on the nature of the relationship between the variables, the availability of data, and the computational resources available. It is often necessary to try multiple methods and compare their results to determine the most appropriate method for a given dataset.

How to evaluate the accuracy and reliability of interpolation results?

Evaluating the accuracy and reliability of interpolation results is an important step in ensuring that the results are suitable for a given application. Some common methods for evaluating interpolation results include:

  1. Cross-validation: Cross-validation involves removing a portion of the data and using the remaining data to perform the interpolation. The results can then be compared to the removed data to assess the accuracy of the interpolation. This can be repeated several times to obtain an average accuracy estimate.
  2. Comparison to independent data: If independent validation data is available, the interpolation results can be compared to this data to assess the accuracy of the results. This can be done by calculating the root mean square error (RMSE) between the interpolated values and the validation data.
  3. Visual inspection: Visual inspection of the interpolation results can indicate their accuracy and reliability. This may involve creating maps or 3D visualizations of the results to assess the spatial continuity and smoothness of the results.
  4. Statistical analysis: Statistical analysis of the interpolation results can provide additional information about their accuracy and reliability. This may involve calculating measures such as the mean absolute error (MAE), mean squared error (MSE), and coefficient of determination (R^2).

It is important to keep in mind that no interpolation method is perfect, and there will always be some uncertainty in the results. Therefore, it is recommended to use multiple evaluation methods and to consider the results in the context of the specific application and data available.

How to incorporate additional information and constraints into interpolation, such as elevation or slope?

Incorporating additional information and constraints into interpolation can improve the accuracy and reliability of the results. Some common methods for incorporating additional information and constraints include:

  1. Ancillary data: Ancillary data, such as elevation or slope, can be used as additional variables in the interpolation process. This information can be used to influence the interpolated values, for example by weighting the influence of sample points based on their elevation or slope.
  2. Constraints: Constraints, such as minimum or maximum values, can be incorporated into the interpolation process to ensure that the results meet specific requirements. For example, a minimum elevation value can be specified to ensure that the interpolated values do not fall below a certain level.
  3. Expert knowledge: Expert knowledge can be incorporated into the interpolation process by defining rules or relationships based on the understanding of the underlying system being modeled. For example, a hydrologist may know the relationship between elevation, slope, and water flow, which can be used to influence interpolated values.
  4. Multi-objective optimization: Multi-objective optimization can be used to optimize the interpolated values for multiple objectives, such as accuracy and consistency with additional information and constraints. This method may involve using algorithms such as genetic algorithms or particle swarm optimization to find the optimal solution.

Incorporating additional information and constraints into the interpolation process can improve the accuracy and reliability of the results, but can also increase the complexity of the process and the computational requirements. It is important to consider the trade-offs between accuracy, computational requirements, and the availability of data and expert knowledge when incorporating additional information and constraints into the interpolation process.

Conclusion

In conclusion, an interpolation is a powerful tool in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that allows us to estimate unknown values based on known sample data. There are various interpolation methods available, each with its strengths and limitations. When choosing an interpolation method, it is important to consider the type of data, the desired accuracy, and the computational requirements. Additionally, incorporating additional information and constraints into the interpolation process can improve the accuracy and reliability of the results. Finally, evaluating the accuracy and reliability of interpolation results is crucial for ensuring that the results are trustworthy and useful. By understanding the basics of interpolation in GIS, we can make informed decisions about the best approach for any given application.

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About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.