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Progress in Physical Geography

http://ppg.sagepub.com/content/30/4/467

The online version of this article can be found at:

DOI: 10.1191/0309133306pp492ra

2006 30: 467 Progress in Physical Geography

Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate

Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

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Progress in Physical Geography 30, 4 (2006) pp. 467489

2006 SAGE Publications 10.1191/0309133306pp492ra

I Introduction

The digital record of land surface elevations

was one of the rst widely available forms of

geographical information. Such digital records

are often distributed in the form of a digital

elevation model or DEM, and their deriva-

tives are frequently employed throughout

physical geography for applications ranging

from geomorphometry (Pike, 2000) to hydro-

logical modelling (Kenward et al., 2000) and

the physiographic correction of digital satellite

imagery (Goyal et al., 1998).

DEMs come in a number of forms, but all

usually consist of les containing a large number

of records (often more than 10

5

records) where

each record represents a statement or estimate

of the elevation at a point in space. From the

outset, it is important to be aware that the

DEM is usually the end result of a number of

modelling and processing steps as typied by the

Causes and consequences of error

in digital elevation models*

Peter F. Fisher

1

** and Nicholas J. Tate

2

1

Department of Information Science, City University, Northampton Square,

London EC1V 0HB, UK

2

Department of Geography, University of Leicester, University Road,

Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

Abstract: All digital data contain error and many are uncertain. Digital models of elevation surfaces

consist of les containing large numbers of measurements representing the height of the surface of the

earth, and therefore a proportion of those measurements are very likely to be subject to some level of

error and uncertainty. The collection and handling of such data and their associated uncertainties has

been a subject of considerable research, which has focused largely upon the description of the effects

of interpolation and resolution uncertainties, as well as modelling the occurrence of errors. However,

digital models of elevation derived from new technologies employing active methods of laser and radar

ranging are becoming more widespread, and past research will need to be re-evaluated in the near

future to accommodate such new data products. In this paper we review the source and nature of

errors in digital models of elevation, and in the derivatives of such models. We examine the correction

of errors and assessment of tness for use, and nally we identify some priorities for future research.

Key words: digital elevation model, digital surface model, error modelling, fitness for use,

uncertainty, visualization.

*

Part of this paper has been previously published in French as Tate and Fisher (2005) and is included here

with agreement of Herms Publishers.

**

Author for correspondence.

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468 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

ow chart in Figure 1. The progression from

conceptual model through to digital model

requires not only the selection of suitable proce-

dures, but also the application of suitable meas-

urement and statistical processes. Our

understanding of these processes and their

associated errors tell us that there is a very small

probability (effectively no chance) that all digital

records in any DEM are correct. DEMs there-

fore contain endemic error, and this error can

propagate through to products derived from the

DEM, for example to hydrogeomorphic param-

eters such as catchment size and stream net-

work characteristics (Walker and Willgoose,

1999) and surface ow dispersal areas (Endreny

and Wood, 2001). In this respect, DEMs are no

different from any other type of digital geo-

graphical data, all of which contain some error

that can propagate to dependent operations/

products. However, models of elevation are dis-

tinct for four reasons: 1) they were one of the

rst forms of digital geographical information

which became available; 2) they are now widely

used; 3) they are closely associated with the

mathematical concepts of surface modelling;

and 4) they represent a tangible, directly

observable phenomenon of which all people

have direct experience: the surface of the earth.

This paper reviews research on the under-

standing, modelling and propagation of error

in DEMs, with the aim of presenting a

comprehensive statement of the issues sur-

rounding these topics. We therefore start by

dening key terms and methods used to

describe error. Next, we examine various

sources of error that can accumulate during the

process of DEM construction. Statistical mod-

els of error, and other approaches that have

been suggested for examining error, are the

focus of the next section, followed by a consid-

eration of the propagation of the error into

derived information. We review some of the

methods suggested for error visualization and

correction and, nally, we examine research to

determine tness for use of DEM products. In

conclusion, we identify a number of areas which

require further research in the near future.

II Denitions

1 Digital elevation model (DEM)

The term digital elevation model has two gen-

eral meanings. First, it is any set of measure-

ments that record the elevation of the surface

of the earth, such that the spatial proximity of,

and spatial relationships between, those meas-

urements can be determined either implicitly

or explicitly; a simple list of elevations is not a

DEM. On the other hand, a list of triplet meas-

urements of elevation together with Easting

and Northing to give location does constitute a

DEM, because the spatial relationships of the

elevations can be recreated from the location

information. Second, and more specically, a

DEM is a set of elevation values which are

recorded on a regular grid most commonly in

a square form, less frequently in a triangular or

rectangular form. Since the dimensions of the

grid are known and the number of observa-

tions in each row is known, the implicit spatial

relationships between elevation values can be

determined. The DEM in grid form is the most

widely used data model for the distribution of

digital elevation data by data providers (for

example, successive USGS DEMs), and has

been the format on which the vast majority of

research on error and uncertainty has been

based. In discussion below we therefore use

Figure 1 A ow diagram showing the

process of construction of a DEM through

the intermediary of a contour map

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 469

DEM synonymously with gridded DEM

although much of what we state is equally

applicable to other formats. Digital terrain

model (DTM) is sometimes used instead of

DEM, but is more correctly used to describe a

set of digital records related to terrain not just

elevation (Burrough, 1986).

2 Error and uncertainty

In this paper, we adopt the convention that

considers error to be the objective or formal

problems with measurement/estimation and

other, less tangible issues to be uncertainty

(Hunter and Goodchild, 1993; Gahegan and

Ehlers, 2000).

People can conceive of the surface of the

earth relatively clearly, and we can therefore

say that it is possible to measure the height of

this surface above a dened datum at a set of

points in space. If we believe rmly in this con-

ceptualization, and we are able to revisit each

point and repeat the measurement, we can

assert that any difference encountered

between the two measurements is due to

error in one or, more likely, both measure-

ments. If the two data sets are obtained by dif-

ferent methods, for example one by optical

theodolite and the second by laser levelling,

then there may be a justied belief in one set of

measurements being more accurate (the latter)

and so one (the rst) being in relative error.

If, in addition to a set of point measure-

ments (however derived), we have a model of

the form of the surface of the earth, which

can be expressed mathematically, then it is

possible to estimate the elevation at unknown

locations from those at measured locations by

a mathematical process of interpolation (as is

often the case in DEMs and is discussed

below). Differences between the estimated

elevation and the measured elevation are a

matter of the delity of the mathematical

model. These are still regarded as errors in the

digital elevation model, however.

Generalizing these two instances, there-

fore we can say that error of a given set of

point measurements of a surface can only

properly be determined by comparison with

another set of known, usually more accurate

measurements. Such data are often termed

reference data and assumed to be error free

(Gens, 1999; Kyriakidis et al., 1999).

