I'd really like to repeat the functionality of the ArcGIS Kernel Density tool - how could I do that?

I would like to limit answers to easy-to-install free-and-open-source software – i.e. QGIS installs easily with GRASS on all platforms so QGIS+GRASS would be fine, but SAGA does not (unfortunately, since it has what may be the ideal tool).

I am trying to produce density maps of wildlife across protected areas in QGIS. The density map in the following example was produced in ArcGIS from point observations of wildlife, with raw counts of group size (a field in the vector file) used to weight the density of each grid cell in the Kernel Density (SpatialAnalyst) tool, with a chosen search radius and grid cell size:

Wildlife density in Kafue National Park with 5x5km grid cells and 7.5 km radius kernel density

In a previous question on density, it was suggested to use the GRASS v.kernel tool to mimic the ArcGIS Kernel Density tool, but v.kernel doesn't do the same job. After looking at the manual and (successfully) producing a density map, it seems that the v.kernel function only works with point density, and there is no opportunity to give a variable for each point (such as raw counts) to weight each point.


There seem to be various *.surf.* tools in GRASS that may help create a density surface - and these do accept a weighting column or z-value, or are performed on rasters. @underdark suggested v.surf.rst - and the 'zcolumn' would be my weighting (count) variable - but I cannot figure out how to ask the tool to create a certain grid size or use a certain radius.

Suggestions on how to use v.surf.rst or any other method?

Sample data

  • Can you describe your input data more? Maybe v.surf.rst would be more appropriate than v.kernel grass.osgeo.org/gdp/html_grass64/v.surf.rst.html. Do you have one count value per grid cell shown above?
    – underdark
    Nov 1, 2012 at 17:42
  • @underdark - Added some sample data. It's point data with counts (number of elephant seen) and there can be more than one observation per grid cell. Normally in ArcGIS 'count' would become the 'population' field of the kernel density tool.
    – Simbamangu
    Nov 1, 2012 at 17:53
  • The more I think about it, the less I believe that v.kernel is a good choice for your use case. Have you checked the literature? Maybe first ask a question about which method is appropriate in this case.
    – underdark
    Nov 1, 2012 at 17:58
  • my main question is how to repeat the functionality of the kernel density from Arcview, which is a known method. You're right, v.kernel is almost certainly not the right tool to do that!
    – Simbamangu
    Nov 1, 2012 at 18:56
  • @underdark, thanks - I've expanded the question somewhat which may help; v.surf.rst does look appropriate but could use some guidance on its use.
    – Simbamangu
    Nov 3, 2012 at 6:12

6 Answers 6


According to its manual page, the GRASS command r.resamp.filter will do for rasters representing point data exactly what ArcGIS will do for point layers: use the filter=box option for a "simple" raster and use the filter=gauss option for the other ArcGIS kernel. Use the -n flag to avoid propagating nulls.

Note that kernel density estimates (aka "heat maps") are not interpolations of the data. The value of a KDE at a location x estimates the amount of a value "Z" per unit area near x. (The radius or "bandwidth" quantifies what "near" means.) The values of Z do not need to be defined at every possible location on the map. For example, Z might represent the presence of something such as a person, in which case the KDE gives population density. Nor do the values of Z need to vary continuously across the map. For interpolation, it is assumed that Z is defined at all locations and that the data are observations of the values of Z at specified points. The interpolator attempts to predict the unobserved values of Z at all other points. This would make sense when Z is, say, a temperature or pressure, but is usually nonsensical when Z records the presence of something or when the data are a complete census. (In the latter case, contemplate what a road density map for a region might mean and how one could possibly make sense of "interpolating" roads across non-road areas.)

