Python's geopy package features two distance measurements techniques: Great Circle and Vincenty's formulae.

>>> from geopy.distance import great_circle
>>> from geopy.distance import vincenty
>>> p1 = (31.8300167,35.0662833) # (lat, lon) - https://goo.gl/maps/TQwDd
>>> p2 = (31.8300000,35.0708167) # (lat, lon) - https://goo.gl/maps/lHrrg
>>> vincenty(p1, p2).meters
>>> great_circle(p3, p4).meters

What is the difference? Which distance measurement is preferred?


According to Wikipedia, Vincenty's formula is slower but more accurate:

Vincenty's formulae are two related iterative methods used in geodesy to calculate the distance between two points on the surface of a spheroid, developed by Thaddeus Vincenty (1975a) They are based on the assumption that the figure of the Earth is an oblate spheroid, and hence are more accurate than methods such as great-circle distance which assume a spherical Earth.

The accuracy difference is ~0.17% in a 428 meters distance in Israel. I've made a quick-and-dirty speed test:

<class 'geopy.distance.vincenty'>       : Total 0:00:04.125913, (0:00:00.000041 per calculation)
<class 'geopy.distance.great_circle'>   : Total 0:00:02.467479, (0:00:00.000024 per calculation)


import datetime
from geopy.distance import great_circle
from geopy.distance import vincenty
p1 = (31.8300167,35.0662833)
p2 = (31.83,35.0708167)

NUM_TESTS = 100000
for strategy in vincenty, great_circle:
    before = datetime.datetime.now()
    for i in range(NUM_TESTS):
        d=strategy(p1, p2).meters
    after = datetime.datetime.now()
    duration = after-before
    print "%-40s: Total %s, (%s per calculation)" % (strategy, duration, duration/NUM_TESTS)

To conclude: Vincenty's formula is doubles the calculation time compared to great-circle, and its accuracy gain at the point tested is ~0.17%.

Since the calculation time is negligible, Vincenty's formula is preferred for every practical need.

Update: Following the insightful comments by whuber and cffk's and cffk's answer, I agree that the accuracy gain should be compared with the error, not the measurement. Hence, Vincenty's formula is a few orders of magnitude more accurate, not ~0.17%.

  • 3
    +1 Well done. For a general analysis of the error across the earth, please see the thread at gis.stackexchange.com/questions/25494. – whuber Jan 30 '14 at 21:04
  • 3
    Vincenty computes ellipsoidal geodesic distances many times more accurately than the great circle formula. So saying that the accuracy gain of Vincenty is just 0.17% is misleading. (It's equivalent to saying that double precision arithmetic is 0.1% more accurate than using a slide rule.) – cffk Jan 31 '14 at 11:55

If you're using geopy, then the great_circle and vincenty distances are equally convenient to obtain. In this case, you should almost always use the one that gives you the more accurate result, i.e., vincenty. The two considerations (as you point out) are speed and accuracy.

Vincenty is two times slower. But probably in a real application the increased running time is negligible. Even if your application called for a million distance calculations, we are only talking about a difference in times of a couple of seconds.

For the points you use, the error in vincenty is 6 μm and the error in the great circle distance is 0.75 m. I would then say that vincenty is 120000 times more accurate (rather than 0.17% more accurate). For general points, the error in the great circle distance can be as much as 0.5%. So can you live with a 0.5% error in distances? For casual use (what's the distance from Cape Town to Cairo?), probably you can. However, many GIS applications have much stricter accuracy requirements. (0.5% is 5m over 1km. That really does make a difference.)

Nearly all serious mapping work is carried out on the reference ellipsoid and it therefore makes sense that distances should be measured on the ellipsoid too. Maybe you can get away with great-circle distances today. But for each new application, you will have to check whether this is still acceptable. Better is just to use the ellipsoidal distance from the start. You'll sleep better at night.

ADDENDUM (May 2017)

In reply to the answer given by @craig-hicks. The vincenty() method in geopy does have a potentially fatal flaw: it throws an error for nearly antipodal points. The documentation in the code suggests increasing the number of iterations. But this is not a general solution because the iterative method used by vincenty() is unstable for such points (each iteration takes you further from the correct solution).

Why do I characterize the problem as "potentially fatal"? Because any use of the distance function within another software library needs to be able to handle the exception. Handling it by returning a NaN or the great-circle distance may not be satisfactory, because the resulting distance function will not obey the triangle inequality which precludes its use, e.g., in vantage-point trees.

The situation isn't completely bleak. My python package geographiclib computes the geodesic distance accurately without any failures. The geopy pull request #144 changes the geopy's distance function to use geographiclib package if it's available. Unfortunately this pull request has been in limbo since Augest 2016.