Other forms of doubt about the quality of

the digital elevation model constitute aspects

of uncertainty, and are largely related to

representation. For example, if we do not

vary the quality of measurement/estimation,

differences due to data gathered at contrast-

ing resolutions should more correctly be

regarded as an aspect of the uncertainty of the

model representation.

3 A typology of error

Errors in DEMs can clearly occur in both the

elevation or vertical (Z) and planimetric or

horizontal (XY) coordinates, but the focus is

usually on the former because planimetric error

will produce elevation error. Many commercial

data suppliers only report elevation error. Errors

in DEMs are usually (Cooper, 1998; Wise,

2000) categorized into three groups: gross errors

or blunders, systematic errors due to determinis-

tic bias in the data collection or processing, and

random errors.

Gross errors or blunders can be the result of

user error or equipment failure: such errors are

infrequent in commercial DEMs but they do

occur. They are evident with higher frequency

in non-commercial products. Systematic

errors can be dened as the result of a deter-

ministic system which if known may be repre-

sented by some functional relationship

(Thapa and Bossler, 1992: 836). Conceptual

examples of simple systematic errors are por-

trayed in Figure 2, A and B. Real examples of

systematic errors include the contour line

ghosts identied in many DEMs derived from

contour data (Guth, 1999) as terracing, and

the distinctive parallel striping artifacts found in

some USGS 7.5-minute DEMs (Brown and

Bara, 1994; Garbrecht and Starks, 1995)

and the Canadian Terrain Resource Information

Management (TRIM) DEM data product

(Albani and Klinkenberg, 2003).

In contrast, random errors in a DEM

accrue from a great variety of measurement/

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470 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

operational tasks in producing the DEM.

These may be represented conceptually as

random variations around the true reference

value, but a number of models of the spatial

distribution are possible, and two alternatives

are shown in Figure 2, C and D.

4 Describing error

As with the denition of error, the measure-

ment of error in DEMs is somewhat confused.

The most common descriptor is the root mean

square error (RMSE; Li, 1988; Shearer, 1990;

Desmet, 1997; Hunter and Goodchild, 1997):

where z

DEM

the measurement of elevation

from the DEM, and z

Ref

higher accuracy

measurement of elevation for a sample of n

RMSE

z z

n

DEM

=

( )

Ref

2

Figure 2 Comparisons of a prole through a DEM and the occurrence of error. (A)

The occurrence of error with bias; (B) the occurrence of systematic error; (C) the

occurrence of spatially autocorrelated error (the normal situation); (D) the occurrence

of random error (no spatial autocorrelation). In each instance the upper diagram shows

the ground surface as a thick line and the ground surface with the error as a thin line,

and in the lower diagram the error alone

Source: Modied from Shearer (1990); also published in Tate and Fisher (2005).

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 471

points. This measure has the property that it is

always positive. Some authors use n 1 as the

denominator acknowledging the similarity

between this equation and a standard deviation

(Shearer, 1990; Desmet, 1997). Indeed, the

RMSE is equal to the standard deviation of the

error if the mean error is (or is assumed to be)

zero. It should be noted that RMSE is a widely

used measure of conformity between a set of

estimates and the actual values, and has

become a standard measure of map accuracy.

RMSE is usually reported as a single aspatial

global statistic per DEM based on comparison

with a limited sample of points. For example,

for the USGS 7.5-minute DEM product the

RMSE calculation requires a minimum of only

28 points (USGS, 1990). On the other hand,

the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain does not

even claim to determine the error for each tile

of the DEM, but asserts a single statement of

the RMSE in the product specication, imply-

ing that it is the same for the whole national

data set, although the report does give a range

of values for different land surface slopes.

In a number of studies, however, the mean

error has not been found to be equal to zero

(Li, 1988; Monckton, 1994; Fisher, 1998), and

so the RMSE is not necessarily a good

description of the statistical distribution of

the error. Therefore other researchers have

suggested the use of a more complete statis-

tical description of errors by reporting the

mean error (ME) and error standard deviation

(S) (Li, 1988; Fisher, 1998):

ME can be either negative or positive, and

records systematic under- or overestimation of

the elevations in the DEM, otherwise known

as bias. Figure 2C shows a conceptual model

of error in a DEM without bias and Figure 2A

shows the same pattern of error with positive

S

z z ME

n

DEM

=

[( ) ]

Ref

2

1

ME

z z

n

DEM

=

( )

Ref

bias. Shearer (1990) and Desmet (1997) advo-

cate use of the mean absolute error by replacing

z

DEM

z

Ref

with the modulus, |z

DEM

z

Ref

|.

This is similar to RMSE. Both ME and S are

preferred, however, as these will allow the esti-

mation of bias. S records the dispersion, as

does the RMSE, but if ME is relatively large

then S and RMSE may be very different.

None of these descriptive statistics

(RMSE, ME, S) reports more than a global

summary statistic for a data set. Crucially, all

fail to describe the spatial pattern of error, and

in a DEM the error is likely to vary spatially

(Figure 2C, as compared with Figure 2D).

However, in spite of improved understanding

about the types of error within DEMs, there

is still relatively little known about the spatial

structure of that error (Monckton, 1994;

Hunter and Goodchild, 1997; Liu and Jezek,

1999). As a response, there have been a vari-

ety of studies that have attempted to describe

the pattern of DEM errors spatially by means

of both geostatistical variograms (Fisher,

1998; Kyriakidis et al., 1999; Liu and Jezek,

1999; Holmes et al., 2000; Weng, 2002;

Zhang and Goodchild, 2002; see section V)

and Fourier-based analysis (Liu and Jezek,

1999). In a study of the errors produced from

a comparison of low accuracy elevation data

with higher accuracy reference data, Liu and

Jezek (1999) employed both methods to

describe the spatial pattern of error for

51.2km by 51.2km DEM of the McMurdo

Dry Valley region in the Transarctic

Mountains of Antarctica. Their analysis

revealed a highly anisotropic and scale-

dependent pattern of error, closely correlated

to the characteristics of the terrain surface. In

contrast, Holmes et al. (2000) observed that

for a low accuracyhigh accuracy comparison

for the Los Olivos quadrangle, Santa Barbara

County, California, the correlation between

error and various terrain indices was poor.

A further important weakness of RMSE has

been noted by Hunter and Goodchild (1996:

15) who observed that while containing useful

information about the nal [DEM] product, [it]

says nothing about the numerous contributing

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472 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

factors that may have played a role in the over-

all process giving rise rise to the error.

III Sources of error in DEMs

Three main sources of error in DEMs are usu-

ally identied (Shearer, 1990; Li, 1992; Li and

Chen, 1999; Gong et al., 2000):

1. those derived from variations in the accu-

racy, density and distribution (Li and

Chen, 1999: 203) of the measured source

data as determined by the specic method

of data generation;

2. those derived from the processing and

interpolation used to derive the DEM

from the source data;

3. those resulting from the characteristics

of the terrain surface being modelled in

relation to the representation of the DEM.

