The point-radius method for georeferencing locality descriptions and
calculating associated uncertainty
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 3101 Valley Life Sciences Building,
University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA;
Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy & Management, 151 Hilgard
Hall #3110, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
and ROBERT J. HIJMANS
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 3101 Valley Life Sciences Building,
University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
Natural history museums store millions of specimens of geological, biological,
and cultural entities. Data related to these objects are in increasing demand for
investigations of biodiversity and its relationship to the environment and
anthropogenic disturbance. A major barrier to the use of these data in GIS is
that collecting localities have typically been recorded as textual descriptions,
without geographic coordinates. We describe a method for georeferencing
locality descriptions that accounts for the idiosyncrasies, sources of uncertainty,
and practical maintenance requirements encountered when working with natural
history collections. Each locality is described as a circle, with a point to mark
the position most closely described by the locality description, and a radius to
describe the maximum distance from that point within which the locality is
expected to occur. The calculation of the radius takes into account aspects of the
precision and speciﬁcity of the locality description, as well as the map scale,
datum, precision and accuracy of the sources used to determine coordinates.
This method minimizes the subjectivity involved in the georeferencing process.
The resulting georeferences are consistent, reproducible, and allow for the use of
uncertainty in analyses that use these data.
Natural history collections contain more than 2500 million specimens of
geological, biological, and cultural entities (Duckworth et al. 1993). These resources
constitute a foundation for numerous scientiﬁc disciplines, such as anthropology,
biogeography, biosystematics, conservation biology, ecology, and paleontology.
The data associated with natural history specimens vary widely in nature and
content between disciplines as well as between institutions, including everything
International Journal of Geographical Information Science
ISSN 1365-8816 print/ISSN 1362-3087 online #2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
INT.J.GEOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION SCIENCE
VOL. 18, NO.8,DECEMBER 2004, 745–767
from hand-written notes taken in the ﬁeld at the time of collection (ﬁeld notes) to
databases and published articles in professional journals. Underlying this variation,
however, is a core set of concepts common to all natural history collections, one of
the most important of which is the ‘collecting event’ - a description of the time and
place (locality) where a specimen was collected. The collecting event is an essential
association between the specimen and its natural context and is required for
quantitative analyses of specimen data together with other spatial data using
geographical information systems (GIS).
Despite increasing interest in natural history collection data, there remain
considerable obstacles to their use in GIS. The most prevalent of these obstacles is
that locality descriptions are often not georeferenced. Traditionally, localities have
been recorded as textual descriptions, often based on names and situations that can
change over time. This tradition is slowly changing to document localities
with supplementary geographic coordinates, the value of which are now widely
recognized (Krishtalka and Humphrey 2000, GBIF 2002) and the collection of
which has been greatly facilitated by the availability of the Global Positioning
System (GPS). Nevertheless, researchers interested in spatial analysis using museum
specimen data face a daunting legacy of data without coordinates. For example, at
the beginning of the ‘Mammal Networked Information System’ Project (MaNIS
2001), which consists of a distributed database network for mammal collections, 17
North American mammal collections pooled their specimen locality data for a
collaborative georeferencing effort. 87.8% of the 296 737 distinct collecting localities
from these collections had no coordinates. As of March 2003, 61.2% of the
3 260 453 specimens accessible through Lifemapper (KU-BRC 2002) did not have
georeferenced localities. These statistics are typical of natural history collections
data that are in digital media today, and indicate the magnitude of the
In the relatively few cases in which localities have been assigned coordinates,
there is seldom any documentation of the method used to determine those
coordinates. For example, of the localities for which coordinates had already been
determined at the outset of the MaNIS project, 78.4% of 36 197 records had no
associated metadata regarding the areas encompassed by the localities, nor did they
include information about the methods and assumptions used in assigning the
coordinates and uncertainties associated with them. Thus, even where present,
georeferenced localities may be of limited utility since we have no knowledge of
how they were generated.
To the best of our knowledge, there are currently no published, comprehensive
guidelines for georeferencing descriptive locality data. In the absence of such
guidelines, it has been common practise to assign a single point to a locality,
without estimates of how well that point represents the actual locality. Some
authors call for the capture of categorical measures of uncertainty (McLaren et al.
1996, Knyazhnitskiy et al. 2000), but do not investigate the nature of uncertainties,
their magnitudes, or how different sources of uncertainty combine. Given the
nature of locality descriptions and the variation in quality of coordinate sources
(maps and gazetteers, for example), uncertainty must be estimated under rigorous
guidelines. Whereas the coordinates of some localities can be determined with great
precision, others can only be roughly approximated. If these differences are
not taken into account, uncertainties cannot be incorporated into analyses and
746 J. Wieczorek et al.
it becomes impossible to determine whether a given record is appropriate for a
particular application. Spatial analysis without consideration of data uncertainty
may be of limited utility (Fisher 1999).
Numerous studies have investigated the positional accuracy of spatial data
(Goodchild and Hunter 1997; Leung and Yan 1998; Veregin 2000; Van Niel
and McVicar 2002), which is deﬁned as the difference between test data and
corresponding ‘‘true’’ data of demonstrably higher accuracy (Goodchild and
Hunter 1997; FGDC 1998) and which is expressed as a standard error for a set of
points in a GIS layer (Stanislawski et al. 1996; Bonner et al. 2003).
The approaches used in these studies cannot be directly applied to estimating
uncertainty in georeferenced localities. In contrast to many spatial data sets, which
consist of unambiguously identiﬁable objects that can be directly and repeatedly
measured, it is difﬁcult to provide true data against which to test for many of the
types of potential errors (‘‘uncertainties’’) that plague descriptive localities.