ADDENDUM (May 2018)

geopy 1.13.0 now uses the geographiclib package for computing distances. Here's a sample call (based on the example in the original question):

>>> from geopy.distance import great_circle
>>> from geopy.distance import geodesic
>>> p1 = (31.8300167,35.0662833) # (lat, lon) - https://goo.gl/maps/TQwDd
>>> p2 = (31.8300000,35.0708167) # (lat, lon) - https://goo.gl/maps/lHrrg
>>> geodesic(p1, p2).meters
>>> great_circle(p1, p2).meters

It appears that the geopy.distance package offers a function "distance()" which defaults to vincenty(). I would recommend using distance() on principle, as it is the package recommendation, in case is ever diverged from vincenty() in the future (unlikely as that is). Continue reading:

This documentation note is included in the source code for the vincenty() function you specified:

Note: This implementation of Vincenty distance fails to converge for some valid points. In some cases, a result can be obtained by increasing the number of iterations (iterations keyword argument, given in the class __init__, with a default of 20). It may be preferable to use :class:.great_circle, which is marginally less accurate, but always produces a result.

The source code with th above comment/note can be found at https://github.com/geopy/geopy/blob/master/geopy/distance.py Scroll down to the definition for vincenty()

Nevertheless, the default distance function used by that package when caliing distance() is the vincenty() function, which implies that failure to converge is not catastrophic, and a reasonable answer is returned - most importantly an exception is not generated.

Update: As noted by "cffk", the vincenty() function does explicitly throw a ValueError exception when the algorithm does not converge - although it is not documented in the function description. Hence, the documentation is buggy.

  • No, vincenty() method can generate an exception. It's often claimed that this doesn't matter because it only affects the calculation of distances between nearly antipodal points. However such failures mean that the triangle inequality fails and so the Vincenty distance cannot be used to implement a nearest-neighbor search using a vantage-point tree (which would allow you to determine, for example, the location of the nearest airport efficiently). To get around this problem, you can use this geopy pull request github.com/geopy/geopy/pull/144 which uses GeographicLib for distances. – cffk Apr 30 '17 at 14:04
  • @cffk - I can't discern with certainty from your comment or link, but I'm guessing "geopy pull request " might be a lookup table - is it? The discussion can be divided in two: the case where the lookup table is not available (downloaded), and the case where it is available. – Craig Hicks May 1 '17 at 17:39
  • @cffk - In the case where it is not available: Firstly, the documentation is buggy primarily because it is doesn't include a description of the planned exception (raise ValueError("Vincenty formula failed to converge!")), but also because it doesn't describe the instability as occurring at measurement of points nearly antipodal. I would recommend adding a vincenty_noexcpt function to the Vincenty class which internally catches the exception and returns a great circle value instead, and making that the default setting: distance=vincenty_noexcep. – Craig Hicks May 1 '17 at 17:48
  • @cffk - In the case where the lookup table is available: I would advise a lot of testing and timing because lookup methods often go outside the cache and so are time expensive. Replacing the vincenty method with the "pull" method as the default could means anybody downloading the "pull" package into the python directory will change all existing calls to vincenty into calls to pull - that could be problematic if the user(s) really just wanted to carefully and explicitly try the "pull" method. – Craig Hicks May 1 '17 at 18:00
  • @craig-hicks - No, the "pull request" substitutes a better algorithm (by me!) for measuring distances, see doi.org/10.1007/s00190-012-0578-z This is more accurate than Vincenty, always returns a result, and takes about the same time. I'm not a maintainer of geopy and this pull request has been dormant since last August. If I had my druthers, this would be substituted into geopy (and vincenty() would call the new algorithm instead of Vincenty's) and that would be the end of the discussion. – cffk May 2 '17 at 17:12

My apologies for posting a second answer here, but I taking the opportunity to respond to the request by @craig-hicks to provide accuracy and timing comparisons for various algorithms for computing the geodesic distance. This paraphrases a comment I make to my pull request #144 for geopy which allows the use of one of two implementations of my algorithm for geodesics to be used within geopy, one is a native python implementation, geodesic(geographiclib), and the other uses an implementation in C, geodesic(pyproj).

Here is some timing data. Times are in microsecs per call

method                          dist    dest
geopy great_circle              20.4    17.1
geopy vincenty                  40.3    30.4
geopy geodesic(pyproj)          37.1    31.1
geopy geodesic(geographiclib)  302.9   124.1

Here is the accuracy of the geodesic calculations based on my Geodesic Test Set. The errors are given in units of microns (1e-6 m)

method                        distance destination
geopy vincenty                 205.629  141.945
geopy geodesic(pyproj)           0.007    0.013
geopy geodesic(geographiclib)    0.011    0.010

I've include hannosche's pull request #194 which fixes a bad bug in the destination function. Without this fix, the error in the destination calculation for vincenty is 8.98 meters.

19.2% of the tests cases failed with vincenty.distance (iterations = 20). However the test set is skewed towards cases which would case this failure.

With random points on the WGS84 ellipsoid, the Vincenty algorithm is guaranteed to fail 16.6 out of 1000000 times (the correct solution is an unstable fixed point of the Vincenty method).

With the geopy implementation of Vincenty and iterations = 20, the failure rate is 82.8 per 1000000. With iterations = 200, the failure rate is 21.2 per 1000000.

Even though these rates are small, failures can be quite common. For example in a dataset of 1000 random points (think the worlds airports, perhaps), computing the full distance matrix would fail on average 16 times (with iterations = 20).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.