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To georeference something means to define its existence in physical space. That is, establishing its location in terms of map projections or coordinate systems. The term is used both when establishing the relation between raster or vector images and coordinates but also when determining the spatial location of other geographical features. Examples would include establishing the correct position of an aerial photograph within a map or finding the geographical coordinates of a place name or street address. This procedure is thus imperative to data modeling in the field of geographic information systems (GIS) and other cartographic methods. When data from different sources need to be combined and then used in a GIS application, it becomes essential to have a common referencing system. This is brought about by using various georeferencing techniques. Most georeferencing tasks are undertaken either because the user wants to produce a new map or because they want to link two or more different datasets togther by virtue of the fact that they relate to the same geographic locations.


  • Georeferencing is crucial to making aerial and satellite imagery, usually raster images, useful for mapping as it explains how other data, such as the above GPS points, relate to the imagery.
  • Very essential information may be contained in data or images that were produced at a different point of time. It may be desired either to combine or compare this data with that currently available. The latter can be used to analyze the changes in the features under study over a period of time.
  • Different maps may use different projection systems. Georeferencing tools contain methods to combine and overlay these maps with minimum distortion.
  • Using georeferencing methods, data obtained from surveying tools like total stations may be given a point of reference from topographic maps already available.
  • It may be required to establish the relationship between social survey results which have been coded with postal codes or street addresses and other geographic areas such as census zones or other areas used in public administration or service planning.


There are various GIS tools available that can transform image data to some geographic control framework, like ArcMap, PCI Geomatica, or ERDAS Imagine. One can georeference a set of points, lines, polygons, images, or 3D structures. For instance, a GPS device will record latitude and longitude coordinates for a given point of interest, effectively georeferencing this point. A georeference must be a unique identifier. In other words, there must be only one location for which a georeference acts as the reference.

Images may be encoded using special GIS file formats or be accompagnied by a world file.

To georeference an image, one first needs to establish control points, input the known geographic coordinates of these control points, choose the coordinate system and other projection parameters and then minimize residuals. Residuals are the difference between the actual coordinates of the control points and the coordinates predicted by the geographic model created using the control points. They provide a method of determining the level of accuracy of the georeferencing process.

In situations where data have been collected and assigned to postal or area codes, it is usually necessary to convert these to geographic coordinates by use of a definitive directory or gazetteer file. Such gazetteers are often produced by census agencies, national mapping organizations or postal service providers. At their simplest, these may simply comprise a list of area codes or place names and another list of corresponding codes, names or coordinate locations. The range and purpose of the codes available is country-specific. An example is the UK's National Statistics Postcode Directory which shows each postcode's membership of census, administrative, electoral and other geographical areas. In this case, the directory also provides dates of creation and deletion, address counts and an Ordnance Survey grid reference for each postcode, allowing it to be mapped directly. Such gazetteer files support many web-based mapping systems which will place a symbol on a map or undertaken analysis such as route-finding, on the basis of postal codes, addresses or place names input by the user.


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