Posts Tagged ‘coordinate systems’

Adding a Scale Bar in the QGIS Map Composer

Friday, August 31st, 2012

I recently finished revisions for the next edition of the manual for my GIS workshop, and incorporated a new section on adding a scale bar in the QGIS map composer. I thought I’d share that piece here. I’m using the latest version of QGIS, 1.8 Lisboa.

The scale bar in the map composer automatically takes the units used in the coordinate reference system (CRS) that your layers are in. In order to get a scale bar that makes sense, your layers will need to use a CRS that’s in meters or feet. If you’re using a geographic coordinate system that’s in degrees, like WGS 84 or NAD 83, the result isn’t going to make sense. It’s possible at large scales (covering small areas) to convert degrees to meters or feet but it’s a pain. Most projected coordinate systems for countries, continents, and the globe use meters. Regional systems like UTM also use meters, and in the US you can use a state plane system and choose between meters or feet. Transform your layers to something that’s appropriate for your map.

Once you have layers that are in a CRS that uses meters or feet, you’ll need to convert the units to kilometers or miles using the scale bar’s menu. Let’s say I have a map of the 50 states that’s in the US National Atlas Equal Area Projection, which is a continental projected coordinate system of the US, number 2163 in the EPSG library (this system is also known as the Lambert Azimuthal Equal-Area projection). It’s in meters. In the QGIS Map Composer I select the Add New Scalebar button, and click on the map to add it. The resulting scale bar is rather small and the units are clumped together.

Scalebar button on the toolbar

With the scale bar active, in the menus on the right I click on the Item Properties. First, we have to decide how large we want the individual segments on the scale bar to be. I’m making a thematic map of the US, so for my purposes 200 miles would be OK. The conversion factor is 1,609 meters in a mile. Since we want each segment on the scale bar to represent 200 miles, we multiply 1,609 by 200 to get 321,800 meters. In the Item tab, this is the number that I type in the segment size box: 321,800, replacing the default 100,000. Then, in the map units by bar, I change this from 1 to 1,609. Now the units of the scale bar start to make sense. Increase the number of right segments from 2 to 3, so I have a bar that goes from 0 to 600 miles, in 200 mile segments. I like to decrease the height of the bar a bit, from 5mm to 3mm. In the Unit label box I type Miles. Lastly, I switch to the General options tab just below, and turn off the outline for the bar. Now I have a scale bar that’s appropriate for this map!

Most people in the rest of the world will be using kilometers. That conversion is even simpler. If we wanted the scale bar segments to represent 200 km, we would multiply 200 by 1,000 (1,000 meters in a kilometer) to get 200,000 meters. 200,000 goes in the segment size box and 1,000 goes in the map units per bar. Back in the US, if you’re working in a local state plane projection that uses feet, the conversion will be the familiar 5,280 feet to a mile. So, if we wanted a scale bar that has segments of 20 miles, multiply 5,280 by 20 to get 105,600 feet. 105,600 goes in the segment size box, and 5,280 goes in the map units per bar box.

A reality check is always a good idea. Take your scale bar and compare it to some known distance between features on your map. In our first example, I would drag the scale bar over the map of the US and measure the width of Illinois at its widest point, which is just over 200 miles. In the Item Properties tab for the scale bar I turn the opacity down to zero, so the bar doesn’t hide the map features underneath. If the bar matches up I know I’m in good shape. Remember that not all map projections will preserve distance as a property, and distortion becomes an issue for small scale maps that cover large areas (i.e. continents and the globe). On small scale maps distance will be true along standard parallels, and will become less accurate the further away you go.

Common Map Projection Definitions

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Just finished teaching my second intro to GIS workshop using open source software (QGIS). Coordinate systems and map projections are always one of the toughest hurdles for novices. It’s hard enough just teaching the basic concepts using the existing CRS libraries in QGIS; having to custom define a number of common projected coordinate systems makes the process more daunting. For example, when we’re producing a thematic map of the US I want to use Lambert Conformal Conic for North America, but I have to give the students a proj4 definition in a text file and explain how you have to comb through the Spatial Reference site to find it.