The rst two are quite clearly errors. The

third, however, should be considered a matter

of uncertainty. Alternatively, we can think of

1 as data-based, being strictly concerned with

the source data, while 2 and 3 are model-

based being concerned with how well the

resulting DEM approximates the real physio-

graphy (Theobald, 1989; Shortridge, 2001).

1 Method of source data generation

Historically, DEMs encountered by the scien-

tist/academic have most frequently been

sourced by digitizing contour lines and spot

heights from paper maps. Other sources may

have included imagery such as stereo aerial

photographs using various types of pho-

togrammetry, or less frequently point meas-

urements derived direct from land survey.

The rst step in the construction of such a

DEM from contours is therefore the creation of

the source map. Source map error is generally

dened as arising from the processes of collec-

tion, recording, generalization, symbolization

and production inherent in the cartographic

process (MacEachren, 1985; Muller, 1987).

Even though the spatial elevation data used to

produce a contour map may have been pro-

duced photogrammetrically, the transformation

to a contour map will introduce inaccuracy,

from both cartographic generalization and map

production (Fryer et al., 1994). It is difcult to

generalize about the errors introduced into con-

tours/spot heights from these sources, but

Fryer et al. (1994) suggest that the photogram-

metric errors alone might reasonably be

expected to be about 2 or 3 per 10,000 units of

ying height. To the error in the contour lines is

added error from the digitizing process.

Digitized contours can be stored in their own

right, but more usually they are interpolated to

produce the gridded DEM (see section III.2).

DEM construction directly from manual and

semi-automated photogrammetry introduces

both random and systematic errors (Petrie,

1990; Shearer, 1990; Fryer et al., 1994).

Random errors may accrue through the lack of

precision in the identication of target points on

the photograph as part of the process of aerial

triangulation, and systematic errors may accrue

from changes in the lm media, instrument

errors and from operator fatigue (Fryer et al.,

1994). Measurement methods include the

manual collection of elevation points along pro-

les using a stereoplotter, or the more auto-

mated collection of elevation points from a

digital stereomodel. In the former, a well-

known example is the Firth Effect (Hunter

and Goodchild, 1995: 534) which occurs when,

collecting data in proles, elevations are under-

estimated when moving in an upslope direction

and overestimated in a downslope direction

producing a distinct herringbone pattern in the

elevations. Hunter and Goodchild (1995) also

noticed edge discontinuities that they attrib-

uted to interpolation errors from the automated

photogrammetric system used by the USGS.

The recent availability of computer-based

digital photogrammetric systems (DPS), some-

times as a component of image processing soft-

ware, means that bespoke DEM construction

has become more widespread. Such systems

are usually based on some form of hierarchical

stereo image correlation, and are able to pro-

duce gridded DEMs in a fully automatic manner

with optional manual editing. It is difcult to

generalize about the characteristics of such sys-

tems, but Gong et al. (2000) have suggested

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 473

that, in the absence of any editing, the fully

automated mode may produce data of low

accuracy relative to traditional photogrammet-

ric methods. Interestingly, Davis et al. (2001)

have modelled the relationship between the

estimated stereo-correlation quality within the

DPS and the RMSE obtained of the resulting

DEM when compared with a higher accuracy

kinematic GPS survey. For 1:40,000 scale

images of an urban area, they were able to pre-

dict DEM RMSE to within 8%.

Recently, there has been an increase in the

use of active airborne sensors for DEM cre-

ation. Such active systems include LiDAR

(light detection and ranging, also known as

laser altimetry; Dubayah et al., 2000) and

InSAR (interferometric synthetic aperture

radar; Goyal et al., 1998). LiDAR uses the

emission and reection of light pulses usually

from an airborne scanner. The quality of ele-

vation information obtained is a function of

the sensor and scanning system, the nature

and quality of the positioning/orientation sys-

tem in the aircraft, aircraft speed/flying

height, and the characteristics of the terrain

surface (Huising and Gomes-Pereira, 1998;

Wehr and Lohr, 1999). For example, when

working over land cover types such as forest,

it can be difcult to determine whether the

light pulse has penetrated to the ground

(Dubayah et al., 2000). The systematic error

for laser altimetry has been estimated to

range from a minimum of 5 cm in flat

paved/barren areas to a maximum of 200cm

in grass and scrubland, and random errors

from 10cm in at areas to 200cm in hilly

areas have been noted (Huising and Gomes-

Pereira, 1998). Similarly to Laser-LiDAR, the

quality of the elevation information obtained

from InSAR is related to sensor and terrain

surface characteristics (Goyal et al., 1998).

DEMs produced by these active systems

have the potential to be of much higher accu-

racy than some of the traditional methods of

DEM construction discussed above, although

Baltsavias (1999: 90) has noted that there are

many more sources of error in active systems

than in photogrammetry, which make both

the assessment and propagation of error more

complicated.

The construction of DEMs using fully

automated photogrammetry and active sys-

tems of data capture constitute what

Lemmens (1999) has termed a process of

blind sampling of terrain. He identies four

primary terrain surface characteristics which

will inuence the quality of DEM data: the

existence of micro-relief which make elevation

measurement points spatially unrepresenta-

tive; non-selective spatial coverage of the sen-

sor; the presence of sloping ground altering

signal reection; and signal attenuation/fallout

due to the varying reectivity of different land

cover types. In fact, for all these methods the

elevation surface identied by the sensor may

not be the surface of the ground but a com-

posite surface of other features including

buildings and vegetation. Indeed, measure-

ment accuracies as high as 5 cm, together

with problems of the penetration of vegeta-

tion, mean that the certainty that the surface

of the earth is the height being measured has

been lost for these systems.

Irrespective of the method of DEM con-

struction, the error in a DEM can also be

inuenced by the density and distribution of

the measured point source data. For example,

for each of a selection of DEMs constructed

by manual photogrammetry, stman (1987)

observed that an increased point density

reduced the RMSE.

2 Processing and interpolation

The degree of processing and interpolation

required to derive a regular gridded DEM

from a set of measurements will depend on

the method of measurement and the nature

of the data model. Thus if resources allowed,

data collection by eld survey, for example,

could be tailored to the specications of a

gridded DEM by recording height measure-

ments at all grid intersections. Data collection

in photogrammetry and active systems can

also generate a gridded model by direct meas-

urement. If the distribution of the source data

is irregular or not at the desired spacing, then

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474 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

some degree of processing/interpolation of

values at grid intersections is required and this

can itself be a source of error.

