ELI5: What is spatial data?

Whether you know it or not, spatial data plays an essential role in many aspects of our modern lives. It sits at the heart of our Geographical Information systems. It informs everything from our IoT devices through to fraud detection through to supply chain optimisation.

But for all its uses and value, spatial data is little understood.

So, here’s an ‘ELI5’ overview covering all you need to know about spatial data.

What is spatial data?

Spatial data – also known as geospatial data or geographic information – is the name for any type of data that concerns location. It references specific locations and objects within those locations.

Spatial data is about location, but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing more than a map. It’s increasingly pervasive in the apps and services we use to power our lives, and allows us to solve complex location-oriented problems.

Another way to understand spatial data is to know its antithesis: non-spatial data. Non-spatial data is that which is independent of geographic location. (That is, data that has no relation at all to a location.)

Spatial data formats

Spatial data can be stored in a variety of formats. The main two of these are rasters and vectors.

Both rasters and vectors are ways to describe space and represent features in a location. But how they do so differs.

  • Vectors

Vectors depict a given point, plane or three-dimensional object mapped into a space. An example is a coordinate or set of coordinates.

There are three main types of vectors:

  1. Points. I.e., a single coordinate
  2. Lines. I.e., a set of two coordinates joined together
  3. Polygons. I.e., a set of three or more coordinates that make a shape (whether it’s two-dimensional or three-dimensional)
  • Rasters

Rasters take the form of a pixel grid. Every pixel in the grid has a value, such as a colour, an attribute, a unit of measurement, etcetera.

Typically, rasters relate to the mapping of imagery. A good example is the mapping of satellite imagery.


Alongside vectors and rasters are attributes. Attributes are additional information that comes attached to spatial data.

This information doesn’t need to be spatial itself to be part of an attribute. Rather, it provides characteristics about spatial data. (Such as, for example, date or text-based values.)

Spatial data in the real world

  • Georeferencing and geocoding

Both georeferencing and geocoding are processes in which spatial data is fitted to coordinates in the real world.

Georeferencing is about fitting coordinates to vectors and rasters. That is, orienting the spatial data correctly to the real world.

Geocoding, meanwhile, is the name for giving something an address or location descriptor. Geocoded data is that which gives information about buildings, cities, states, countries, land, and so on.

For instance, consider an address, a postcode, which grounds the data in the real world.

  • Geometric spatial data

Geometric is a spatial data type that is mapped on a two-dimensional (flat) surface. For example, a map.

  • Geographic spatial data

Geographic data is all about highlighting the latitude and longitude and the relationship to the object or data point in question. In other words, it’s wrapping the data around a sphere. (Typically Earth.)

This is the type of spatial data that brings us GPS.

Spatial data

While just one of the many useful categories of data out there, spatial data is one that’s used by everyone — individual and business alike.

And it’s also an area we can help you roll into your automated workflows. For example, one of our customers uses ThinkAutomation and spatial data to handle locate requests and enable workers to get to where they need to be quicker than ever. Others use it for field service automation.

And these are just a couple of use cases. To start putting your spatial data to work in your automated processes, download ThinkAutomation today.

Useful links

ThinkAutomation free trial

ELI5: the relational vs non-relational database

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