Spatial Interpolation: A Brief Introduction

Eugene Brusilovskiy

General Outline

  • Introduction to interpolation
  • Deterministic interpolation methods
  • Some basic statistical concepts
  • Autocorrelation and First Law of Geography
  • Geostatistical Interpolation
    • Introduction to variography
    • Kriging models

What is Interpolation?

  • Assume we are dealing with a variable which has meaningful values at every point within a region (e.g., temperature, elevation, concentration of some mineral). Then, given the values of that variable at a set of sample points, we can use an interpolation method to predict values of this variable at every point
    • For any unknown point, we take some form of weighted average of the values at surrounding points to predict the value at the point where the value is unknown
    • In other words, we create a continuous surface from a set of points
    • As an example used throughout this presentation, imagine we have data on the concentration of gold in western Pennsylvania at a set of 200 sample locations:

Appropriateness of Interpolation

  • Interpolation should not be used when there isn't a meaningful value of the variable at every point in space (within the region of interest)
  • That is, when points represent merely the presence of events (e.g., crime), people, or some physical phenomenon (e.g., volcanoes, buildings), interpolation does not make sense
  • Whereas interpolation tries to predict the value of your variable of interest at each point, density analysis (available, for instance, in ArcGIS's Spatial Analyst) "takes known quantities of some phenomena and spreads it across the landscape based on the quantity that is measured at each location and the spatial relationship of the locations of the measured quantities"

Interpolation vs. Extrapolation

  • Interpolation is prediction within the range of our data
    • E.g., having temperature values for a bunch of locations all throughout PA, predict the temperature values at all other locations within PA
  • Note that the methods we are talking about are strictly those of interpolation, and not extrapolation
  • Extrapolation is prediction outside the range of our data
    • E.g., having temperature values for a bunch of locations throughout PA, predict the temperature values in Kazakhstan

First Law of Geography

  • "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things."
        - Waldo Tobler (1970)
  • This is the basic premise behind interpolation, and near points generally receive higher weights than far away points
  • Reference: TOBLER, W. R. (1970). A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region. Economic Geography, 46(2): 234-240.

Methods of Interpolation

  • Deterministic methods
    • Use mathematical functions to calculate the values at unknown locations based either on the degree of similarity (e.g. IDW) or the degree of smoothing (e.g. RBF) in relation with neighboring data points
    • Examples include:
      • Inverse Distance Weighted (IDW)
      • Radial Basis Functions (RBF)
  • Geostatistical methods
    • Use both mathematical and statistical methods to predict values at all locations within region of interest and to provide probabilistic estimates of the quality of the interpolation based on the spatial autocorrelation among data points
      • Include a deterministic component and errors (uncertainty of prediction)
    • Examples include:
      • Kriging
      • Co-Kriging
  • Reference:

Exact vs. Inexact Interpolation

  • Interpolators can be either exact or inexact
    • At sampled locations, exact interpolators yield values identical to the measurements
      • i.e., if the observed temperature in city A is 90 degrees, the point representing city A on the resulting grid will still have a temperature of 90 degrees
    • At sampled locations, inexact interpolators predict values that are different from the measured values.
      • i.e., if the observed temperature in city A is 90 degrees, the inexact interpolator will still create a prediction for city A, and this prediction will not be exactly 90 degrees
        • The resulting surface will not pass through the original point
        • Can be used to avoid sharp peaks or troughs in the output surface
      • Model quality can be assessed by the statistics of the differences between predicted and measured values
    • Jumping ahead, the two deterministic interpolators that will be briefly presented here are exact. Kriging can be exact or inexact
  • Reference: Burrough, P. A., and R. A. McDonnell. 1998. Principles of geographical information systems. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 333pp.

Part 1. Deterministic Interpolation

Inverse Distance Weighted (IDW)

  • IDW interpolation explicitly relies on the First Law of Geography. To predict a value for any unmeasured location, IDW will use the measured values surrounding the prediction location. Measured values that are nearest to the prediction location will have greater influence (i.e., weight) on the predicted value at that unknown point than those that are farther away
    • Thus, IDW assumes that each measured point has a local influence that diminishes with distance (or distance to the power of q > 1), and weighs the points closer to the prediction location greater than those farther away, hence the name inverse distance weighted
      • Inverse Squared Distance (i.e., q=2) is a widely used interpolator
      • For example, ArcGIS allows you to select the value of q
  • Weights of each measured point are proportional to the inverse distance raised to the power value q. As a result, as the distance increases, the weights decrease rapidly. How fast the weights decrease is dependent on the value for q
  • Source:
  • Because things that are close to one another are more alike than those farther away, as the locations get farther away, the measured values will have little relationship with the value of the prediction location
    • To speed up the computation we might only use several points that are the closest
    • As a result, it is common practice to limit the number of measured values that are used when predicting an unknown value for a location by specifying a search neighborhood. The specified shape of the neighborhood restricts how far and where to look for the measured values to be used in the prediction. Other neighborhood parameters restrict the locations that will be used within that shape
  • The output surface is sensitive to clustering and the presence of outliers