Here we present a simple, practical method for computing and recording
coordinates for a locality. We identify the potential sources of uncertainty, present
methods for determining their magnitudes, and provide a procedure for combining
uncertainties into a single estimate of ‘‘maximum’’ uncertainty associated with the
We propose that the method presented here provides a framework for
producing consistent and accurate interpretations of the locality descriptions and
represents a substantial improvement over current practices. Efﬁciency, accuracy,
and repeatability are our primary goals.
2. Georeferencing methods
2.1. Point method
There are various methods by which locality descriptions can be georeferenced.
The most commonly used is the ‘Point’ method, by which a single coordinate pair is
assigned to each location. This method ignores the fact that a locality record always
describes an area rather than a dimensionless point and that collecting may have
occurred anywhere within the area denoted. The speciﬁcity (that is, how well the
description constrains the interpretation of the area) with which a locality is
recorded directly inﬂuences the range of research questions to which the data can be
applied. For example, recording only the state from which a specimen was collected
will not be of much utility in the compilation of a species list for a National Park in
that state. By providing only a point for a georeferenced record, the distinction is
lost between locality descriptions that are speciﬁc and those that are not.
2.2. Shape method
The shape method is a conceptually simple method that delineates a locality
using one or more polygons, buffered points, and buffered polylines. A
combination of these shapes can represent a town, park, river, junction, or any
other feature or combination of features found on a map. While simple to describe,
the task of generating these shapes can be difﬁcult. Creating shapes is impractical
without the aid of digital maps, GIS software, and expertise, all of which can be
relatively expensive. Also, storing a shape in a database is considerably more
complicated than storing a single pair of coordinates. Particular challenges to
making this method practical for georeferencing natural history collections data
Point-radius method for georeferencing 747
include assembling freely accessible digital cartographic resources and developing
tools for automation of the georeferencing process. Nevertheless, of all of the
approaches discussed here, this method has the potential to generate the most
complete digital spatial descriptions of localities.
2.3. Bounding box method
A common way to describe a geographic feature is to use a bounding box–aset
of two pairs of coordinates that together form a rectangle (in the appropriate
projection) that encompasses the locality being described. Geographic features in
the Alexandria Digital Library Gazetteer Server (ADL 2001) are sometimes
described using bounding boxes. The bounding box method is a limited shape
method by which only points or projected rectangles can be described. This method
offers some advantages over the shape method. For example, bounding boxes are
much easier to produce and store than arbitrary shapes, particularly in the absence
of digital cartographic tools. In addition, database queries can be performed on
bounding boxes without the need for a spatial database engine. However,
describing a locality with a bounding box tends to be less speciﬁc than describing it
with a more complicated shape.
2.4. Point-radius method
The point-radius method describes a locality as a coordinate pair and a distance
from that point (that is, a circle), the combination of which encompasses the full
locality description and its associated uncertainties. The key advantage of this
method is that the uncertainties can be readily combined into one attribute, whereas
the bounding box method requires contributions to uncertainty to be represented
independently in each of the two dimensions. This simple difference can have a
profound effect on the economy of georeferencing. Recognizing the practical
advantages for natural history collections, for which the economy of producing and
maintaining data are critical concerns, the guidelines for georeferencing descriptive
localities presented here will be described in terms of the point-radius method.
Nevertheless, the discussions of the sources of uncertainty are relevant to the
‘Shape’ and ‘Bounding box’ methods as well.
3. Applying the point-radius method
3.1. Step one: classify the locality description
Locality descriptions among natural history collection data encompass a
wide range of content in a bafﬂing array of formats. From the perspective of
georeferencing, however, there are effectively only nine different categories of
descriptions (table 1). The locality type will determine the process of calculating
coordinates and uncertainties.
A locality description can contain multiple clauses and can match more than
one of the categories given in table 1. If any one of the parts falls into one of the ﬁrst
three categories, the locality should not be georeferenced. Instead, an annotation
should be made to the locality record giving the reason why it is not being
georeferenced. In this way, anyone who encounters the locality in the future will
beneﬁt from previous effort to diagnose problems with georeferencing the locality
If the locality description does not fall into any of the ﬁrst three categories in
748 J. Wieczorek et al.
Table 1. Types of locality descriptions commonly found in natural history collections.
Type Description Examples
1) dubious The locality explicitly states that the information contained
therein is in question.
‘Isla Boca Brava?’, ‘presumably central
2) can not be located Either the locality data are missing, or they contain other
than locality information, or the locality cannot be
distinguished from among multiple possible candidates,
or the locality cannot be found with available references.
‘locality not recorded’, ‘Bob Jones’,
‘lab born’, ‘summit’, ‘San Jose, Mexico’
3) demonstrably inaccurate The locality contains irreconcilable inconsistencies. ‘Sonoma County side of the Gualala
River, Mendocino County’
4) coordinates The locality consists of a point represented with coordinate
‘42.4532 84.8429’, ‘UTM 553160 4077280’
5) named place The locality consists of a reference to a geographic feature
(e.g., town, cave, spring, island, reef, etc.) having a spatial
‘Alice Springs’, ‘junction of Dwight
Avenue and Derby Street’
6) offset The locality consists of an offset (usually a distance) from
a named place.
‘5 km outside Calgary’
7) offset along a path The locality describes a route from a named place. ‘1 km S of Missoula via Route 93’’
‘‘600 m up the W Fork of Willow Creek’
8) offsets in orthogonal directions The locality consists of a linear distance in each of two
orthogonal directions from a named place.