There are a great variety of interpolation

methods available for terrain surface interpo-

lation. Watson (1992) has identified two

classes of interpolation methods for terrain

surfaces: tted functions and weighted averag-

ing. In contrast, Hutchinson and Gallant

(1999) have identied three classes based on:

triangulation, local surface patches and locally

adaptive gridding. For further details about

these methods of interpolation, and alterna-

tive more generic schemes of classication,

the reader is referred to Lam (1983),

Burrough (1986), Watson (1992), Hutchinson

and Gallant (1999) and Mitas and Mitasova

(1999). Less generic interpolation methods

can be identied for specic types of source

data. For example, when interpolating con-

tour data to a DEM, Robinson (1994) has dis-

tinguished between those generic methods of

interpolation mentioned above, and more

purpose-designed methods which make some

use of the extra information supplied by the

contours; for example, the construction of

lines of steepest descent between contours

(Leberl and Olson, 1982). The crucial point is

that since different methods of interpolation

produce different estimates for height values

at the same point, these methods will also

produce different quantities of error in the

DEM.

A variety of empirical work has looked at

the effects of different methods of interpola-

tion on DEM error (MacEachren and

Davidson, 1987; Desmet, 1997; Yang and

Hodler, 2000; Rees, 2000; Wise, 2000)

usually by means of observing the results of

different interpolators on sample DEMs.

Estimates of error can be obtained by com-

paring interpolated values with a higher accu-

racy reference surface (section II.2; Fisher,

1998; Holmes et al., 2000; Davis et al., 2001),

or with a subset of original points withheld

from the interpolation process (MacEachren

and Davidson, 1987; Desmet, 1997; Yang and

Hodler, 2000). Accuracy description can be

summarized statistically, or more qualitatively

using visual descriptions (Declercq, 1996;

Carrara et al., 1997; Desmet, 1997; Yang and

Hodler, 2000). We consider the role of visual-

ization in error identication more explicitly in

section VI below.

In general, there seems to be no single

interpolation method that is the most accurate

for the interpolation of terrain data.

Geostatistical kriging is attractive from a sta-

tistical standpoint, since it is the best linear

unbiased estimator and the error introduced

by the processes of estimation can be directly

determined (Oliver and Webster, 1990).

However, kriging variance is directly propor-

tional to the distance of an interpolated value

from an input observation. Furthermore, the

success of a given interpolation method appar-

ently depends on the nature of the terrain

surface (smooth or rough) and the distribution

of the measured source data (irregular or reg-

ular). This may result in no clear interpolation

method being preferred (Wise, 2000). When

interpolating an existing DEM to a higher res-

olution DEM, Rees (2000: 17) suggests that

the RMS accuracy (RMSE) of the interpolated

DEM, r, is directly proportional to the stan-

dard deviation of the height difference

between adjacent points in the DEM, . The

constant of proportionality is dimensionless

and in the cases studied varied between 0.21

and 0.6 depending on the interpolator used,

the factor by which resolution is increased,

and the fractal dimension. For a variety of

DEMs Rees observed that the RMS accuracy

of the interpolated DEM has very little sensi-

tivity to the choice of interpolation method

between the bilinear, bicubic and kriging

approaches (Rees, 2000: 18). For a DEM rep-

resenting smooth undulating agricultural ter-

rain Desmet (1997) found that although spline

interpolation appeared preferable the extrap-

olation of this conclusion must be done with

care as the study area was extremely smooth

(Desmet, 1997: 579). It is clearly difcult to

make any general conclusions.

The data collected by active systems may

not only require interpolation, but also

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 475

considerable processing to obtain the result-

ant DEM. For example, Gens (1999) observes

that the error introduced into InSAR-derived

DEMs depends very much on the details of

the interferometric processing applied. This

includes the processes of registration of the

radar image, formation of the interferogram,

phase unwrapping and reconstruction of the

DEM (de Fazio and Vinelli, 1993, as cited in

Gens, 1999). Processing may also inuence

the final form of the data and hence the

degree of error in the DEM. For example, a

reduction in precision by rounding off eleva-

tions to the nearest metre can introduce

sufcient error into the DEM to generate sig-

nicant error in terrain derivatives (Figure 3;

Carter, 1992; Nelson and Jones, 1995).

3 Terrain representation

Recall from section III.1 that terrain surface

characteristics can directly inuence the qual-

ity of elevation measurements, particularly

with the more active systems of data capture.

However, terrain surface characteristics also

interact with the resolution of the model indi-

rectly reecting the fact that DEMs consti-

tute a discrete sample of a continuous

variable. In section II.2 we noted that the

Figure 3 The SK40 2020km tile of the Ordnance Survey 50m resolution DEM of

Britain. (A) Standard grey scale view; (B) histogram with the diagnostic cyclic peaks

indicating over-representation of the contour linesand; (C) slope map showing steep

slopes at both the contour positions (very steep slopes white lines) and integer

rounding in low relief areas (moderate slopes grey lines)

Source: Crown Copyright/Database right 2005. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA

supplied service.

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476 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

issues of resolution do not map comfortably

into error and error alone, but are more an

issue of the wider concept of uncertainty.

Many authors have viewed resolution as a

question of error, however, and for complete-

ness issues relating to resolution are consid-

ered here.

The resolution (or sampling interval) of

the DEM is a function of both the source data

and any interpolation process carried out on

that source data to derive the gridded DEM.

In conceptual terms, we might think of the

choice of resolution of the DEM to be akin to

the discrete sampling of a continuous func-

tion: and information will clearly be lost for

those distances that are smaller than the sam-

pling interval, but information will also be

altered at distances up to twice the sampling

interval, known as the Nyquist Critical

Frequency (Press et al., 1989: 386). Both of

these can cause error in the DEM. On this

basis, it might be expected that the larger the

resolution of the DEM, the less well the

model will approximate the underlying

continuous real terrain and the greater the

potential for error (Gao, 1998). However, res-

olution is intimately related to the character-

istics of the terrain surface, since at a given

resolution error can also be increased in the

DEM by increasing the complexity of the ter-

rain surface. Clearly, the accuracy to which

any given terrain is approximated by the DEM

will depend on the match (or mismatch)

between the resolution and the spatial char-

acteristics of the terrain: some landforms will

be approximated well, others less so

(Theobald, 1989).

A variety of empirical work has conrmed

the relationship between resolution and error

in real DEMs. For example, in an analysis of

photogrammetrically derived DEMs created

from the ISPRS DEM evaluation exercise

(Torlegrd et al., 1986), Li (1994) observed a

positive relationship between resolution and

error standard deviation (S). In an analysis of

high-resolution DEMs derived from digitized

contours, Gao (1987) observed that errors in

terms of RMSE increased linearly with spatial

resolution, and that the accuracy of represen-

tation was inversely correlated with terrain

complexity. Similar trends have been observed

by Fisher (1998) and Gong et al. (2000).

An attractive strategy for assessing quality

of a DEM is to compare the data with a for-

mal model of that data, which, following

French use, is termed a terrain nominal

(Duckham and Drummond, 2000). For exam-

ple, Duckham and Drummond (2000)

employed a fractal model of physiography as a

formal model for the analysis of river network

characteristics. A similar fractal model was

also used by Polidori et al. (1991) to detect

smoothing due to interpolation in DEMs. In

both cases statements about quality are con-

ditional on the selection of an appropriate for-

mal model, but the appropriateness of such a

model may itself be uncertain (Goodchild and

Tate, 1992).

