I am new to GIS and developing an application that generates a 3D grid with (latitude, longitude, elevation) or (x, y, z) metric triplets, and I would like to add an exporting feature that ensures compatibility with the most GIS software.

In case of several possibilities, I'd love to understand the pros and cons considering the current industry standards and also the "efficiency" of the format, as I'd like to reach the largest number of users.

UPDATE: I did a bit of homework but I am still a bit lost with the variety of formats. What I have come accross which seem interesting: GRD (Surfer), KML (Google), DXF (AutoCad), WRL (seems cool but not used anymore), SHP (ArcView - closed format?)

Anyone could help me choose?

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    Maybe the title is a bit misleading: latitude, longitude, elevation is not 3D (3D grids are voxels). – markusN May 13 '12 at 15:18
  • Thanks Markus. In fact I could easily transform from (lat,long,alt) to (x,y,z) metric triplets. I updated the title to reflect that, and made the question a bit clearer as well (hopefully). – John Doisneau May 13 '12 at 19:33
  • I think you need to clarify if you are looking for vector formats as well .. I only ask since you list several vector formats. Vector formats are very different to raster (or grid) formats. Take a look here to get an idea of raster vs vector. – Mike T May 13 '12 at 23:19

For raster formats, I think the Esri ASCII Grid format is most the commonly supported format across GIS software. Since it is ASCII, it is portable to read anywhere, even in a text editor. Many closed and open-source software (particularly recently developed) generally use GDAL, which has a native AAIGrid driver.

The two drawbacks are the file size (but it compresses well) and possible loss of data precision, particularly if it is floating point data.

  • Thank you, very helpful. Now my corollary question is: is there any difference between ESRI and the .SHP format from ArcView? – John Doisneau May 13 '12 at 23:12
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    SHP is a vector format, so it stores lines, polygons, points, etc., not rasters (or grids) – Mike T May 13 '12 at 23:16
  • OK, and how would you define the KML format then? Multi-purpose? KML is so widely used nowadays that it seems like I won't be able to avoid it... – John Doisneau May 13 '12 at 23:25
  • KML is normally used for vectors, but it can be used for raster images (although I've never done it). I regard KML to be relatively "new" and limited, compared to most other raster formats. – Mike T May 13 '12 at 23:34
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    @SylvesterSneekly I'm 100% with you on GeoTIFF, but unfortunately I've run into too many programs that have either poorly implemented it (e.g. assume it is an RGB image with int bands), or not support it at all. – Mike T May 14 '12 at 10:41

What you need is a raster format, a raster being a grid of data. There are lots of raster formats which could do it but Mike Toews' suggestion of Esri ASCII Grid format is the right one. To extend on his answer the Pro's and Con's:

  • Pro's: Plain Text; easily parsable; read by lots of software.
  • Con's: None of the "advanced" features: No Indexing, no built-in compression, no pre-generated statistics.

There are other raster grid formats: GRD (as you noted), DEM, SDTS, ESRI Binary grid etc; but ASCII is the way to go as the others aren't read by as much software.

The other formats you've found (SHP, KML, DXF, even WKT) are vector formats so they only store line data and aren't suitable for this application.


I like the concept of WKT


  • Thanks, I like the concept as well, but I also need to understand whether or not we are the only ones linking the concept... Is this format widely used/accepted by the GIS industry? My question is precisely about this: I need to choose a format that can be imported in the largest number of existing GIS applications. – John Doisneau May 12 '12 at 12:23
  • .tif, .asc, .xyz. – Tomek May 14 '12 at 6:03
  • I don't believe WKT is suitable for grid data. Their is a proposal though for WKTRaster - trac.osgeo.org/postgis/wiki/WKTRaster/SpecificationWorking01 – GIS-Jonathan May 14 '12 at 9:36

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