‘6 km N and 4 km W of Welna’
9) offset at a heading The locality contains a distance in a given direction. ‘50 km NE Mombasa’
Point-radius method for georeferencing 749
table 1, the most speciﬁc part of the locality description should be used for
georeferencing. For example, a locality written as ‘bridge over the St. Croix River,
4 km N of Somerset’ should be georeferenced based on the bridge rather than on
Somerset as the named place with an offset at a heading. The locality should be
annotated to reﬂect that the bridge was the locality that was georeferenced. If the
more speciﬁc part of the locality cannot be unambiguously identiﬁed, then the less
speciﬁc part of the locality should be georeferenced and annotated accordingly.
3.2. Step two: determine coordinates
The ﬁrst key to consistent georeferencing using the point-radius method is to
have well-deﬁned rules for determining the coordinates of the point. Coordinates
may be retrieved from gazetteers, geographic name databases, maps, or even from
other locality descriptions that have coordinates (for example, from localities
recorded in the ﬁeld using a GPS receiver). The source and precision of the
coordinates should be recorded so that the validity of the georeferenced locality can
be checked at any time. The original coordinate system (for example, decimal
degrees, degrees minutes seconds, UTM) and geodetic datum (for example,
WGS84, NAD27) used in the coordinate source should also be recorded. This
information helps to determine sources and degree of uncertainty, especially with
respect to the original coordinate precision (section 18.104.22.168). We recognize that
speciﬁc projects may require particular coordinate systems, but we ﬁnd geographic
coordinates in decimal degrees to be the most convenient system for georeferencing.
Since this format relies on just two attributes, one for latitude and the other for
longitude, it provides a succinct coordinate description with global applicability
that is readily transformed to other coordinate systems as well as from one datum
to another. By keeping the number of recorded attributes to a minimum, the
chances for transcription errors are minimized.
When transforming coordinates from one system or datum to another, it is
important to preserve as much precision as possible. Coordinate precision is not
a measure of accuracy – it does not imply speciﬁc knowledge of the locality
represented by the coordinates; that role is assumed by the uncertainty
measurements, as described in section 3.3. Every coordinate transformation has
the potential to introduce error. The greater the precision with which the
coordinates are captured, the less the error that is propagated when further
coordinate transformations are made.
3.2.1. Identify named places and determine their extents
The ﬁrst step in determining the coordinates for a locality description is to
identify the most speciﬁc named place within the description. Gazetteers and
geographic name databases provide coordinates for named places (commonly
referred to as ‘features’). However, we use the term ‘named place’ to refer not only
to traditional features, but also to places that may not have proper names, such as
road junctions, stream conﬂuences, and cells in grid systems (for example,
Every named place occupies a ﬁnite space, or ‘extent’. In some sources, places
may be given in the form of bounding box coordinates for larger features (ADL
2001), but in general only a coordinate pair, not an extent, is given. Some
coordinate sources are accompanied by rules governing the placement of the
750 J. Wieczorek et al.
coordinates within a named place. For example, the US Geographic Names
Information Service (USGS 1981) places the coordinates of towns at the main post
ofﬁce unless the town is a county seat, in which case the coordinates refer to the
county courthouse. Similarly, the same source places the coordinates of a river at its
mouth. In the absence of one of these speciﬁc points of reference, the geographic
centre of the named place is usually recorded. Because of these inconsistencies in
assigning coordinates for named places, including inconsistencies within a single
data source, the extent of the named place becomes an important consideration in
The geographic centre (that is, the midpoint of the extremes of latitude and
longitude) of the named place is recommended as the location of the coordinates
because it describes a point where the uncertainty due to the extent of the named
place is minimized. If the locality describes an irregular shape (for example, a
winding road or river) and the geographic centre of that shape does not lie within
the locality, then the point nearest the geographic centre that lies within the shape is
the preferred reference for the named place and represents the point from which the
extent of and offsets from that named place should be calculated.
3.2.2. Determine offsets
Offsets consist of combinations of distances and directions from a named place.
Some locality descriptions explicitly state the path to follow when measuring the
offset (for example, ‘by road’, ‘by river’, ‘by air’, ‘up the valley’). In such cases the
georeferencer should follow the path designated in the description using a map with
the largest available scale to ﬁnd the coordinates of the offset from the named
place. The smaller the scale of the map used, the more the measured distance on the
map is likely to overshoot the intended target.
It is sometimes possible to infer the offset path from additional supporting
evidence in the locality description. For example, in the locality ‘58 km NW of
Haines Junction, Kluane Lake’ supports a measurement by road since the ﬁnal
coordinates by that path are nearer to the lake than going 58 km NW in a straight
line. Altitudes given with the locality description may also support one offset path
over another. By convention, localities containing two offsets in orthogonal
directions (for example, ‘10 km S and 5 km W of Bikini Atoll’) are always linear
Sometimes the environmental constraints of the collected specimen can imply
the method of measurement of the offset. For example, ‘30 km W of Boonville,
California’ if taken as a linear measurement, would lie in the Paciﬁc Ocean. If this
locality is supposed to refer to the collection site of a terrestrial mammal, it is likely
that the collector followed the road heading west out of Boonville, winding toward
the coast, in which case the animal was collected on land.
If either of the above methods fail to distinguish the offset method, it may be
necessary to refer to more detailed supplementary sources, such as ﬁeld notes or
itineraries, to determine this information. Supplementary sources do not always
exist or they may not contain additional information, making it difﬁcult to
distinguish between offsets meant to be along a path and those meant to be along a
straight line. A particularly conservative approach is to not georeference localities
that fall into this category and instead record a comment explaining the reasoning.
However, value can still be derived by georeferencing localities that suffer from
Point-radius method for georeferencing 751
this ambiguity. One solution for dealing with these localities is to determine the
coordinates based on one or the other of the offset paths. Another solution is use
the midpoint between all possible paths. There may be discipline-speciﬁc reasons to
choose one solution over another, but the georeferencer should always document
the choice and accommodate the ambiguity in the uncertainty calculations.