For reference purposes and to make things a bit simpler, I’m providing some codes and definitions for some common coordinate reference systems (common for the participants in class) in this post. You can look up projection definitions at Spatial Reference and use the map projection resources at Radical Cartography and the USGS to see depictions and explanations of different systems. I created the projection images in this post using NASA’s G.Projector tool; a lightweight cross-platform tool for experimenting with projections.

The following CRS are pretty common and are included in the EPSG library used by QGIS – no need to custom define them, just search by name and code (the EPSG codes are ID codes for each CRS):

Geographic Coordinate Systems:

WGS84 (EPSG 4326): World Geodetic System of 1984, commonly used by organizations that provide GIS data for the entire globe or many countries and used by most web-based mapping engines (Google Maps)

NAD83 (EPSG 4269): North American Datum of 1983, commonly used by most US and Canadian federal government agencies (the US Census Bureau in particular) that provide GIS data

Since WGS84, NAD83, and all geographic coordinate systems are unprojected they will all look like Equirectangular or “Plate Caree” projections, which preserve distances:

Local Projected Coordinate Systems:

NAD 83 / New York Long Island (ft US) (EPSG 2263): The State Plane zone that covers Long Island and New York City is used by all NYC agencies that produce GIS data. Many city and state agencies produce data in their specific state plane zone. An alternate projection, EPSG 32118, represents the same zone but uses meters instead of feet.

NAD 83 / UTM Zone 18N (EPSG 26918): An alternative to State Plane that is better for larger regions; satellite or ortho imagery is often provided based on the UTM zone where the tile is. UTM Zone 18N covers much of the east coast of the US. An alternate projection, EPSG 32618, uses WGS 84 as a datum instead of NAD 83.

The following CRS are common continental and global projected coordinate systems that are NOT included in the EPSG library that is part of QGIS; you have to custom define them using the proj4 definitions.

North America Lambert Conformal Conic: Perhaps the most common map projection for North America, a conformal map preserves angles. LCC can be modified for optimally displaying specific countries (i.e. USA and Canada) or other continents (i.e. South America, Asia, etc.)

+proj=lcc +lat_1=20 +lat_2=60 +lat_0=40 +lon_0=-96 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=GRS80 +datum=NAD83 +units=m +no_defs

North America Albers Equal Area Conic: an alternative to LCC, all areas in an AEAC map are proportional to the same areas on the Earth. Can also be modified for specific countries or other continents. Visually it look more “compact” east to west versus LCC.

+proj=aea +lat_1=20 +lat_2=60 +lat_0=40 +lon_0=-96 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=GRS80 +datum=NAD83 +units=m +no_defs

Robinson: a global map projection used by National Geographic for many decades. The Robinson map is a compromise projection; it doesn’t preserve any aspect of the earth precisely but makes the earth “look right” visually based on our common perceptions.

+proj=robin +lon_0=0 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs

Mollweide: a global map projection that preserves areas, often used in the sciences for depicting global distributions on small maps.

+proj=moll +lon_0=0 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs

Transform Projections with GDAL / OGR

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

The GDAL / OGR tools are an open source, cross platform, command-line toolkit that can be used for viewing GIS metadata, performing attribute queries, and converting file formats, among other things. It can also be used for transforming coordinate systems and projections for GIS files. I’ll demonstrate in this brief tutorial how to accomplish this using the OGR tools, which are for vector based GIS. The raster based GDAL tools work in a similar fashion.

Viewing basic coordinate system / projection info:

ogrinfo -al -so world_wgs.shp

Where ogrinfo is the name of the tool, -al is a switch to get detailed info about the layer, -so is a switch to display summary info, and world_wgs.ship is the name of our file. Run that command and we’ll get something that looks like this, with info about the features, coordinate system, and attribute fields of our shapefile:

INFO: Open of `world_wgs.shp’
using driver `ESRI Shapefile’ successful.