  • I don't seem to have r.resamp.filter in my GRASS toolbox (on OS X, GRASS 6.4). However - until you mentioned it, I'd not realised that 'heat maps' are the same thing as KD; I assumed they were interpolating the whole surface. Does the Raster|Heatmap tool in QGIS do a KD? What is the 'decay ratio'?
    – Simbamangu
    Nov 6, 2012 at 5:03
  • I believe the term "heatmap" has been co-opted in GIS from its original meaning into one that refers generally and vaguely to almost any raster-like map. I doubt that any GIS offers functionality that matches the original meaning.
    – whuber
    Nov 6, 2012 at 5:13
  • Upon investigation, the heatmap tool in QGIS does something similar to KD in Arc, if you set the decay ratio to 0 (tapering the density to 0 at the edges of the radius). There seem to be some differences: calculated cell values 25 x higher (5km radius / 2.5km cell), as is the way the function is applied to cells - Arc seems to use a radius around the actual point, whereas QGIS selects the overlapping cell and tapers out from that point.
    – Simbamangu
    Nov 6, 2012 at 7:43
  • 2
    "Heatmap" in common usage seems to mean a lot of things - looking around, I see it applied to interpolated surfaces, kernel density, and simple coloring of non-smoothed pixels too. Interesting paper on original usage / history – and it seems like we should perhaps be using more precise terms in labeling QGIS tools.
    – Simbamangu
    Nov 6, 2012 at 8:47
  • 3
    @Simbamangu r.resamp.filter is new in GRASS 7, but there is a monthly snapshot for OS X. Also, the heatmap tool does not seem to present a choice for the algorithm for the distribution of density, so it is not exactly equivalent to Kernel Density or r.resamp.filter, I think.
    – Torsti
    Nov 6, 2012 at 11:34

SAGA's module 'Kernel Density Estimation' is what you are looking for.

Install SAGA Module interface in QGIS (in menu: Plugins --> Fetch Python plugins..) and use the module. Good luck!

  • I would LOVE to use SAGA, but am working in OSX 10.7 and have yet to successfully build it (there are no binaries for OSX); I've used hours recently trying more than one compilation method but builds always fail.
    – Simbamangu
    Nov 1, 2012 at 13:46
  • Then you must rather ask question about SAGA compilation on OSX 10.7. As I see SAGA the only reasonable alternative to ArcGIS KD tool.
    – Vladimir
    Nov 1, 2012 at 13:59

A really simplistic method with GRASS GIS that is closer to Point Density in ArcMap than Kernel Density:

  1. Import the points to a raster map with r.in.xyz using method=sum at a specified raster resolution (set with g.region).

  2. Use r.neighbors to smooth the map with method=average (which is default) and use the option size to set the search radius.

(I don't have access to GRASS at the moment so I didn't actually try this!)

  • v.in.xyz and v.neighbors might also work. The manual does not specify how you set which attribute is used in v.neighbors though.
    – Torsti
    Nov 5, 2012 at 10:38

As you requested more guidance on v.surf.rst, here are my inputs

First, about the grid size - you can use Plugin -> GRASS -> Edit Current GRASS region and set the output resolution. Your output from v.surf.rst will have that resolution.

For the radius, the 'tension' seems to be the parameter. I am no expert on this algorithm but reading from the manual, this seems to be the relevant bit

"... High tension "increases the distances between the points" and reduces the range of impact of each point, low tension "decreases the distance" and the points influence each other over longer range).."

So you could use the tension parameter roughly as you would use the radius parameter.

From your sample data, the result of v.surf.rst looks like below and seems reasonable given it is using the counts as weights for interpolation

enter image description here

  • 1
    Thanks for this - much easier to understand than the help page. As noted above by @whuber, interpolation is not the right method for this kind of point sample data, though.
    – Simbamangu
    Nov 7, 2012 at 6:11

While I haven't tested it, in the QGIS Contributors repository there is a plugin called 'Home range estimation with R'. This includes Kernel (density?) calculations. I reckon, if it works, that this would be the best method. R will do the real statistical method of calculating kernel density.

If you have R installed you should be able to just install the plugin and give it a go.


If you accept to do a bit of java programming outside of qgis, you could simply use this density map builder library.

Using the constructor HeatMapBuilder(int w, int h, int[][] pts, int[] weights), it is possible to give a weight for each point as you need. The output image can be retrieved with the getImage() method and saved on your disk with a ImageIO.write("mymap.png").

Here is an example of output:

heat map with opencarto java library

It is possible to change the smoothing strength and the colour palette.

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