IV Error models

Modelling the error in continuous variables

can take two possible routes: derivation of

the error analytically, and simulation of the

error stochastically (Shortridge, 2001; Zhang

and Goodchild, 2002). Stochastic simulation

is further subdivided into: unconditioned and

conditioned.

1 Analytical error models

Hunter and Goodchild (1995) utilized a simple

model of error based on the RMSE of the

DEM. For any given pixel, error was assumed

to follow a Gaussian distribution around the

measured elevation value, and the global

RMSE for the DEM was taken to be an esti-

mate of the local error variance around this

value. In this manner, it is relatively simple to

map per-pixel probabilities across a DEM in

relation to a particular given elevation value, a

contour line. This model is embedded in the

Pclass operation of the Idrisi GIS and has been

used by Eastman et al. (1993) in assessing the

risk of sea-level rise leading to ooding. This

approach is also exploited in the work of

Huss and Pumar (1997) to determine the

probability of the visible area.

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 477

2 Unconditioned error simulation models

Unconditioned error simulation models rely

on stochastic simulation of realizations of ran-

dom functions (RF). They are informed by

properties of the error distribution but they

do not honour any actual estimates of error.

At their most basic, they comprise an algo-

rithm to select independent and uncorrelated

values drawn from a normal distribution

which can be added to the original DEM

often using a Monte Carlo method of simulat-

ing a number of independent realizations (eg,

Fisher, 1991; 1992). Such models may be

optionally constrained to a description of the

pattern of spatial dependence in the error.

This can be achieved in a variety of ways, that

include using a random cell-swapping algo-

rithm which iterates towards a desired value

of Morans I (Fisher, 1991), Gearys C

(Veregin, 1997) or (rho) (Hunter and

Goodchild, 1997); a spatially autoregressive

process with a target correlation (Zhang and

Goodchild, 2002: 107) or by using a variogram

to characterize estimates of error (Englund,

1993; Fisher, 1998).

The problem with unconditioned simula-

tion is that it still makes the assumption that

the pattern of error is uniform over the study

area or a wider region. This is not necessarily

the case, as is demonstrable from studies of

the distribution of actual errors (Monckton,

1994; Fisher, 1998). If error is spatially auto-

correlated, then it is generally larger in one

area and smaller in another, it is not the same

everywhere (compare Figure 2, C and D). To

address this regionalization of the error, the

model needs to be conditioned.

3 Conditioned error models

Conditioned error models directly honour

observations of error at the sample locations.

Such observations, for example, might have

been obtained by comparison between the

DEM and a higher accuracy reference data

set collected from within the area of the

DEM. Geostatistical methods of conditional

simulation are popular (Fisher, 1998;

Kyriakidis et al., 1999; Holmes et al., 2000).

A practical approach to geostatistical condi-

tional simulation (Delhomme, 1979; Zhang

and Goodchild, 2002) is to create an uncondi-

tional realization of a RF with a covariance

which matches the observed sample data.

Then, the values of the unconditional realiza-

tion for the sample locations are kriged. Since

both unconditionally simulated and kriged

estimates are available for the RF realization,

this allows direct estimation of the kriging

error. Since kriging is an exact interpolator,

this error will be zero for locations correspon-

ding to the sample locations, but non-zero

elsewhere. This estimate of the kriging error

can then be added to the kriged surface of the

observed sample data to produce a simple

conditional simulation (Delhomme, 1979:

272).

Individual unconditional realizations can be

accumulated in a Monte Carlo methodology

to estimate error statistics as considered in

section V below.

4 Fuzzy elevation models

Recently, a number of researchers have chal-

lenged the assumption that the concept of the

land surface is well dened. They argue that

the denition of what is measured in a digital

elevation model is vague, and so it is suitable

to a treatment by vague or fuzzy mathemat-

ics (Santos et al., 2002; Lodwick and Santos,

2003). Fuzzy set theory and fuzzy logic have

been widely researched in Geographical

Information Science (Fisher, 2000), but fuzzy

mathematics has rarely been employed.

Instead of the values stored in a DEM being

regarded as an estimate of the actual eleva-

tion of the land surface at a point, a fuzzy

DEM assumes that any elevation stored is

one of a number of possible elevations.

Furthermore, the possibility distribution of

the elevations reects, not the error in the

DEM, but the uncertainty in the conceptual-

ization of the surface given that the value

intended to be measured is vague. With the

vertical precision of LiDAR remote sensing

for DEM creation, this is a very real problem:

is the sensor measuring the top of the crop in

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478 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

the eld or the top of the ground and, if it is

bare ground, is it the crest of the plough fur-

row, or the trough? Indeed, comparable ques-

tions, at a different precision, can be asked of

earlier DEMs and even of contour maps: is it

the top of the vegetation (trees) that is meas-

ured or the ground surface? The intention is

clear, but the actuality is in doubt.

V Error propagation

For the study of error distributions in data to

have any meaning, it is important to study

their propagation into subsequent products or

predictions. Digital elevation models are very

widely used in making planning decisions and

in environmental models, and it is the propa-

gation of errors to these types of models that

are of greatest interest. Unfortunately, how-

ever, such propagation is also complicated,

and studies are rare.

Heuvelink et al. (1989) and Heuvelink

(1998) have shown that the Taylor series of

equations can be used to evaluate the propa-

gation of errors into the derivatives when

measurements at a location are compared.

This method can, for example, be employed if

two DEMs of an area are being used to mon-

itor the progressive accumulation of material

in landll sites where the volume of the ll is

an important derivative and margins of error

in estimation are an important potential cost.

Even simpler propagation formulae are

embedded in the Idrisi GIS for simple overlay

actions (Eastman et al., 1993), based on stan-

dard error propagation formulae (Taylor,

1982). As soon as information that is local to

the area of concern is used, including slope or

aspect calculation, the local dependence of

error must become part of the equation and

the formulae become complex. Therefore,

Heuvelink (1998), and many others, recom-

mend working with Monte Carlo simulation.

1 Slope and aspect derivatives

Slope and aspect are important components

for the determination of hydrological flow

paths (Veregin, 1997) and indices employed by

rainfall-runoff models such as TOPMODEL

(Wolock and Price, 1994; Brasington and

Richards, 1998).

The evaluation of the accuracy of eleva-

tion derivatives has usually been obtained by

direct comparison with measurements from

higher accuracy reference surfaces (Chang

and Tsai, 1991) or the real land surface

(Bolstad and Stowe, 1994). Florinsky (1998)

has argued, however, that such comparisons

are invalid since they imply the existence of

higher accuracy reference surfaces that are

locally smooth and differentiable. Real terrain

possesses the fractal characteristic of non-

differentiability, and therefore zooming in to

larger scales will reveal different surfaces with

different gradients/aspects and different

morphometry (Skidmore, 1989; 1990).

We can identify three components to the

error budget of the derivatives of elevation.

