Storing and Processing IoT device Geospatial Data : A Concise guide

Why do you need geospatial analytics for IoT?

Imagine that your company sells a device that measures airborne pollutants. It is internet-enabled and reports data back to your company at regular intervals using MQTT. The target market for this product is environmentally-minded consumers who want to both measure pollutants near their home and contribute to the collective monitoring of the environment.

The value proposition is that they get free analysis of their local air quality in exchange for donating their data to support a cause they probably believe in anyway. Your company is planning to aggregate and package analytics of high-quality air pollution data to sell it to government and private organizations.

Since the device is sold to consumers indirectly through various retail outlets, your company is not initially aware of the location of the devices. The consumer connects the device to the internet after it is purchased, and then enters their addresses. At this point, the location can be determined.

The device has multiple sensors that measure the level of different contaminants in the air. One of the sensors measures the level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2). NO2 is not only a toxic gas by itself but has even more damaging side effects. It facilitates the creation of acid rain and photochemical smog and is a precursor to other harmful secondary air pollutants such as ozone.

NO2 is produced by the burning of fossil fuels. The main contributor in urban areas is typically motor vehicle exhausts, but the gas can also come from power plants, manufacturing facilities, and welding work.

Your company wants to build and sell a data package summarizing NO2 levels by distance from Interstate highways. It also wants to aggregate the resulting data by each of the 115 congressional districts in the United States. The company believes congressional lobbyists would pay well for this information.

This task may seem daunting at first, as all you know about device locations is the address registered by the customers. The first thought may be a manual process of reviewing each device location on a map and categorizing it based on its distance to the nearest Interstate highway. This would be very labor intensive and cost prohibitive when you have 500,000 devices.

Thankfully, geospatial analytics can do this type of analysis efficiently. We will introduce several concepts, and then revisit this example and show how it can be solved.

Section 1: Storing geospatial data

There are many ways to store geospatial data. Depending on your intended use, a filesystem format or a relational database maybe the most appropriate. I will cover an introduction to both.

File formats

There are hundreds of file formats for storing geospatial data. The most common for vector data is ESRI shapefiles. A shapefile actually consists of multiple different files with the .shp extension for the main file. Most geospatially-aware software and Python packages know to look for the other needed files when given the location of the .shp file.

GeoJSON is another storage format that is human readable. It uses a defined JSON format to store vector data definitions as text. It is easily readable but can get large in size.

Another way to represent vector data, whether in a file or in code, is using the Well-known text (WKT) and Well-known binary (WKB) formats. WKT is human readable, while WKB is not. WKB offers significant compression in size, so is often a good choice for database storage. It can be converted into WKT upon reading.

Raster data is most commonly stored in the Tagged Image File Format (TIFF) (.tiff) files. It can also be stored as ASCII grid files but file size is a concern. There are some compressed formats, such as Multi-resolution Seamless Image Database (MrSID) with the .sid extension and Enhanced Compression Wavelet (ECW) with the .ecw extension.

Spatial extensions for relational databases

With spatial extensions, relational databases can support storing geometry data in database tables and also perform some geospatial functions. These are typically not part of standard installation but can be enabled through administration settings or by installing software extensions.

For open source Relational Database Management Systems (RDBMS), PostgreSQL, and MySQL both support spatial functionality. PostgreSQL is the by far most popular and is most fully functional. When the spatial components are enabled for PostgreSQL, it is commonly referred to as PostGIS. You will see the terms used interchangeably. PostgreSQL is a supported RDS option on AWS. The spatial extensions can be enabled, turning it into PostGIS.

For closed source RDBMS, Oracle (Spatial and Graph), and SQL Server are popular. Oracle is generally considered as the most capable one. These are not the only options as more and more databases are supporting spatial data. Amazon Aurora, a MySQL-compatible managed RDS database on AWS, has recently added spatial support.

Storing geospatial data in HDFS

HDFS and Hive do not natively support spatial data types. All is not lost, though, as HDFS can store any type of file, including geospatial files. Geometry can be stored in string (WKT) and binary (WKB) forms. They can be converted using code upon retrieval. Hive tables are schema-on-read and support User Defined Functions (UDF). A UDF can be created to interpret geospatial data.

In fact, there are some open source projects that do just that. One is called SpatialHadoop and can be found at Another is called spatial-framework-for-hadoop and can be found on GitHub ( The downside is that these projects are not fully supported and are not a part of the Cloudera and Hortonworks Hadoop distributions.

A more robust method is to store spatial data as WKT or WKB and use geospatial Python packages to manipulate it.

Spatial indexing

The world is a big place. Imagine trying to find where someone lives if you do not know their house address, postal code, or even the country they live in. You would have to visit every home until you run into the person you are looking for, which will take longer than you have left and would not be very enjoyable anyway.

Thankfully, addresses allow a quick identification of where someone lives by identifying the country, the state or province within that country, the postal code, and the street name where you can drive, until you find their house number, which tends to follow an established order along the street.

Spatial databases can get very large, so an efficient method of searching for geometry is needed in order to improve response times. This is where spatial indexing comes into play. There are a variety of methods that are employed to do this. We will cover one of the more popular methods next.


R-tree is a spatial indexing method used in both PostGIS and Oracle databases. It leverages the bounding box concept to create a hierarchical index tree. The tree is balanced in the sense that all branches have the same level of nodes. In order to understand how a basic R-tree index is built, we will walk through a simple example.

