Where can one find out what the most pervasive GIS formats are?

For example, from the GIS file formats Wikipedia page, there 4 broad categories, each with many popular formats.

  1. Raster formats (13 formats listed)
  2. Vector formats (19)
  3. Grid formats (4)
  4. Other formats (5)

This is a dizzying array of alternatives, each with their own reasons for existence.

In terms of general formats though, what are the most pervasive ones in use?

Edit: By pervasive, I'm looking for say the top 3 formats that would be encountered if a company that used GIS data was randomly selected out of all companies using GIS data

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    When I did work for the Minnesota Dept of Transportation, it seemed like every project I was involved in used a completely new mixture of data formats and software packages. – whatsisname Nov 1 '11 at 15:52
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    This should be migrated to the GIS site, I think you'll get better feedback there. – RichardM Nov 1 '11 at 16:24
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    One wonders what "most pervasive" might mean. Arguably, a format is "pervasive" only if it shows up on that Wikipedia page, in which case the question answers itself. Does the interest lie in amount of data stored in a format? Number of entities using a format? Recent rates of increase in the rate of use of a format? Size and visibility of the organizations adopting a format? Number of software programs natively using (or importing? exporting?) a format? Total user base of said programs? Etc., etc. – whuber Nov 1 '11 at 17:12
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    I agree that the definition of pervasive is important. But I don't think I would ever argue that a format is pervasive just because it shows up on wikipedia! – Mark Ireland Nov 1 '11 at 17:58
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    If the question had some reasoning behind the need for the pervasiveness we might get to a consensus – Brad Nesom Nov 1 '11 at 18:40

Well, where to start.

Although you can divide data by vector/raster etc there are some obvious problems. For example an Oracle database can store vector or raster (as can other databases).

I work at Safe Software where we generally prefer to look at Spatial data (rather than just GIS) and so divide into different categories according to use.

  • CAD
  • GIS
  • Raster
  • Database
  • BIM/3D
  • Web
  • Point Cloud

Whether this is a better categorization I'm not sure, but it does (I think) help determine whether a format is pervasive for a particular field.

Also, there is "pervasive" and then there is "best". Shape format is very pervasive in GIS, but I don't know that everyone will say it is the best. XML-based formats are up-and-coming since they work well for web delivery.

Anyway, we collect stats on most-used formats and I think I can probably share them since it's nothing you couldn't guess:

  • GIS: Shape
  • CAD: DWG
  • Raster: GeoTIFF
  • Database: Oracle and Geodatabase
  • BIM: CityGML
  • Web: WFS
  • Point Cloud: LAS

But take a look at our web site for the full list of formats we support. There is a truly mind-boggling 300 spatial (or related) formats.

  • I remember seeing a slide showing a matrix of which input and output formats were the most popular in FME, do you have a link to that available? Of course Shapefile was #1 for both. – blah238 Nov 1 '11 at 18:06
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    If you look at this slideshow (slide 25) there is a table of type translations (eg GIS->GIS, CAD->GIS, GIS->BIM etc). I'll see if I can find the format version: slideshare.net/SafeSoftware/taste-test-fme-2011-beyond-5519213 – Mark Ireland Nov 1 '11 at 18:46
  • Note: There is a difference in 32-bit and 64-bit version of FME 2011/2012beta but it is down to the native vendor of that format not supporting 64-bit (not Safe's issue) – Mapperz Nov 1 '11 at 18:47
  • @Mark, I think that may have been the one I was thinking of actually. Thanks – blah238 Nov 1 '11 at 20:12
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    @blah238 - there is a format version, but the only one I can find is from 2006. The opening session slides from our 2006 user conference, if you cared to look it up: fmeuc.com/archive/2006fmeuc.php – Mark Ireland Nov 1 '11 at 21:26


Shapefile (ESRI) Tech Spec PDF 2.5 billion files est

MapInfo Tab/MIF (Pitney Bowes Business Insight) Tech Spec 1.5 billion files est

AutoCAD DWG (AutoDesk)** has 18 major variants of the DWG "Autodesk estimates that in 1998 there were in excess of two billion DWG files in existence"

Fastest adopted format is KML/KMZ Google Earth/Pro est 0.5 Billion files.


Tiff Tagged Image File Format (GeoTiff)

Jpeg (Joint Photographic Experts Group)

PNG (Portable Network Graphics)

  • DateBases 1. Oracle / ArcSDE 2. Sql Server Spatial 2008 3.PostGis – user3120 Nov 2 '11 at 1:26
  • I would add ECW to the list of raster formats. If you work with big ortophotos, a raster format featuring partial decompression is a must. There is also MrSID, but I found ECW more used because it is ESRI's and this company's tools are almost ubiquitous in the GIS world. – dariapra Nov 2 '11 at 9:50
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    ECW is not ESRI's. The ECW format was developed by Earth Resource Mapping, and is now owned by Intergraph via ERDAS. That said, I would add all of the common wavelet compression formats: ECW, MrSID, and JPEG2000, to the raster list. – user3461 Nov 2 '11 at 12:46
  • As a top 3 I would class ECW 4th or 5th as it takes common image types and use an algorithm to compress that format and wrap it into an ecw file. Which can be only read by it's own native software or extension for GIS software - tiff,jpeg,png can be read natively by most popular GIS packages. – Mapperz Nov 2 '11 at 13:51
  • Yes, ECW is not ESRI's. My mistake. – dariapra Nov 12 '11 at 20:42

Any ESRI format, ESRI is the most used gis with 30% market share. http://geothought.blogspot.com/2009/08/traditional-gis-vendor-market-share-for.html


When talking about GIS data exchange formats, do not forget GML as well.

  1. Shapefile
  2. XLS (usually with loads of formatting and completely non-normalized)
  3. XLSX (which you have to download a converter to open in Excel 2003)

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