First, error, which occurs in measured or

interpolated elevation values, results in error

in the derivatives. Second, uncertainty can be

introduced owing to the resolution of the

DEM. Various empirical studies have been

undertaken to examine the effects of DEM

resolution on the accuracy of slope, gradient

and aspect, with some variability of observa-

tions. For example, Chang and Tsai (1991)

observed that error in all three is positively

related to DEM resolution, although Gao

(1998) found that gradient is the most sensi-

tive to resolution change. These rst two

components collectively constitute what

Florinsky (1998: 49) has termed the accuracy

of the initial data, that is the DEM. The third

component concerns the precision of the cal-

culation method (Florinsky, 1998) where error

is introduced by the specic method of deriv-

ative calculation. Making use of Evanss

(1980) polynomial representation, Florinsky

(1998) derived RMSE error expressions for

gradient, aspect, horizontal and vertical pro-

le curvatures obtained from a DEM. He

showed that error in the derivatives is directly

proportional to elevation RMSE and inversely

proportional to DEM resolution. That ner

resolutions introduce larger errors is a reversal

of the more intuitive positive relationship

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 479

between DEM resolution and error discussed

above, whereby coarser resolution DEMs

introduce greater error as a result of poorer

approximation of the real terrain surface.

The consequences of DEM error on slope

and aspect have also been examined by

Hunter and Goodchild (1997). They simulated

error in a variety of simulations containing dif-

ferent degrees of positive autocorrelation and

added them to the DEM. They explored the

relation to slope and aspect derived from the

DEM. This result was previously suggested by

Goodchild (1996) on the basis that, if the land-

scape is smooth (showing positive spatial

autocorrelation) and the DEM is smooth, then

the error must also vary smoothly from place

to place. If the error has high positive spatial

autocorrelation, then slopes over short

distances (normally cell-to-cell in a GIS calcu-

lation) will have less error than if the positive

autocorrelation over the same distance is close

to zero (ie, the error is white noise). Many

DEMs are not smooth, however, and show

various systematic errors of their creation

as spatial discontinuities, as discussed in

section III.1.

2 Visibility and other products

In a series of papers, Fisher (1991; 1992; 1993;

1996a; 1996b; 1998) has explored the propa-

gation of DEM error into visibility determina-

tion from a DEM (the viewshed) using Monte

Carlo simulation. He has shown that as spa-

tial autocorrelation in the error is increased,

the area determined as being visible increases

(on the same basis as Goodchilds argument

for slope determination). Furthermore, the

distribution of the probability of being visible

is more polarized, with more locations having

higher probabilities. Fisher (1998) also

reported that if the error model is conditioned

on the distribution of empirically determined

errors in the DEM, then the probabilities may

be lower than in an unconditioned error

model with the same degree of cell-to-cell

autocorrelation. Fisher (1998) argued that the

analysts condence in propagating the condi-

tioned error into the visibility problem should

be greater than using unconditioned error

because the model is using as much informa-

tion as is available on the distribution of error.

On the other hand, Ehlschlaeger et al. (1997)

explored the sensitivity of predicted paths to

DEM uncertainty related to the change in

resolution between 0.5 minute arc and 30m.

They used the latter scale data as high-quality

information to parameterize and model the

uncertainty in the former. The same scale

transformation was studied by Kyriakidis et al.

(1999) and Holmes et al. (2000), using

sequential simulation. Holmes et al. (2000)

showed the sensitivity of various simple and

complex derivatives from the DEM, including

hillslope failure. They suggested that working

with the original DEM might seriously under-

estimate the area at risk of such failure.

Several studies have examined the sensi-

tivity of landslide risk estimation to DEM

error. Murillo and Hunter (1997) used Monte

Carlo simulation of DEM error in the US

Pacic Northwest to propagate the error into

a simple model of landslide susceptibility

involving only the DEM and a geological data

set which was treated as correct. Davis and

Keller (1997a; 1997b) went one step further

when they used sequential simulation based

on the variogram for Monte Carlo simulation

of DEM error. The realizations of the error

model were combined in a model with fuzzy

memberships of soil types to model the

boundary uncertainty in the soil database.

A further development is that of sensitivity

and uncertainty analysis advocated by

Crosetto and Tarantola (2001). They pre-

sented a framework where the uncertainty in

inputs and sensitivity in modelling can both be

examined and the inuence of each assessed.

Unfortunately, although their example appli-

cation includes a DEM as input, they do not

parameterize the errors in the DEM and

assess its contribution or importance in the

overall uncertainty of the model. The GLUE

model (generalized likelihood uncertainty

estimation), proposed and investigated exten-

sively by Beven (2002), is primarily intended

for analysis of parameter sensitivity, and has

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480 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

been used in a number of applications where

digital records of elevation are important,

such as hydrological modelling. It has not

been used to examine the model sensitivity to

parameters of DEM error models.

Anile et al. (2003) have considered the

consequences for visibility calculation when

the DEM is treated as fuzzy. They basically

use the fuzziness to predict whether a loca-

tion is in view, could be in view or is not, giv-

ing a three-valued outcome instead of the

usual binary solution (in-view or out-of-

view).

The propagation of DEM error into a num-

ber of environmental and planning models has

been explored. Future research must focus on

judging when the DEM error is critical to an

application and how much uncertainty (from

whatever source) is possible in the other data

before the DEM error is relatively unimpor-

tant in determining the possible variety of

outcomes.

VI Visualization of error

One of the most diagnostic methods for

investigating errors is visualization. The most

common view of a DEM as a contour map or

as a colour (or grey scale) image (Figure 3A),

is only good for detecting the most extreme

errors, however; values that differ dramati-

cally from the elevations in the vicinity (see

section II.3 regarding gross errors/blunders)

can sometimes be detected by this method,

but even then, it is not the most diagnostic

approach.

Hunter and Goodchild (1995) have sug-

gested visualizing uncertainty around a par-

ticular contour line (see also Kraus, 1994).

They take the RMSE to be as a standard devi-

ation from a normal distribution, and calcu-

late the probabilities of any elevation being

less than or greater than a threshold elevation

(the contour value) that can be estimated and

visualized (Hunter and Goodchild, 1995).

The most diagnostic visualization methods

rely on either summary graphs or mapping

DEM derivatives like slope and shaded relief.

These are effective for recognizing system-

atic errors, as opposed to identifying random

error. For example, ghost contours are a sys-

tematic error in many DEMs interpolated

from contour data. They are caused by over-

representation of elevations equal to the digi-

tized contours (Wood, 1994; Guth, 1999),

and can be detected very simply by the cyclic

arrangement of peaks in a histogram of the

DEM (Figure 3B). They are also detectable as

alignments of steep slopes in the DEM due to

the relatively sudden changes from one con-

tour value to another, and are detectable in

slope maps derived from the DEM (Figure

3C). A similar terracing (alignments of

steeper slopes) can be discernable in areas of

very gentle relief, due to storage of the DEM

as integers. This terracing can also be visible

in slope and shaded relief maps derived from

the DEM (Wood and Fisher, 1993). Other

systematic errors that can be detected in

shaded relief maps are the triangular facets

that result from TIN-based interpolation, and

piecewise reformatting in georeferencing

(Hunter and Goodchild, 1995).