A spatial database such as PostGIS can easily create an index on a geometry field. A simple SQL statement such as the following for PostGIS will build an R-tree index. PostGIS builds it on top of a Generalized Search Tree (GiST) layer for robustness. GiST is a generic algorithm that can be used with several types of indexing methods.

Note: There is also a Python package called rtree that can be used to build an index as part of a code module. This can be useful for some heavy duty geospatial processing where you need to repeatedly scan through a set of geometries.

Section 2: Processing geospatial data

Specialized software can help in processing and visualizing geospatial data. This can be useful for small data and one-time analyses. Even if you have a big data solution, using these tools can help you communicate your findings more effectively to others.

Geospatial analysis software

I will introduce the most popular Geographic Information System (GIS) tools, so you have some familiarity with them. They are useful support tools for geospatial analytics.


ArcGIS is the de facto standard for paid GIS software. It was developed and is maintained by the ESRI corporation. It has an awe-inspiring amount of functionality and is used by most professional geospatial analysts. It has world-class support by ESRI and many training options abound. It links to useful datasets and geospatial analytic capabilities, which are also maintained by ESRI.

ArcGIS is available as a desktop application or as a cloud service. You can sign up for a 60-day free trial ( You can use ArcGIS to do many different kinds of analytics, including geocoding your own custom shapefile.



QGIS is open source and very powerful desktop GIS software. It is similar to ArcGIS but not to the full scope of capability as the paid ESRI software. But the price is right, and it still has a wide variety of capabilities. It can also be manipulated with Python code. There is a vast trove of documentation on it and many useful books on how to use it.

You can download and install QGIS from the project site If you are unable to get ArcGIS, make sure to keep QGIS handy. QGIS was used to create many of the images in this book. You can use both QGIS and ArcGIS to connect directly to geospatial databases, such as PostGIS and Oracle. The following image shows an example of what can be created with QGIS:



ogr2ogr is part of the GDAL library. It is a command-line tool used to convert files from one OpenGIS Simple Features Reference Implementation (OGR) spatial format to another. It is a no-frills tool but is used heavily by geospatial analysts. The general format for a command-line conversion follows the following example:

ogr2ogr -f "file_format" destination_data source_data

You can use it to convert PostGIS data into shapefiles or load shapefiles into PostGIS for example. It supports conversion into over 90 file formats for vector data alone.

PostGIS spatial functions

PostGIS contains dozens of spatial functions that can be referenced in a standard SQL query. The following table provides an overview of some commonly used functions:

Function Description
ST_GeomFromText This returns a specified ST_Geometry value from WKT representation.
ST_GeomFromWKB This creates a geometry instance from a WKB geometry representation and optional SRID.
ST_Buffer This returns a geometry covering all points within a given distance from the input geometry.
ST_ConvexHull The convex hull of a geometry represents the minimum convex geometry that encloses all geometries within the set.
ST_Intersection This returns a geometry that represents the shared portion of geomA and geomB.
ST_Simplify This returns a simplified version of the given geometry using the Douglas-Peucker algorithm.
ST_Boundary This returns the closure of the combinatorial boundary of this geometry.
ST_Transform This returns a new geometry with its coordinates transformed to a different spatial reference.
ST_Centroid This returns the geometric center of a geometry.
ST_ClosestPoint This returns the 2-dimensional point on g1 that is closest to g2. This is the first point of the shortest line.
ST_Contains This returns true if and only if no points of B lie in the exterior of A, and at least one point of the interior of B lies in the interior of A.
ST_Covers This returns 1 (TRUE) if no point in geometry B is outside geometry A.
ST_Crosses This returns TRUE if the supplied geometries have some, but not all, interior points in common.
ST_Distance For geometry type returns the 2D cartesian distance between two geometries in projected units (based on spatial ref). For geography, type defaults to return minimum geodesic distance between two geographies in meters.
ST_Intersects This returns TRUE if the geometries/geography spatially intersect in 2D – (share any portion of space) and FALSE if they don’t (they are disjoint). For geography, tolerance is 0.00001 meters (so any points that close are considered to intersect).
ST_Length This returns the 2D length of the geometry if it is a LineString or MultiLineString. The geometry are in units of spatial reference and the geography are in meters (default spheroid).
ST_Touches This returns TRUE if the geometries have at least one point in common, but their interiors do not intersect.

These functions can be used easily as part of a SQL query. The following example shows how to add a buffer to every LineString in the roads geometry field in the Interstates table:

SELECT ST_Buffer(Roads, 10, 'endcap=round join=round')
From Interstates;

Geospatial analysis in the big data world

Volume and velocity pose some challenges for geospatial analytics. The data size can easily be too large to analyze with a desktop GIS tool. It could even be too large to handle effectively in a relational database with spatial extensions. Due to the intensive computational requirements of geospatial functions, near real-time response can also be a challenge.

There are some options for geospatial analysis with tools built specifically with big data in mind. Elasticsearch is an open source distributed search engine. It can scale from one server to hundreds of servers, and it has some spatial search functions. You can search for locations within a certain distance of a latitude and longitude point, for example. AWS offers a managed Elasticsearch service where there is no need to worry about managing servers.

AWS also has a managed petabyte-scale data warehouse service called Redshift. Redshift does not support geometry fields directly but does support Python UDFs. You can create UDFs using Python code and the shapely package, then call them from Redshift SQL statements. A similar strategy can be used for both Hive and Spark.

ESRI supports an open source project called GP tools for AWS that allows ArcGIS users to connect to Amazon EMR and S3 data sources. The project is hosted on GitHub (

Based on my research

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