3.3. Step three: Calculate uncertainties
The second key to consistent georeferencing using the point-radius method
(after determining the coordinates of the point) is to have well-deﬁned rules
for determining the radius of the circle that encompasses the locality and all of
its associated uncertainties. Whenever subjectivity is involved, it is preferable to
overestimate uncertainty. We have identiﬁed the following six sources of
uncertainty inherent in descriptive localities or the resources used to georeference
1) extent of the locality
2) unknown datum
3) imprecision in distance measurements
4) imprecision in direction measurements
5) imprecision in coordinate measurements
6) map scale
3.3.1. Uncertainty due to the extent of the locality
The extents of named places mentioned in locality descriptions are an important
source of uncertainty. Not only are the rules for assigning coordinates to named
places largely undocumented in most coordinate data sources, but also the points of
reference may change over time – post ofﬁces and courthouses are relocated, towns
change in size, and so on. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the collector paid
attention to any particular convention when reporting a locality as an offset from a
named place. For example, ‘4 km E of Bariloche’ may have been measured from the
post ofﬁce at the civic plaza, or from the bus station on the eastern edge of town, or
from anywhere else in Bariloche. In most cases we no longer have a way of knowing
the actual location used to anchor the offset.
The maximum uncertainty due to the extent of the named place (ﬁgure 1) is the
maximum distance between any two points within the named place (the ‘span’). If
we have coordinates for a named place from a gazetteer, for example, without
knowing where in the named place those coordinates lie, then the span is the
uncertainty due to the extent of the named place. If we have a map of the named
place, then a more reﬁned uncertainty estimate can be made by measuring the
distance from the point marked by the coordinates to the point in the named place
furthest from those coordinates. The magnitude of the uncertainty value is
minimized if the coordinates mark the geographic centre of the named place and is
generally about half the span of the locality.
Many localities are based on named places that have changed in size over time;
current maps might not reﬂect the extents of those places at the time specimens
were collected there. If possible, extents should be determined using maps dating
from the same period as the specimen collecting events. In most cases, the current
extent of a named place will be greater than its historical extent and the uncertainty
752 J. Wieczorek et al.
will be somewhat overestimated if current maps are used. It is recommended to
record the named place, its extent, and the source of these data while georeferencing
so that users of the data can verify this important component of the uncertainty
3.3.2. Uncertainty due to an unknown datum
A geodetic datum is a mathematical description of the size and shape of the
earth and of the origin and orientation of coordinate systems. Seldom in natural
history collections have geographic coordinates been recorded together with
geodetic datum information. Even now, with GPS coordinates being recorded as
deﬁnitive locations, the geodetic datum is typically ignored. A missing datum
reference introduces a complicated ambiguity, which varies geographically (Welch
and Homsey 1997).
Many currently available maps of North America are based on the North
American Datum of 1927 (NAD27), but the North American Datum of 1983
(NAD83) is being used increasingly more often among newer maps. NAD83 is
essentially the same as the World Geodetic System of 1984 datum (WGS84), a
standard reference datum for the Global Positioning Systems (Defense Mapping
Agency 1991). We calculated the magnitude of uncertainty for North America
(Canada, USA, and Mexico) based on the differences between NAD27 and
NAD83/WGS84 (ﬁgure 2) using transformation functions in ArcGIS (ESRI,
Redlands, CA, USA). The uncertainty from not knowing which of these datums
was used to determine the coordinates varies in the contiguous USA from 0–104 m.
In the extreme western Aleutian Islands of Alaska, the discrepancy can be as much
as 237 m, while in Hawaii the differences are consistently ca. 500 m. On the global
scale, we calculated a maximum uncertainty of 3552 m due to an unknown datum.
This value was obtained by comparing pairwise distances between all combinations
of datums listed in the WGS84 deﬁnition (NIMA 2000) at one degree intervals in
both latitude and longitude. Given the potential magnitude of this uncertainty,
every effort should be made to use coordinate sources that provide datum
information and to record the datum of those sources as a routine part of data
3.3.3. Imprecision as a source of uncertainty
Precision is a measure of the speciﬁcity with which a measurement is recorded.
Precision can be difﬁcult to gauge from a locality description; it is seldom, if ever,
explicitly recorded. Further, a database record may not reﬂect, or may reﬂect
incorrectly, the precision inherent in the original measurements, especially if the
Figure 1. The maximum (AB) and minimum (BC) uncertainties due to the extent of a
named place (shaded area).
Point-radius method for georeferencing 753
locality description in the database has undergone standardization, reformatting, or
secondary interpretation of the original description. There are distinct implications
that arise from the level of precision in distance measurements, directions
(headings), and coordinates. These are addressed in the subsections below.
22.214.171.124. Uncertainty associated with distance precision.Distance may be recorded in
a locality description with or without signiﬁcant digits, and those digits may or may
not be warranted. Distances are commonly recorded with few or no signiﬁcant
digits, or even with fractions. Locality descriptions may also have undergone
reformatting to remove fractions or signiﬁcant digits. For example, suppose a
specimen label was written in the ﬁeld as locality ‘Lkm W of Inverness’, which was
entered into a database as ‘0.75 km W of Inverness’. In the original, it is clear that
Figure 2. Uncertainty from not knowing whether coordinates were taken from a source
using NAD27 or NAD83 – the geodetic datums most commonly used on maps in
Canada, the USA, and Mexico.
754 J. Wieczorek et al.
the collector was conﬁdent of recording the distance with one quarter km precision.
