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Data Accuracy

Precision & Accuracy
Sources of Error
Error Propagation & Cascading


Knowing the quality of the data is critical

to judging the applications for which they
are appropriate
Ironically, error arises from one of
greatest strengths of GIS - the ability to
collate and cross-reference many types of
data by location
Every time a new dataset is imported, the
GIS also inherits its errors which react
with existing errors in unpredictable ways

Precision & Accuracy


the degree to which information on a map or in

a digital database matches true or accepted
pertains to the quality of data and the number
of errors contained in a dataset or map
horizontal and vertical accuracy with respect
to geographic position
attribute, conceptual, and logical accuracy
the level of accuracy required for particular
applications varies greatly
highly accurate data can be very difficult and
costly to produce and compile


refers to the level of measurement and

exactness of description in a GIS database
precise locational data may measure position
to a fraction of a unit
precise attribute information may specify the
characteristics of features in great detail
precise data--no matter how carefully
measured--may be inaccurate eg.
surveyors may make mistakes or data may be
entered into the database incorrectly

the level of precision required for particular

applications varies greatly
engineering projects eg. road and utility
construction, require very precise information
- mm
demographic analyses of marketing or
electoral trends can often make do with less,
say to the closest postcode or CD
highly precise data can also be very difficult
and costly to collect
carefully surveyed locations needed by utility
companies to record the locations of pumps,
wires, pipes and transformers cost $5-$20 per
point to collect

High precision does not indicate high

accuracy nor does high accuracy imply
high precision
Highly accurate and highly precise spatial
information is not necessary for every GIS

excessive accuracy and precision is not only

costly but can swamp your application in
extraneous detail

Be aware also that GIS practitioners are

not always consistent in their use of these

Additional terms

Two additional terms are used as


Data Quality refers to the relative

accuracy and precision of a particular
GIS database - often documented in
data quality reports
Error encompasses both the
imprecision of data and its inaccuracies

Positional Accuracy

the expected deviance in the geographic

location of a feature in the data set from its
true location
tested by selecting a random sample of points
in the data and comparing their coordinates to
their ground positions
U.S. Geological Survey Accuracy Standard:
90% of all measurable points must be within
1/30th of an inch for maps at a scale of
1:20,000 or larger, and 1/50th of an inch for
maps at scales smaller than 1:20,000

Attribute Accuracy

the fidelity of the non-spatial elements of the

inaccuracies may result from mistakes of many
the non-spatial data itself can also vary greatly
in precision
a precise description of a person living at a
particular address might include gender, age,
income, occupation, level of education, and
many other characteristics
an imprecise description might include just
income, or just gender

Logical Consistency

how well logical relations among data

elements are maintained
example: the edge of a property that
borders a lake should coincide with the
lake boundary

Conceptual Accuracy

inaccuracies inherent in the conceptual design

of the database
users may use inappropriate categories or
misclassify information
classifying cities by voting behavior would
probably be an ineffective way to study
fertility patterns
failing to classify power lines by voltage would
limit the effectiveness of a GIS designed to
manage an electric utilities infrastructure

A comparison of elevation
accuracies derived from Differential
GPS and an airborne laser

Sources of Error

Sources of Error

Data Collection

age of data
incomplete data coverage
inappropriate map scales
use of "surrogate" data in place of non-existent primary data
errors in field data collection
errors in existing maps used as source data
errors in the analysis of remotely sensed imagery

Data Input

inaccuracies in digitizing
inaccuracies inherent in the goegraphic features (e.g., "fuzzy" boundaries drawn as sharp lines)

Data Storage

inappropriate data format

insufficient numerical precision
unsufficient spatial resolution

Data Manipulation

numerical computaton errors

inappropriate class intervals
boundary errors
error propogation as multiple overlays are combined
slivers created during polygon overlay

Data Output

scaling inaccuracies
output device inaccuracies
instability of the output medium

Use of Results

the information may be incorrectly understood

the information may be inappropriately used

Error Propagation & Cascading

GIS usually involve operations on

many sets of data
Inaccuracy, imprecision, and error
may be compounded in GIS that
employ many data sources


propagation occurs when one error leads to

example: if a map registration point has been
mis-digitised in one coverage and is then used
to register a second coverage, the second
coverage will propagate the first mistake
in this way, a single error may lead to others
and spread until it corrupts data throughout
the entire GIS project
to avoid this problem use the largest scale
map to register your points
often propagation occurs in an additive
fashion, as when maps of different accuracy
are collated

o cascading occurs when errors are
allowed to propagate unchecked from
layer to layer repeatedly

the effects of cascading can be very

difficult to predict
can be additive or multiplicative
vary depending on how information is