Fisher (1997) and Ehlschlaeger et al. (1997)

used animation to visualize uncertainty. In

both studies, time for the viewer is used as a

metaphor for uncertainty, so the longer an

item is unchanged the more certain it is.

Ehlschlaeger et al. (1997) used serial animation

to show the uncertainty in land inundated

when sea levels rise. The land areas exposed

for the longest period are most likely to be dry

land for a particular amount of sea-level rise in

Boston Harbour (see also Eastman et al.,

1993). Fisher (1997), on the other hand, used

a continuously varying random selection of

grid cells in the elevation model, and changed

the elevation in them according to a stochastic

model of the occurrence of error. The display

was therefore continuously changing in a

process he calls random animation. These ani-

mations have advantages and disadvantages,

but to experienced users both methods are

quite intelligible.

Hunter and Goodchild (1996) have dis-

cussed the need for a general model for visu-

alization and management of uncertainty.

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 481

They have advocated the generation of multi-

ple stochastic realizations of equally probable

mappings of all data (including any DEMs)

and, when asked to display a particular theme

for an area, made random selection of one to

display. Crosetto and Tarantola (2001)

employed exactly this approach to uncer-

tainty and sensitivity modelling (especially of

land cover). However, although they used a

DEM in their model, they do not consider the

uncertainty in it.

VII Error correction and tness

for use

The correction of the errors in a DEM is a logi-

cal progression from their identication, detec-

tion, measurement and propagation (Veregin,

1989; Li and Chen, 1999; Lpez, 2002) and is

part of the process of error reduction.

1 Error reduction

Certain types of DEM error can be detected

and corrected relatively easily. Systematic

errors, as depicted in Figure 2D, can often be

identied visually and corrected using some

variant of appropriate low-pass ltering and

value adjustment (Albani and Klinkenberg,

2003). Remarkably few methods exist for

either the detection of other errors from can-

didate elevation values or their correction.

Lpez (1997; 2000) and Felicsimo (1994)

have presented methodologies for the identi-

cation of blunders using a variety of statisti-

cal criteria to distinguish locally extreme

values. Felicsimo (1994) suggested that local

deviations from multiples of standard devia-

tions could be used, while Lpez (1997) pro-

posed a method based on PCA transformed

subsets of DEM values. Lpez (2002) subse-

quently employed both methods in an analy-

sis of the DEMs generated as part of the

ISPRS DEM evaluation exercise (Torlegrd

et al., 1986). Although Lpez (2002) sug-

gested that an expert should assess and cor-

rect each blunder identied, he also proposed

that corrected values could simply be

obtained by linear interpolation from the local

values in the neighbourhood of extreme

points. Using this procedure, he noted that

reductions in RMSE of up to 8% were possible

although the outliers identied comprised less

than 1% of values in each DEM tested.

Other methods for error identication and

correction rely on the introduction of contex-

tual information to determine whether or not

an elevation point contains error. For exam-

ple, the presence of isolated depressions/sinks

in a DEM which make little sense hydrologi-

cally (Jenson and Domingue, 1988) and at

regions characteristic of rounding errors

(Nelson and Jones, 1995) have respectively

led to the development of methods for the

removal of spurious pits and the smoothing of

DEMs. These are relatively simple and com-

mon error correction procedures, and their

use is often motivated by specic hydrological

uses of the DEM, such as drainage network

derivation (Wise, 2000). Wood (2002), how-

ever, has argued that pits can occur as a logi-

cal consequence of the process of DEM

creation, and are common at the conuence

of two channels. However, if the model is

required for hydrological modelling, the ow

through the conuence must be preserved,

and so pit removal is essential.

2 Fitness for use

The determination of whether or not a DEM

is of sufcient quality for a certain application

is a more difcult question. While consider-

able progress has been made in describing and

modelling error, comparatively little progress

has been made in determining the minimum

data quality requirements for specic applica-

tions, or the development of methods to

assess what Chrisman (1983) termed tness

for use (Frank, 1998; Veregin, 1999; de Bruin

et al., 2001). This may be partly explained by a

lack of choice in data supply. Historically, few,

if any, alternative sources of DEM data were

available for specic applications, and where

no alternative data exist the process of assess-

ing tness for use can be considered unneces-

sary (Agumya and Hunter, 2002). However,

with increasing choice in data supply, this situ-

ation is becoming the exception rather than

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482 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

the rule, at least in developed nations. Indeed,

Veregin (1999) has identied increased data

supply by the private sector as one of the main

reasons for an increased interest in data qual-

ity issues. In order to discriminate between

the increasing number and variety of DEM

data products of often contrasting quality that

are now available for individual locations,

appropriate strategies must be developed.

Since error will inuence the quality of infor-

mation obtained from any DEM product, the

user ideally needs to be in a position to answer

the questions identified by Agumya and

Hunter (1999b: 42): Of the available informa-

tion [ie, several candidate DEMs] that can be

afforded, which is the most suitable? and Is

this information [a specic candidate DEM] t

for my application?. Data quality is funda-

mental to both these questions along with

other issues of suitability and tness such as

perhaps resolution and cost. The second ques-

tion requires an assessment of the quality of

the DEM, along with propagation of the qual-

ity to derivatives required by an application.

Data can effectively be considered to be t for

use when the quality of a data set is better

than the worst acceptable quality required by

the application (Frank, 1998: 7). While this

notion is conceptually simple, in practice, the

worst acceptable quality for a specic DEM

application is at best difcult to determine in a

robust and veriable manner and at worst

unknown or unknowable. In such a situation, a

simple, although cost-ineffective and far from

optimal solution, would be to avoid any assess-

ment of tness for use at all, and obtain the

highest-quality data available. Such a situation

is clearly untenable, because such data may

not be t for use for all conceivable applica-

tions, for reasons such as resolution and cost.