Without consulting the specimen tag it may be difﬁcult to determine how much
distance precision is warranted. If the original tag is not consulted, then a
conservative way to ensure that distance precision is not inﬂated is to treat distance
measurements as integers with fractional remainders, thus 10.25 becomes 10 J,
thus accounting for the possible (and not uncommon) transformation of a fraction
in the original data to a real number in the database record. The uncertainty for
these distances should be calculated based on the fractional part of the distance,
using 1 divided by the denominator of the fraction.
Examples: ‘9 km N of Bakersﬁeld’ (fraction is 1/1, uncertainty should be 1 km)
‘9.5 km N of Bakersﬁeld’ (fraction is ½, uncertainty should be 0.5 km)
‘9.75 km N of Bakersﬁeld’ (fraction is L, uncertainty should be 0.25 km)
‘9.6 km N of Bakersﬁeld’ (fraction is 6/10, uncertainty shouldbe 0.1 km)
For measurements that appear as integer multiples of powers of 10 (for
example, 10, 20, 300, 4000), use 0.5 times ten to that power for the uncertainty.
Examples: ‘140 km N of Bakersﬁeld’ (uncertainty should be 5 km)
‘100 km N of Bakersﬁeld’ (uncertainty should be 50 km)
‘2000 m N of Bakersﬁeld’ (uncertainty should be 500 m)
126.96.36.199. Uncertainty associated with directional precision.Direction is almost always
expressed in locality descriptions using cardinal or inter-cardinal directions rather
than degree headings. This practise can introduce uncertainty due to directional
imprecision. The problem arises from the fact that we don’t know, out of context,
what the recorder meant by ‘north’ except that it is distinct from the other cardinal
directions. Hence, ‘north’ is not ‘east’ or ‘west’, but it could be any direction
between northeast and northwest. The directional uncertainty in these cases is 45
degrees in either direction from the given heading.
Example: ‘10 mi N of Bakersﬁeld’
If a related set of locality descriptions (for example, those by a collector on a
given expedition) contain any directions more speciﬁc than the cardinal directions
(for example, ‘NE’), then the person recording the data was demonstrably sensitive
to inter-cardinal directions. Thus, ‘NE’ could mean any direction between ENE and
NNE. The directional uncertainty in these cases is 22.5 degrees in either direction
from the given heading.
Example: ‘10 mi NE of Bakersﬁeld’
A locality description that contains further reﬁned directions is correspondingly
more precise. Thus, in the following example the directional uncertainty is 11.25
Example: ‘10 mi ENE of Bakersﬁeld’
If the locality description contains two orthogonal directions, convention holds
that the measurements are linear in exactly those directions. In this case there is no
Example: ‘10 mi N and 5 mi E of Bakersﬁeld’
188.8.131.52. Uncertainty associated with coordinate precision.Recording coordinates
with insufﬁcient precision can result in unnecessary uncertainties. Therefore, as
many digits of precision as are reported by the source should be retained when
recording geographic coordinates. The magnitude of the uncertainty due to
Point-radius method for georeferencing 755
coordinate imprecision is a function not only of the precision with which the data
are recorded, but also a function of the datum and the coordinates themselves.
Uncertainty due to the imprecision with which the original coordinates were
recorded can be estimated as follows:
lat error2zlong error2
lat error~pR|(coordinate precision)=180:0
long error~pX|(coordinate precision)=180:0
where Ris the radius of curvature of the meridian at the given latitude, Xis the
distance from the point to the polar axis, orthogonal to the polar axis, and
coordinate precision is the precision with which the coordinates were recorded, as a
fraction of one degree. Ris given by Equation 2.
where ais the semi-major axis of the reference ellipsoid (the radius at the equator)
and eis the ﬁrst eccentricity of the reference ellipsoid, deﬁned by Equation 3.
where fis the ﬂattening of the reference ellipsoid. Xis also a function of geodetic
latitude and is given by Equation 4.
X~Ncos latitudeðÞ ð4Þ
where Nis the radius of curvature in the prime vertical at the given latitude and is
deﬁned by Equation 5.
Example: Latitude~10.27; Longitude~2123.6; Datum~WGS84
In this example the coordinate precision is 0.01 degrees. Thus, lat_error~
1.1061 km, long_error~1.0955 km, and the uncertainty resulting from the combina-
tion of the two is 1.5568 km. These calculations use a semi-major axis (a)of
6378137.0 m and a ﬂattening ( f) of 1/298.25722356 based on the WGS84 datum.
Examples of error contributions for different levels of precision in the original
coordinates (using the WGS84 reference ellipsoid) are given in table 2. Calculations
are based on the same degree of imprecision in both coordinates and are given for
several different latitudes.
3.3.4. Uncertainty due to map scale
Maps have an inherent level of accuracy. Unfortunately, the accuracy of many
maps, particularly old ones, is undocumented. Accuracy standards generally explain
the physical error tolerance on a printed map, so that the net uncertainty is
dependent on the map scale. Following are the map accuracy standards published
by the US Geological Survey: ‘For maps on publication scales larger than 1:20,000,
not more than 10 percent of the points tested shall be in error by more than 1/30 inch,
756 J. Wieczorek et al.
measured on the publication scale; for maps on publication scales of 1:20,000 or
smaller, 1/50 inch’ (USGS 1999).
It is important to note that a digital map is never more accurate than the
original from which it was derived, nor is it more accurate when you zoom in on it.
The accuracy is strictly a function of the scale and digitizing errors of the original
map. A value of 1 mm of error can be used on maps for which the standards are not
published. This corresponds to about three times the detectable graphical error and
should serve well as an uncertainty estimate for most maps. By this rule, the
uncertainty for a map of scale 1:500 000, for example, is 500 m.