Layer name: world_wgs
Geometry: Polygon
Feature Count: 243
Extent: (-179.808664, -89.677397) – (179.808664, 83.435942)
Layer SRS WKT:
CNTRY_NAME: String (254.0)
FIPS_CNT_1: String (254.0)
ISO_2DIGIT: String (254.0)
ISO_3DIGIT: String (254.0)
STATUS: String (254.0)
COLORMAP: Real (18.6)
CONTINENT: String (254.0)
UN_CONTINE: String (254.0)
REGION: String (254.0)
UN_REGION: String (254.0)

Convert coordinate systems supported by EPSG

GDAL / OGR and most of the open source GIS software supports projections and coordinate systems that are part of the EPSG library. If you want to do a conversion between two coordinate systems and they are both supported by EPSG, you just have to reference the EPSG code that’s used to identity the system that you want to project to. You can look up codes using

Let’s say we want to convert our shapefile that’s in WGS 84 (common lat and long) to NAD 83 (used frequently in North America):

ogr2ogr -t_srs EPSG:4269 world_new.shp world_wgs.shp

Where ogr2ogr is the name of the tool, -t_srs is the command for transforming from one coordinate system to the other, EPSG:4269 is the code that identifies the coordinate system we want the new file to have – NAD83, world_new.shp is the name of the output file that will have the new projection that we want, and world_wgs.shp is our input file. If you run the command and get no error message, you’re in good shape. Just run the ogrinfo command on the new file to verify that it’s been re-projected.

Convert coordinate system not supported by EPSG

The EPSG library is extensive, but doesn’t contain everything, particularly some global and continental map projections. GDAL / OGR can still do the job, but you’ll have to provide the tool with the proper frame of reference since the EPSG library doesn’t have the info. Let’s say we want to project our WGS file to the Robinson Projection, which is not part of EPSG.

First, go back to and search for Robinson. Its ID code is ESRI 54030 – not part of the EPSG library. Click on the link for the projection to open its window. You’ll be able to look at the projection data in a number of standard file formats. Select OGC_WKT from the list, and it will open the text in a new window, showing you the parameters of that projection. In your browser, go up to file, save as, and save the file as robinson_ogcwkt.txt in the same directory as the shapefile you want to reproject.

Now that you have the projection info stored in the text file, run the following command to make the conversion:

ogr2ogr -t_srs robisnon_ogcwkt.txt world_rob.shp world_wgs.shp

It’s the same command as our previous one, except that you’re referencing the text file with your data instead of an EPSG code.

Define an undefined coordinate system

If you run the ogrinfo command and your coordinate system is undefined, you should define it before doing anything else, and you must define an undefined projection before converting to another projection. Look at the metadata that came with you file or go back to the source to figure out what it is. For example the US Census Bureau Generalized Cartographic Boundary Files for 2000 are in NAD83 according to their metadata, but the files lack a projection definition.

To define one, use the following command:

ogr2ogr -a_srs EPSG:4269 states_nad83.shp states_unknown.shp

The only difference here is the -a_srs command is used to assign a coordinate system to a file – the rest of the parameters are the same. If you’re defining a non-EPSG projection, use the same method from the previous example – download a definition file from and use the file name in place of the EPSG code.

More help and where to download:

UC Santa Barbara NCEAS and the UC Davis Soil Lab both have short tutorials and sample commands of GDAL / OGR.

If you want to thumb through the world’s map projections, the folks at radicalcartography have a nice projection reference page with visuals and brief descriptions.

Visit the GDAL / OGR page for downloading, or if you’re a Windows or Mac user, you can download QGIS and GDAL / OGR together from the QGIS download page. Linux users can get GDAL / OGR via your package handler – depending on your distro, you may have it already.

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