Just wondering if there is a universal map format that all GIS software can read. ie to quickly share layers with all our partner agencies which have different GIS Software, rather than have to convert it in multiple different formats (from our end or their end). We use ESRI, but have partners using MapInfo, Blue8, CadCorp...

I wondering If I was missing a trick.

4 Answers 4


There is no universal vector format in GIS.

However, some formats are proprietary and other are openly specified (like the shapefile) so that they can be read and/or written by other softwares (if they decide to implement).

For data sharing, the best solution to date is to use shapefile, which is now the most widespread format. Shapefile is however an old format (early 1990s) that shows some limitations (e.g. size !). It could be replaced by geopackage in the future, but the implementations of geopackage are still limited.

Alternatively, dxf is also a good exchange format based on your list of softwares (except that I don't know about Blue8).

  • 1
    After all the effort put by thousands of individuals and institutions on the production of the OGC standards, it is appalling to verify that most folk still believe that proprietary formats are the only interchangeable options available. Notwithstanding the implicit oxymoron. Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 8:24
  • @Luis de Sousa I appreciate the involvment on the production of the OGC standard, but the fact is that it takes time and that the universal vector format does not exist yet. Furthermore, even if ESRI (who contributes to OGC) keeps an hand on shapefile, it is openly specified, not proprietary. Presently, shp can be read directly by MapInfo and CadCorp, while GML needs an import step.
    – radouxju
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 8:55
  • The recently published draft for GeoJSON (ietf.org/id/draft-butler-geojson-04.txt), highly recommends that GeoJSON should only be used for data that is in "http:// www.opengis.net/def/crs/OGC/1.3/CRS84" coordinate reference system; so it will be of limited use as a universal vector format.
    – nmtoken
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 9:10
  • @nmtoken thank you for this interesting comment. I'll remove GeoJSON from my list. And I also remove kml which is in the same case.
    – radouxju
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 9:22
  • Thanks for that. Confirms what I thought and lucky for us, we send what we use!! :-)
    – Olive
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 10:35

This is part of the raison d'être of the OGC. Regarding vector data you may wish to look into these standards:

Geographic Markup Language (GML) - an XML grammar for the storage of geographical features. It serves as an open interchange format for the transaction of geo-spatial data between different software.

Web Feature Service (WFS) - provides an interface allowing requests for geographical features across the web using platform-independent calls. It is basically a protocol to serve GML through web services.

  • I think you should start your answer with WMS because that seems to me to be the most interoperable of all map formats. The question does not seem to make vector a requirement.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 8:49
  • @polyGeo I think the user mix map and layer in his question. Because map can be anything from paper to png to .mxd Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 14:25

The newest and most promising that exists is OGC GeoPackage. The standard was published in February, 2014 and it will take some time before GIS programs support it properly but the list of implementations at http://www.geopackage.org/ is growing fast. There are already well known programs on the list, including ArcGIS, GDAL, and GeoServer.

Unlike GML which is a pure transform format that is probably always transformed into some other format for the real use in applications, GeoPackage is flexible and fast enough to be used by applications without any further processing. It can hold gigabytes of data on unlimited number of layers and both vector data and rasters can be stored into the same GeoPackage. Both spatial indexes and attribute indexes are supported which makes if possible to make fast selective queries from huge tables.

Shapefiles are very well supported by GIS programs but they have some limitations because of the dbf format that is used for storing the attribute data. Most common are:

  • Attribute names can be 10 characters long at maximum
  • Maximum number of columns (attributes) is 255
  • String type attribute values can't be longer than 255 characters
  • Only DATE datatype is supported, not DATETIME
  • NULL values are not well supported

Biggest problem with GML is that it is so complex. This blog post gives 25 different and valid ways for encoding a polygon in GML 3 and proves that number of valid encodings is actually infinite http://erouault.blogspot.fi/2014/04/gml-madness.html.


I would ask you to check out GeoJSON;

http://geojson.org/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GeoJSON

  • 1
    It is probably the simplest format in form, but not many GIS software can read/write directly in geojson yet. That's a good interchange format in my opinion. Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 14:23
  • I have used it successfully with qgis, to convert .kml vectors to geojson for use with google map js api Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 15:32

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