As noted by Agumya and Hunter (1999a),

the usual approach to assess tness for use is

standards-based; for example, the user

asserts a threshold of acceptable RMSE for a

DEM. In addition to the shortcomings of

RMSE noted in section IV above, and more

generic problems of standards, such as their

static nature and implementation difculties

(Veregin, 1999), the crucial observation,

made by Devillers et al. (2002) among others,

is that tness for use can only be assessed rel-

ative to an intended use. Therefore, absolute

standards-based statements such as the

RMSE of a DEM are on their own of little

practical use to the data user, who will often

not know a limiting value of RMSE for their

intended application. Agumya and Hunter

(1999b: 35) have observed that the use of

such standards-based statements for the

assessment of tness for use is severely lim-

ited by the lack of any quantitative estimation

of the consequences of error on the decisions

made using the data. For example, given the

propagation of a specic RMSE of a DEM,

what are the consequences of the resulting

error in the derivatives on decisions made

using the data as part of an application? In an

attempt to develop methods to help answer

this question, and to provide an alternative to

a standards-based statement, Agumya and

Hunter have developed a risk-based strategy

for determining the tness for use of digital

geographic data including DEMs (Agumya

and Hunter, 1997; 1999a; 1999b; 2002). The

key component of this strategy is an appraisal

of the consequences of being exposed to risks

of error in the data (by using the data to make

decisions), set against the degree of risk that is

considered to be tolerable. The overall risk

strategy encompasses risk identification,

risk analysis, risk exposure, risk appraisal, risk

assessment and risk response (Agumya and

Hunter, 1999b: 40), who present an example

concerning the selection of a DEM for ood

extent estimation. This strategy offers an

objective procedure to address the conse-

quences of error in decision making, as well as

a framework which requires the assessment

of error as a matter of course. However,

the potential user of a DEM is faced with

additional problems, including making the

comparison between an overall estimate

of potential risk exposure and the

acceptable/tolerable risk which is com-

pounded by the variety of units (eg, lives,

injuries, money) in which risk exposure may

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 483

be expressed (Agumya and Hunter, 1999b),

and determining just what degree of risk is

tolerable in any situation.

De Bruin et al. (2001) have approached the

tness for use problem by the estimation of

what they term the expected value of con-

trol (EVC) within an explicit framework of

probabilistic decision analysis. This enables

the choice of one DEM for a given location

from a selection of candidate DEMs. This

was achieved by the estimation and compari-

son of the expected loss incurred, if each

DEM is used for a specic decision-making

task where loss can be expressed in a number

of ways including economic loss. The esti-

mate of the error in each DEM forms a key

element of the loss. In practice, this error is

estimated, and then propagated probabilisti-

cally into a loss function from which losses are

obtained. In this manner, de Bruin et al. (2001)

obtained and compared the expected losses

for two candidate DEMs of differing origin

and resolution that were available for a spe-

cic construction task in The Netherlands,

where loss could be expressed directly as the

monetary costs incurred to correct any error

in the volume estimated from each DEM.

The expected value of control translates as

the ability of the user to minimize these

losses/costs by the selection of one DEM

rather than another. In the construction DEM

example, there was little difference between

the final estimates of loss/cost, and both

DEMs were deemed equally suitable for the

task at hand. As noted by de Bruin et al.

(2001: 459), the outcomes of the decision

framework need to be assigned values, and

although losses/costs in monetary terms

were calculated for the example used, it may

be impossible to calculate such objective

quantities in other contexts.

VIII Conclusion

From this paper, it can be seen that the focus

of the vast majority of the research on error

(and uncertainty) in DEMs is concerned with

its identification, description, visualization

and modelling. Such work is often only con-

cerned with subsets of steps in the overall

progression from conceptual model to digital

record, as compared with the full process

(Figure 1). Most prevalent are comparisons

between the conceptual model of the land

surface and the contour model, and the con-

ceptual model and the nal DEM (Figure 4).

Complete inventories of errors accumulating

from the beginning to the end of this process

are missing from the research reviewed.

Figure 4 Typical studies of DEM error and uncertainty relate to only part of the

conceptualization of the process of production of DEMs; no research seems to have

studied the whole process

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484 Causes and consequences of error in digital elevation models

A large number of studies have looked at

the process of interpolating a DEM from a

sparse scattering of points or from contour

lines (with intense sampling of points along

the line but none elsewhere). A number of

ingenious approaches to this problem have

been advanced, and knowledge of the sys-

tematic errors introduced by different inter-

polation methods is available. This knowledge

relates to a very specic step in the creation

of a DEM, however, ignoring the errors that

may occur in previous steps in the process

(Figure 1). Furthermore, such studies fre-

quently consider interpolation methods avail-

able to academics, and actually tell us

relatively little about the processes of com-

mercial DEM production even if the methods

are clearly stated by the producers. It might

be argued that this whole corpus of research

is of increasingly little relevance, however,

because the method of DEM creation is

increasingly by active methods described in

section III.1, and measurements may even be

made at a greater density than the grid of the

derived DEM.

Error description, as expressed in stan-

dards of spatial data quality, has always been

based on the RMSE, in spite of the increasing

research literature on error modelling which

has highlighted the statistical shortcomings of

this measure, and demonstrated that much

more can be achieved with a description of

the spatial distribution of error, either as a var-

iogram or by actually including more accurate

values of elevation along with the DEM.

Researchers have used these measures of

error as a basis of modelling and propagating

the error into a number of standard deriva-

tives of DEMs.

An interesting and novel approach to sur-

face creation has been the treatment of the

elevation values as fuzzy numbers. This

approach, however, has been introduced too

recently to be evaluated in any detail in this

review.

The assessment of DEM tness for use is

of increasing importance given the wider

choice in DEM data supply that now exists for

many geographical locations. However, rela-

tively little work has been done in this area.

This must change, for it is arguably only when

the link is made between DEM quality and

application-quality requirements that the real

relevance of DEM error is apparent.

In general, the studies reviewed above

have only considered elevation in isolation

from other types of data. However, the error

in the DEM is just one type of uncertainty

that may enter a particular model. Clearly,

uncertainties can accrue from any error and

uncertainty in other data in the model, specif-

ically, uncertainty in the conceptualization of

the model itself, and uncertainty in the algo-

rithm used to implement the model. Among

those authors who have examined uncer-

tainty in spatial data other than in DEM appli-

cations, very few have examined the

consequences of DEM uncertainty in com-

parison with the uncertainty of the other data

layers in the analysis.

Whilst there is an increasing tendency to

collect larger volumes of elevation data with

seemingly ever-improved precision and accu-

racy, we have no evidence that this improve-

ment and the associated costs are

worthwhile. Very little work has been done to

determine the minimum data requirements

for specic applications of DEMs. The central

question in a modelling process suffused with

uncertainty is: are the errors which may be

present in one type of data input to the model

signicant in terms of the sensitivity of the

model? In certain situations they may be crit-

ical, but in others they may not. If the DEM is

combined with other data in contexts like

hydrological and diffuse pollution modelling,

for example, the effect of the error may be

diluted, and be unimportant compared to

errors in other data and uncertainty in the

model itself. So far, not only has this question

been unanswered, it has been unaddressed.

Acknowledgements

This paper is the outcome of many years work

and therefore owes much to many people, too

numerous to name individually. We would like

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Peter F. Fisher and Nicholas J. Tate 485

to thank all those we have discussed DEM

error with over the years. Nicholas Tate would

specifically like to thank the University of

Leicester for nancial support during a period

of study leave/sabbatical while working on

this paper, as well as logistical support from

Michael Goodchild /NCGIA(UCSB) and

Karen Kemp (University of Redlands) during

this period. The text also beneted from some

useful comments by Claire Jarvis.

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