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An easy introduction to interpolation

In the complex world of data analysis, the ability to accurately estimate and interpret data is a cornerstone of decision-making across various fields.

From the precise predictions in meteorology to the trend analysis in financial markets, the role of data estimation cannot be overstated.

This blog post will explore two critical techniques in the realm of data estimation: interpolation and extrapolation. Interpolation is the method of estimating values within the range of known data points, creating a seamless transition between them.

On the other hand, extrapolation ventures beyond, attempting to predict values outside the established data range. Together, these methods form the backbone of our ability to make educated guesses in the face of incomplete information.

What is Interpolation?

Interpolation is a statistical technique used to estimate unknown values within the range of a discrete set of known data points. It is crucial in fields where data is incomplete or sparse, enabling analysts to create a smooth, continuous dataset from scattered information. A classic real-life example is predicting temperature at different times of the day with only morning and evening temperatures known.

The simplest form of interpolation is linear interpolation. It involves drawing a straight line between two known points and using this line to estimate intermediate values. Ideal for data that shows a linear relationship, linear interpolation is a fundamental tool for making predictions when dealing with evenly-spaced data points. This method exemplifies the essence of interpolation: using known data to make informed estimates about the unknown.

Why Interpolate Data?

Interpolation is crucial for making informed decisions and predictions when dealing with incomplete data. It finds extensive applications across various fields – from filling gaps in weather data for accurate forecasting to smoothing out pixel values in image processing for clarity.

In financial markets, interpolation helps in predicting stock values based on historical trends. By enabling the estimation of missing or unrecorded data, interpolation plays a vital role in data analysis, ensuring that the insights drawn are both comprehensive and reliable.

It essentially allows us to create a complete picture from an incomplete dataset, enhancing both the understanding and utility of the data at hand.

Disadvantages of Interpolation

While interpolation is a powerful tool, it’s not without limitations. It assumes that the data follows a specific pattern, which may not always be accurate, leading to errors in estimation. Interpolation is also confined to the range of known data points.

Extrapolating beyond this range can result in significant inaccuracies. The quality of interpolation is heavily dependent on the density and quality of the original data set.

Sparse or noisy data can lead to poor interpolation results. Furthermore, different interpolation methods have their own limitations and may not suit all types of data. For instance, linear interpolation works poorly for non-linear data sets, potentially leading to oversimplification and inaccurate predictions.

Choosing the Best Interpolation Method

Absolutely! Incorporating Kriging into the section on different interpolation methods adds depth, especially since Kriging is a sophisticated geostatistical procedure. Here’s the updated section:

Different Interpolation Methods

  1. Linear Interpolation: The simplest form, linear interpolation involves drawing a straight line between two known points to estimate intermediate values. It’s effective for linearly related and evenly spaced data.
  2. Polynomial Interpolation: This method fits a polynomial to the entire dataset, suitable for more complex, non-linear data but can lead to overfitting with higher-degree polynomials.
  3. Spline Interpolation: Uses piecewise-polynomial functions, interpolating on different intervals with different polynomials. It strikes a balance between smoothness and computational efficiency, ideal for smooth curves.
  4. Nearest Neighbor Interpolation: Estimates the value of a new point based on the nearest data point’s value. It’s simple and computationally efficient but may not provide smooth transitions between points.
  5. Kriging: A more advanced, geostatistical method that not only interpolates the data but also provides estimates of the uncertainty of predictions. Kriging uses both the distance and the degree of variation between known data points to estimate values at unknown points. It’s particularly useful in fields like mining, hydrology, and environmental science, where spatial data is analyzed.

Each method has its strengths and is suitable for different data types and requirements. The choice depends on data characteristics, required smoothness, computational resources, and in the case of Kriging, the need for understanding uncertainty in the predictions.

When choosing a method, consider the following factors:

  • Data Distribution: Is your data linear or does it follow a more complex pattern?
  • Smoothness Requirement: Do you need a smooth curve fit, or are simple linear estimates sufficient?
  • Computational Efficiency: How complex is your data, and what are your computational resources?
  • Risk of Overfitting: Are you interpolating over a large dataset where overfitting can be a concern?

Comparison Table:

Certainly! Here’s the updated comparison table with the addition of Nearest Neighbor and Kriging interpolation methods:

MethodBest forComplexitySmoothnessUncertainty Estimation
Linear InterpolationLinear, evenly spaced dataLowMediumNo
Polynomial InterpolationComplex, non-linear dataHighHighNo
Spline InterpolationSmooth curves, avoiding overfittingMediumHighNo
Nearest NeighborSimple scenarios, quick estimatesVery LowLowNo
KrigingSpatial data, uncertainty estimationHighHighYes
This table helps in determining the most appropriate interpolation method for different data types, emphasizing the balance between complexity, smoothness, and the unique capability of Kriging to estimate uncertainty.

What is Overfitting

Overfitting is a common problem in statistical models and machine learning, where a model learns the detail and noise in the training data to the extent that it negatively impacts the performance of the model on new data. This means the model is too complex, making it fit not only the underlying pattern in the data but also the random fluctuations or noise. As a result, while the model may perform exceptionally well on the training data, its ability to generalize to unseen data is poor.

In simpler terms, overfitting is like memorizing the answers to specific questions in an exam without understanding the underlying principles. While this approach might work well for the questions you’ve memorized, it fails when faced with questions that require applying the principles in a new context.

What is Extrapolation?

Extrapolation is the process of estimating values beyond the range of known data points, contrasting with interpolation which estimates within the range. It involves extending a trend observed within a dataset to make predictions about unseen areas.

This method is widely used in fields like finance for forecasting future market trends based on past data, or in climate science for predicting future climate conditions based on historical trends. Extrapolation is more speculative and riskier than interpolation as it relies on the assumption that the existing trend continues unchanged outside the observed data range.

Interpolation vs. Extrapolation

In this section, we compare interpolation and extrapolation. Interpolation is used for estimating values within the range of known data points, relying on the assumption that the pattern between these points can be used to predict values in between. It’s generally more accurate and less risky.

Extrapolation, however, extends beyond the available data to predict future or unknown values. This method carries more risk as it assumes that the existing trends continue beyond the observed range.

ScopeWithin known data rangeBeyond known data range
RiskLower (predicts based on known patterns)Higher (assumes continuation of a trend)
Use CasesEstimating temperature at a missing time pointForecasting future stock market trends
Interpolation is ideal for data-rich environments where the goal is to fill gaps, while extrapolation is suited for forecasting, acknowledging the higher risk and uncertainty involved.


In this blog post, we explored the concepts of interpolation and extrapolation, key methods in data estimation. We discussed how interpolation helps in estimating values within a known data range, making it crucial for detailed and accurate data analysis. On the other hand, extrapolation, while more speculative, is vital for forecasting and predicting future trends.

Each method has its strengths and appropriate scenarios for use, as well as associated risks. The importance of choosing the right method for your specific data situation cannot be overstated; the effectiveness of your analysis depends on it. Understanding these concepts enables us to make more informed decisions in various fields where data plays a pivotal role.

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.