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Precision vs Accuracy

Precision vs. Accuracy: Understanding the Key Differences in Measurement

Accuracy: This refers to how close a measurement is to the true or accepted value. For example, if you are trying to measure a 10-inch ruler and your measurement is 10 inches, your measurement is accurate. In a dartboard analogy, accuracy is hitting the bullseye, or getting as close to it as possible.

Precision: Precision is about the consistency of measurements, or how close measurements are to each other. It does not necessarily relate to the true or accepted value. For instance, if you measure a 10-inch ruler three times and get readings of 9.8 inches each time, your measurements are precise because they are consistent, but they are not accurate. In the dartboard analogy, precision is demonstrated by darts landing in the same spot, regardless of whether that spot is the bullseye.

Accuracy and precision in a geospatial context

When applying the concepts of accuracy and precision in a geospatial context, particularly in fields like surveying, mapping, or GIS (Geographic Information Systems), they take on specific meanings:

  1. Accuracy in Geospatial Context: This refers to how close a geospatial measurement (like the coordinates of a location) is to its true, real-world position. High accuracy in geospatial data means that the recorded location of a feature on a map closely matches its actual location on the earth’s surface. For example, if a GPS device shows a landmark’s coordinates that are very close to its actual geographical coordinates, the device is considered to be highly accurate.
  2. Precision in Geospatial Context: In geospatial terms, precision refers to the consistency and resolution of the measurements. It’s about the smallest level of detail that can be reliably recorded. High precision in geospatial data means the ability to measure and record small differences in location. For instance, a GPS device that can differentiate and record positions within a very small area (like a few centimeters) is said to be highly precise.

In practical terms:

  • A GPS tool with high accuracy will consistently provide a location very close to the actual location. For example, it would accurately place a user at the correct street corner in a city.
  • A GPS tool with high precision can detect minor movements or differences in position. For instance, it could distinguish whether a user is at one end or the other of a small room.

It’s important to note that in the geospatial world, having high precision doesn’t necessarily mean high accuracy. You can have a tool that precisely measures and records positions, but if it’s consistently off from the true location (like consistently showing a position 10 meters to the north of where it actually is), it’s precise but not accurate. Conversely, a tool might be generally accurate (getting you to the right street) but not precise enough to differentiate between closely spaced points (like different doors on the street).

Relative and absolute accuracy

Relative and absolute accuracy are two key concepts in the field of geospatial data, GPS, and surveying. They represent different ways of understanding and measuring the accuracy of a location or measurement.

Relative Accuracy:

  • Definition: Relative accuracy refers to the degree of closeness of measurements to each other. It is about the consistency of measurements or positions relative to one another, rather than their exact location in a global or absolute sense.
  • Application: This is particularly important in applications where the relationship or distance between objects is crucial, rather than their exact position. For example, in agriculture, relative accuracy is essential for ensuring that machinery follows the same paths in a field from one pass to the next, regardless of their exact global position. Similarly, in construction, relative accuracy is crucial for maintaining consistent spacing and alignment of structural elements.
  • Measurement: Relative accuracy is typically assessed by measuring the variation or spread of repeated measurements of the same location or object under the same conditions.

Absolute Accuracy:

  • Definition: Absolute accuracy refers to how close a measurement is to the true or actual value. In geospatial terms, it means how close a measured position is to its actual position on the Earth’s surface, as defined by a global coordinate system like latitude and longitude.
  • Application: Absolute accuracy is vital in applications that require precise location information in a global context. For instance, in land surveying for legal boundaries, it is crucial to know the exact location of boundary lines. In navigation, absolute accuracy ensures that a vehicle or vessel is exactly where the GPS device says it is.
  • Measurement: Absolute accuracy is usually measured by comparing the measured position to a known, true position, often established through surveying methods or reference to a global positioning system.

Differences and Importance:

Understanding the distinction between relative and absolute accuracy is crucial for professionals in geospatial fields, as it guides the selection of appropriate technologies and methods for data collection and analysis.

The placement of these darts on this dartboard is both accurate and precise

Frequently asked questions about accuracy and precision in a geospatial context:

  1. Difference Between Accuracy and Precision in GIS or Mapping
  • In GIS or mapping, accuracy refers to how close a measured or mapped location is to its true, real-world position. Precision, on the other hand, refers to the consistency and repeatability of these measurements or representations. High accuracy ensures that a point on a map represents its actual location on Earth, while high precision ensures that repeated measurements or representations of the same location will yield similar results.
  1. Improving GPS Device Accuracy
  1. Factors Affecting Precision of Geospatial Data
  • Precision in geospatial data is affected by satellite geometry (the position of satellites relative to each other), atmospheric conditions (which can delay GPS signals), signal multipath (reflection of signals off surfaces before they reach the receiver), and the quality of the GPS receiver itself.
  1. Measuring and Reporting Accuracy in Geospatial Datasets
  • Accuracy in geospatial datasets is often measured using Ground Control Points (GCPs) with known coordinates. The difference between these known coordinates and the coordinates obtained from the geospatial dataset provides a measure of accuracy. This can be reported as a root mean square error (RMSE) or a standard deviation, which quantifies the average error in the dataset.
  1. Importance of Accuracy and Precision in Remote Sensing
  • In remote sensing, accuracy and precision are vital for reliable data interpretation. High accuracy ensures that the remote sensing data correctly represents the area being studied, while high precision ensures consistent results across multiple observations, which is crucial for monitoring changes over time or detecting subtle differences in the environment.
  1. Impact of Data Resolution on Precision
  • In geospatial data, higher resolution usually means higher precision, as it allows for more detailed and finer-scale observations. However, higher resolution does not automatically imply higher accuracy. The resolution should be chosen based on the specific needs of the project and the capabilities of the data collection technology.
  1. Best Practices for High Precision in Surveying and Mapping
  • Best practices include using high-quality, well-calibrated equipment, ensuring proper training for surveyors, employing redundant measurements for verification, and using appropriate methodologies for data collection and processing. Regularly checking equipment against known standards and using data correction techniques like DGPS also help maintain high precision.
  1. Can Geospatial Data Be Precise but Not Accurate?
  • Yes, it is possible for geospatial data to be precise but not accurate. For example, if a GPS device consistently reports a location a few meters away from its true position, the data is precise (because of the consistency) but not accurate (since it’s not the true position).
  1. Role of Software and Algorithms in GIS Data Quality
  • Software and algorithms play a crucial role in processing raw geospatial data, removing errors, enhancing data quality, and improving both accuracy and precision. They can apply corrections, filter out noise, and use statistical methods to improve the reliability of the data.

Balancing Accuracy, Precision, and Cost in Geospatial Projects

Balancing these factors involves considering the project requirements and constraints. For some applications, high precision and accuracy are essential, justifying higher costs. In other cases, slightly lower accuracy or precision might be acceptable if it significantly reduces costs. The key is to align the data quality with the specific needs of the project.

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.

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