3.4. Step four: calculate combined uncertainties
The uncertainties associated with a given locality description depend on the
coordinate source, of which we identify four categories: GPS, locality record,
gazetteer, and map. Table 3 shows the potential sources of uncertainty that may be
relevant for each of the four categories. We describe how to calculate the various
combinations of uncertainties in the subsections below.
3.4.1. Calculating uncertainties having no directional imprecision
Distance uncertainties in any given direction are linear and additive. Following
is an example of a simple locality description and an explanation of the manner in
which multiple sources of uncertainty interact.
Example: ‘6 km E (via Highway 58) of Bakersﬁeld’
The potential sources of uncertainty for this example are 1) the extent of
Table 2. Uncertainty in meters as a function of latitude. Estimates of uncertainty are based
on coordinate precision measured in degrees using the WGS84 reference ellipsoid and
are rounded up to the next greater integer value.
0 degrees 30 degrees 60 degrees 85 degrees
1.0 156904 146962 124605 112109
0.1 15691 14697 12461 11211
0.01 1570 1470 1247 1122
0.001 157 147 125 113
0.0001 16 15 13 12
0.00001 2 2 2 2
Table 3. Potential sources of uncertainty inherent in georeferencing descriptive localities
using four common sources of coordinates.
Source of uncertainty
GPS X X X X
map X X X X X X
gazetteer X X X X X
Point-radius method for georeferencing 757
Bakersﬁeld, 2) an unknown datum, 3) distance imprecision, and 4) map scale.
Suppose the centre of Bakersﬁeld is 3 km from the eastern city limit and the
distance is being measured on a USGS map at 1:100,000 scale with the NAD27
datum. The uncertainty due to the extent of Bakersﬁeld is 3 km, there is no
uncertainty due to an unknown datum, the distance imprecision is 1 km, and the
uncertainty due to map scale is 51 m (167 ft). The overall uncertainty for this
locality is the sum of these, or 4.051 km.
If there are two orthogonal offsets from a named place in the locality
description, uncertainties apply to each of the directions and the combination of
them is non-linear.
Example: ‘6 km E and 8 km N of Bakersﬁeld’
For the example above, ignore, for the moment, all sources of uncertainty
except those arising from distance imprecision. Under this simpliﬁcation, a proper
description of the uncertainty is a bounding box centred on the point 6 km E and
8 km N of Bakersﬁeld. Each side of the box is 2 km in length (1 km uncertainty in
each cardinal direction from the centre). In order to characterize the net uncertainty
with a single distance measurement, we need to calculate the radius of the circle
that circumscribes the above-mentioned bounding box. The radius could either be
measured on a map or calculated using a right triangle, the hypotenuse of which is
the line between the centre of the bounding box and a corner. Given the rule that
the distance precision is the same in both cardinal directions, the triangle will
always be a right isosceles triangle and the hypotenuse will always be ﬃﬃﬃ
distance precision. So, for the above example the uncertainty associated with the
distance precision alone is 1.414 km (ﬁgure 3).
Thus far we have accounted only for distance precision in this example. To
incorporate the uncertainty due to extent, determine the distance from the
geographic centre of the named place to the furthest point within the named place
in either of the two cardinal directions mentioned in the locality description. Add
this distance to the uncertainty due to the distance precision and multiply the sum
p. Suppose the furthest extent of the city limits of Bakersﬁeld either east or
north from the geographic centre is 3 km. There is a total of 4 km of uncertainty in
each of the two directions and the radius of the circumscribing circle is 4 km times
p, or 5.657 km (ﬁgure 4).
Suppose the coordinates for Bakersﬁeld (35‡22’24@N, 119‡01’04@W) are taken
from the GNIS database (USGS 1981), in which the datum is either NAD27 or
NAD83, and the coordinates are given with precision to the nearest second. At this
location the uncertainty due to an unknown datum is 79 m. The datum uncertainty
contributes in each of the orthogonal directions. Thus, the summed uncertainty in
each direction is 4.079 km and the net uncertainty is this number times ﬃﬃﬃ
The coordinates in the GNIS database are given to the nearest second. The
uncertainty due to coordinate precision alone is about 39 m at the latitude of
Bakersﬁeld based on Equation 1. This number already accounts for the
contributions in both cardinal directions, so it must not be multiplied by ﬃﬃﬃ
Instead, simply add the coordinate precision uncertainty to the calculated sum of
uncertainties from the other sources. For the example above, the net uncertainty is
If the coordinates for Bakersﬁeld had been taken from a USGS map with a
758 J. Wieczorek et al.
scale of 1:100 000, the datum would be on the map, so there would be no
contribution to the error from an unknown datum (assuming the georeferencer
records the datum with the coordinates). However, the uncertainty due to the map
scale would have to be considered. For a USGS map at 1:100 000 scale, the
uncertainty is 167 ft, or 51 m (based on the USGS map accuracy standards). In the
above example, the uncertainty in each direction is 4.051 km. When multiplied by
p, their combination is 5.729 km. Add the uncertainty due to coordinate
imprecision to this value to get the net uncertainty. Suppose the minutes are
marked on the margin of the map and we interpolated to get coordinates to the
nearest tenth of a minute. The coordinate precision is 0.1 minutes and the
uncertainty is 0.239 km from this source, therefore the maximum error distance is
3.4.2. Calculating combined distance and direction uncertainties
The distance uncertainties in a given direction are linear and additive, but their
sum contributes non-linearly to the uncertainty arising from directional impreci-
sion. An additional technique is required to account for the correlation between
these two types of imprecision.
Figure 3. Uncertainty due to distance imprecision for two orthogonal offsets from the
centre of a named place.
