2010-08-31

Introduction to GDAL

The geospatial data abstraction library (GDAL, www.gdal.org) is an open source library for translating geospatial data between different formats. It is the primary intermediary by which all open-source data analysis and GIS software is able to interact with ArcGIS datasets. For example, one can translate ArcGIS binary grids into GRASS rasters or import them as an SpatialGridDataFrame object in R. GDAL proper supports raster data types, but it has been effectively merged with another library, OGR, that supports vector data conversion.

There are some file formats that are not directly translatable by GDAL, notably ESRI proprietary Smart Data Compression (SDC) files. The GDAL website provides a list of supported vector formats and raster formats. ESRI binary grids, coverages, and personal geodatabases can be read but not written.

Since GDAL is a library, it is meant for developers who write code that reference the library, rather than for end users who actually translate datasets. The library API is in C, but there are bindings for R, Perl, Python, VB6, Ruby, Java and C#. The GDAL package does come with a few commandline utilities for working with geospatial data: GDAL Utilites. Among those tools that I commonly use

gdalinfo
Raster information
gdaltranslate.py
Convert rasters between formats
gdalmerge.py
Merge Tiled rasters into one
gdal2tiles.py
Makes a Google Maps- or Google Earth-compatible set of rasters

Binary distributions of GDAL are available for most platforms are available here, and can be installed without using the command line.

In the next post, we'll look at the R bindings for GDAL in the RGDAL package built by Tim Keitt at the University of Texas, and I will show some examples of working with raster datasets in R.

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