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Georeferencing means that the internal coordinate system of a map or aerial photo image can be related to a geographic coordinate system. The relevant coordinate transforms are typically stored within the image file (GeoPDF and GeoTIFF are examples), though there are many possible mechanisms for implementing georeferencing. The most visible effect of georeferencing is that display software can show ground coordinates (such as latitude/longitude or UTM coordinates) and also measure ground distances and areas.[1][2]

In other words, georeferencing means to associate a digital image file with locations in physical space. The term is commonly used in the geographic information systems field to describe the process of associating a physical map or raster image of a map with spatial locations. Georeferencing may be applied to any kind of object or structure that can be related to a geographical location, such as points of interest, roads, places, bridges, or buildings.[3]

Geographic locations are most commonly represented using a coordinate reference system, which in turn can be related to a geodetic reference system such as WGS-84.

Examples include establishing the correct position of an aerial photograph within a map or finding the geographical coordinates of a place name or street address (Geocoding).


  • Georeferencing is crucial to make aerial and satellite imagery, usually raster images, useful for mapping as it explains how other data, such as the above GPS points, relate to the imagery.
  • Very essential information may be contained in data or images that were produced at a different point of time. It may be desired either to combine or compare this data with that currently available. The latter can be used to analyze the changes in the features under study over a period of time.
  • Different maps may use different projection systems. Georeferencing tools contain methods to combine and overlay these maps with minimum distortion.
  • Using georeferencing methods, data obtained from surveying tools like total stations may be given a point of reference from topographic maps already available.
  • It may be required to establish the relationship between social survey results which have been coded with postal codes or street addresses and other geographic areas such as census zones or other areas used in public administration or service planning.


There are various GIS tools available that can transform image data to some geographic control framework. One can georeference a set of points, lines, polygons, images, or 3D structures. For instance, a GPS device will record latitude and longitude coordinates for a given point of interest, effectively georeferencing this point. A georeference must be a unique identifier. In other words, there must be only one location for which a georeference acts as the reference.

Images may be encoded using special GIS file formats or be accompanied by a world file.

To georeference an image, one first needs to establish control points, input the known geographic coordinates of these control points, choose the coordinate system and other projection parameters and then minimize residuals. Residuals are the difference between the actual coordinates of the control points and the coordinates predicted by the geographic model created using the control points. They provide a method of determining the level of accuracy of the georeferencing process.

In situations where data has been collected and assigned to postal or area codes, it is usually necessary to convert these to geographic coordinates by use of a definitive directory or gazetteer file. Such gazetteers are often produced by census agencies, national mapping organizations or postal service providers. At their simplest, these may simply comprise a list of area codes or place names and another list of corresponding codes, names or coordinate locations. The range and purpose of the codes available is country-specific. An example is the UK's National Statistics Postcode Directory which shows each postcode's membership of census, administrative, electoral and other geographical areas. In this case, the directory also provides dates of creation and deletion, address counts and an Ordnance Survey grid reference for each postcode, allowing it to be mapped directly. Such gazetteer files support many web-based mapping systems which will place a symbol on a map or undertaken analysis such as route-finding, on the basis of postal codes, addresses or place names[4] input by the user.

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  1. ^ "What does "georeferenced" mean? | U.S. Geological Survey". Retrieved 2022-01-04.
  2. ^ Yao, Xiaobai A. (2020-01-01), Kobayashi, Audrey (ed.), "Georeferencing and Geocoding", International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (Second Edition), Oxford: Elsevier, pp. 111–117, doi:10.1016/b978-0-08-102295-5.10548-7, ISBN 978-0-08-102296-2, retrieved 2022-01-04
  3. ^ Hackeloeer, A.; Klasing, K.; Krisp, J.M.; Meng, L. (2014). "Georeferencing: a review of methods and applications". Annals of GIS. 20 (1): 61–69. doi:10.1080/19475683.2013.868826. S2CID 38306705.
  4. ^ Leidner, J.L. (2017). "Georeferencing: From Texts to Maps". International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology. vi: 2897–2907. doi:10.1002/9781118786352.wbieg0160. ISBN 9780470659632.

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