Point-radius method for georeferencing 759
Example: ‘9 km NE of Bakersﬁeld’
Without considering distance precision, the directional uncertainty (ﬁgure 5) is
encompassed by an arc centred (at the coordinates x,y)10km(d) from the centre of
Bakersﬁeld at a heading of 45 degrees (h), extending 22.5 degrees in either direction
Figure 4. Uncertainty due to the combination of distance imprecision and the extent of a
Figure 5. Uncertainty (e) due to direction imprecision for a direction speciﬁed as northeast
(NE). The actual direction could be anywhere between ENE and NNE; erepresents
the maximum distance by which the actual locality could vary from reported locality.
760 J. Wieczorek et al.
from that point. At this scale the distance (e) from the centre of the arc to the
furthest extent of the arc (at x’,y’) at a heading of 22.5 degrees (h’) from the centre
of Bakersﬁeld is given by Equation 6.
where x~dcos(h), y~dsin(h), x’~dcos(h’), and y’~dsin(h’). For the example
above, the uncertainty (e) due to the direction imprecision is 3.512 km.
Now consider the distance uncertainties in this example. Suppose the
contributions to distance uncertainty are 3 km (extent of Bakersﬁeld), 1 km
(distance precision for ‘9 km’), 0.079 km (unknown datum), and 0.040 km (gazetteer
data are recorded to the nearest second) for a sum of 4.119 km. The shape of the
region describing the combination of distance and direction uncertainties will be a
band twice this width (2 64.119~8.238 km) centred (at the coordinates x,y)onan
arc offset from the origin by 9 km, spanning 22.5 degrees on either side of the NE
heading (ﬁgure 6). Uncertainty is still calculated with Equation 6, but now
x’~(dzd’) cos(h’), and y’~(dzd’) sin(h’), where d’is the sum of the distance
The geometry can be generalized and simpliﬁed, by rotating the image in ﬁgure 6
so that the point (x’,y’) is on the xaxis (ﬁgure 7). After rotation, Equation 6 still
holds, but now x~dcos(a), y~dsin(a), x’~dzd’, and y’~0, where d’is still the
sum of the distance uncertainties and a is an angle equal to the magnitude of the
direction uncertainty. For the example above, the distance uncertainty is 4.119 km
and the direction uncertainty is 22.5 degrees. Given these values, the maximum
error distance is 5.918 km.
Figure 6. Uncertainty (e) due to the combination of distance imprecision (d’) and direction
imprecision (h’) for a locality specifying an offset (d) northeast (NE) of the centre of
a named place. The actual locality could be anywhere between ENE and NNE and
up to a distance d’either side of the offset d.
Point-radius method for georeferencing 761
3.5. Step ﬁve: calculating overall error
Thapa and Bossler (1992) distinguish between primary and secondary data
collection. Primary data are taken directly from the ﬁeld (ground surveying,
remotely sensed imagery, GPS readings). Secondary data are derived from existing
documents (maps, charts, graphs, gazetteers). Errors in secondary data consist not
only of those introduced in primary data collection (such as human and
instrumental errors), but also of those introduced from secondary data collection
(such as errors due to map inaccuracy). The post facto process of georeferencing
specimen locality descriptions relies heavily on secondary data. Thapa and Bossler
(1992) conclude that it is difﬁcult, if not impossible, to calculate the total error
introduced by secondary data collection, because the functional relationships
among the various sources of error are unknown. They assume a linear relationship
between the total error and individual errors (e
, typically Root Mean Square
[RMS] is used), and apply the law of error propagation (Equation 7).
is the standard error for source of error n.
There are a number of ambiguities that arise in locality descriptions to which
root mean square errors and the law of error propagation cannot be readily
applied. For example, how does one ﬁnd the RMS error in the interpretation of
‘‘west’’? In addition, many of our individual error components, such as the error
from having an unknown datum, do not have a Normal distribution. For these
reasons, we have calculated maximum potential errors. The error propagation law
does not apply to this type of error. Instead, we calculate total error as the sum of
individual error components (Equation 8), and not as the square root of the sum of
the squared errors (Equation 7; which would always leads to a lower estimate than
Figure 7. Uncertainty diagram rotated to simplify the equation for the net uncertainty (e)–
the combination of distance and direction uncertainties.
762 J. Wieczorek et al.
where uis the maximum uncertainty for independent (i) or dependent (d) sources of
Like Thapa and Bossler (1992), we assume a linear relationship between total
error and individual errors for which there is no known functional relationship
(all ‘independent’ uncertainties u
). Uncertainties that do have known relationships
(all ‘dependent’ uncertainties u
; for example, uncertainty due to distance and
directional imprecision) are combined ﬁrst on the basis of their relationships and
are then combined linearly to achieve the overall maximum uncertainty.
3.6. Step six: document the georeferencing process
When georeferencing a locality description, it is important to document the
process by which the data were determined and record this information with each
locality record so that anyone who encounters the data will beneﬁt from the effort
expended in providing a high-quality georeference. We recommend that the list of
attributes recorded for each georeferenced locality include decimal latitude, decimal
longitude, horizontal datum, net uncertainty (distance and units), original
coordinate system, name of the person, organization, or software version that
georeferenced the locality, georeferencing date, references used, reason if not
georeferenced, named place, extent of the named place, determination method (for
example, the point-radius method), veriﬁcation status, and the assumptions made.
With completely documented georeferenced localities, researchers who use the data
can quickly verify that the georeferencing was done correctly.
The point-radius method described here was developed to meet the georeferen-
cing challenges of the MaNIS project, in which more than 40 individuals have used
these methods in a collaborative georeferencing effort covering locality descriptions
from all over the world. Localities were grouped by geographic region for the
MaNIS project, with each participating institution georeferencing all of the
localities within a given region for all participating institutions. A Java applet to
calculate coordinates and uncertainties (ﬁgure 8) for the point-radius method was
created by the ﬁrst author and is freely available for use in Internet web browsers
(Wieczorek 2001). Uncertainty calculations using this tool are simple, fast, and
yield consistent results. Georeferencing rates for geographic regions varied,
depending heavily on the resources that were available to the georeferencers.
Where digital maps were available for a geographic region, the mean (¡1 SD)
georeferencing rate was 16.6 (¡8.3) localities per hour (n~14 data sets from 14
institutions). The mean georeferencing rate for regions where printed maps were
used instead of digital media was 9.6 (¡6.8) localities per hour (n~39 data sets
from four institutions). These rates include the determinations of both coordinates
and uncertainties, with full documentation as recommended in section 3.5.
The georeferencing rates reported for MaNIS include only those data sets that
were georeferenced manually, without the beneﬁt of automated techniques.
Preliminary tests suggest that the efﬁciency of georeferencing can be increased
through automation, but that the resulting georeferences need to go through an
extra veriﬁcation step to ensure that the interpretation of the descriptive locality
was made correctly. Even without automation, systematic error checking is
necessary to ﬁnd inaccurate locality descriptions or incorrectly georeferenced
Point-radius method for georeferencing 763
localities. Some errors can be exposed by analyses that include complementary data
sets. One test for georeferenced localities is to determine if the coordinates for the
locality lie within the correct administrative boundaries, such as a country or lower
level geographic unit (Hijmans et al. 1999). A more interesting test can be made by
combining locality data for a given species with environmental data for those
localities to reveal ecological ‘outliers’ that may have resulted from inaccuracies in
the locality description or from the misidentiﬁcation of the specimen. Another
example is to plot the collecting events of an expedition in temporal order; localities
that lie outside of the normal patterns in the expedition may be in error. These
examples illustrate that GIS can be used post-hoc to improve the quality of the
original data as well as to validate georeferences.
We have identiﬁed individual sources of error associated with the coordinates of
a point that represents a collection locality, and we have provided methods for
quantifying these individual error components in terms of maximum potential
error. We suggest summing the individual maximum error components because
commonly used alternative approaches, such as the law of error propagation, do
not readily apply.
Without baseline test data, it is also difﬁcult to produce error descriptions using
alternative, fuzzy models (Altman 1994; Cross and Firat 2000), because this
approach also relies on functions to describe error distributions. However, the law
of error propagation, using standard errors, as well as fuzzy methods would be
useful for determining error contributions for different coordinate sources (maps,
gazetteer, and GIS layers, for example) where test data are available. These
methods could even prove viable under limited circumstances for the much more
difﬁcult case of georeferencing locality descriptions. Appropriate error functions
Figure 8. Screen shot of the Georeferencing Calculator after coordinates and uncertainty
for a locality comprised of an offset at a heading have been calculated.
764 J. Wieczorek et al.
would have to be built from sets of locality descriptions for which the true localities
were known. These functions might then be applied to localities of similar syntax.
Nevertheless, the one goal of this study is to provide an effective means to ﬁlter
individual records based on the upper bound of the combination of all uncertainties
inherent in the assignment of coordinates to a place with a spatial extent. By careful
speciﬁcation of the assumptions and of the techniques for combining uncertainties,
we present a simple, practical method for computing and recording geographic
coordinates and assigning this ‘‘maximum’’ uncertainty to each individual locality
The methods in this study provide an effective means to ﬁlter individual records
based on the upper bound of the combination of all uncertainties inherent in the
assignment of coordinates to a place with a spatial extent. In addition, more
elaborate methods could be developed to use the uncertainty associated with a
georeference in analysis, using fuzzy logic or other approaches (Burrough and
McDonnel, 1998). Every georeference is a hypothesis. Before georeferenced data are
used in analyses, every effort should be made to ensure that the locality description
accurately describes the place where the specimen was collected. This is particularly
true of localities reported with coordinates; even though the coordinates may
accurately refer to a speciﬁc location such as beginning of a trap line, the specimens
may have been collected over a considerably greater area. Collectors should also be
aware of this problem and annotate their localities to avoid underestimations of the
extent of the locality.
The point-radius method provides a practical solution for georeferencing
descriptive localities that can be widely implemented, especially in communities
where sophisticated GIS expertise is lacking. By accounting for the size of the
locality, the point-radius method provides a more accurate description of a locality
than is possible with the point method. By providing a single measure of the
combination of uncertainties inherent in the locality description, the applicability of
a locality for a given analysis can be more readily discerned than with the bounding
box method. By capturing the spatial attributes of the locality in a simple,
consistent set of parameters, the point-radius method offers a solution that is
practical for natural history collections without the need for spatial databases that
would be necessary to store georeferences created using the shape method.
Checking for and correcting errors can be time consuming. With a well-deﬁned
georeferencing method, appropriate tools, and proper documentation of the
resulting data, the number of errors will be minimized and the results of effort
expended to georeference the locality will be available in perpetuity.
The authors would like to thank Stan Blum, Elizabeth Proctor, and George
Chaplin for their early inspiration to develop rigorous georeferencing methods.
Larry Speers encouraged us to develop and document methods that are practical
for natural history collections. Gary Shugart and Reed Beaman have provided
critical analysis of the point-radius method and have investigated means to
automate the process. Eileen Lacey provided useful discussion and criticism. Craig
Wieczorek provided programming assistance. We extend special thanks to Barbara
Point-radius method for georeferencing 765
Stein and the numerous participants in the MaNIS Project, without whose practical
feedback and encouragement these methods would not likely have been elaborated.
Funding leading to this publication was generously provided by the National
Science Foundation (DBI #0108161) and the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate
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