Search Neighborhood Specification

  • Points with known values of elevation that are outside the circle are just too far from the target point at which the elevation value is unknown, so their weights are pretty much 0

The Accuracy of the Results

  • One way to assess the accuracy of the interpolation is known as cross-validation
    • Remember the initial goal: use all the measured points to create a surface
    • However, assume we remove one of the measured points from our input, and re-create the surface using all the remaining points
    • Now, we can look at the predicted value at that removed point and compare it to the point's actual value!
    • We do the same thing for all points
    • If the average (squared) difference between the actual value and the prediction is small, then our model is doing a good job at predicting values at unknown points. If this average squared difference is large, then the model isn't that great. This average squared difference is called mean square error of prediction. For instance, the Geostatistical Analyst of ESRI reports the square root of this average squared difference
    • Cross-validation is used in other interpolation methods as well

A Cross-Validation Example

  • Assume you have measurements at 15 data points, from which you want to create a prediction surface
  • The Measured column tells you the measured value at that point. The Predicted column tells you the prediction at that point when we remove it from the input (i.e., use the other 14 points to create a surface). The Error column is simply the difference between the measured and predicted values
  • Because we can have an over-prediction or under-prediction at any point, the error can be positive or negative. So averaging the errors won't do us much good if we want to see the overall error, we'll end up with a value that is essentially zero due to these positives and negatives
  • Thus, in order to assess the extent of error in our prediction, we square each term, and then take the average of these squared errors. This average is called the mean squared error (MSE)
  • For example, ArcGIS reports the square root of this mean squared error (referred to as simply Root-Mean-Square in Geostatistical Analyst). This root mean square error is often denoted as RMSE

Examples of IDW with Different q's

  • Larger q's (i.e., power to which distance is raised) yield smoother surfaces
  • Food for thought: What happens when q is set to 0?

Part 2. A Review of Stats 101

Before we do any Geostatistics...

  • ...Let's review some basic statistical topics:
    • Normality
    • Variance and Standard Deviations
    • Covariance and Correlation
  • ...and then briefly re-examine the underlying premise of most spatial statistical analyses:
    • Autocorrelation


  • A lot of statistical tests including many in geostatistics rely on the assumption that data is normally distributed
  • When this assumption does not hold, the results are often inaccurate

Data Transformations

  • Sometimes, it is possible to transform a variable's distribution by subjecting it to some simple algebraic operation
    • The logarithmic transformation is the most widely used to achieve normality when the variable is positively skewed (as in the image on the left below)
    • Analysis is then performed on the transformed variable

The Mean and the Variance

  • The mean (average) of a variable is also known as the expected value
    • Usually denoted by the Greek letter λ
    • As an aside, for a normally distributed variable, the mean is equal to the median
  • The variance is a measure of dispersion of a variable
    • Calculated as the average squared distance of the possible values of the variable from mean
    • Standard deviation is the square root of the variance
    • Standard deviation is generally denoted by the Greek letter γ, and variance is therefore denoted by γ2

Example: Calculation of Mean and Variance

Covariance and Correlation

  • Defined as a measure of how much two variables X and Y change together
    • The units of Cov (X, Y) are those of X multiplied by those of Y
    • The covariance of a variable X with itself is simply the variance of X
  • Since these units are fairly obscure, a dimensionless measure of the strength of the relationship between variables is often used instead. This measure is known as the correlation
    • Correlations range from -1 to 1, with positive values close to one indicating a strong direct relationship and negative values close to -1 indicating a strong inverse relationship

Spatial Autocorrelation

  • Sometimes, rather than examining the association between two variables, we might look at the relationship of values within a single variable at different time points or locations
  • There is said to be (positive) autocorrelation in a variable if observations that are closer to each other in space have related values (recall Tobler's Law)
  • As an aside, there could also be temporal autocorrelation
      i.e., values of a variable at points close in time will be related

Examples of Spatial Autocorrelation


  • A statistical method used to examine the relationship between a variable of interest and one or more explanatory variables
    • Strength of the relationship
    • Direction of the relationship
  • Often referred to as Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression
  • Available in all statistical packages
  • Note that the presence of a relationship does not imply causality

For the purposes of demonstration, let's focus on a simple version of this problem

  • Variable of interest (dependent variable)
    • E.g., education (years of schooling)
  • Explanatory variable (AKA independent variable or predictor):
    • E.g., Neighborhood Income
But what does a regression do? An example with a single predictor:

The example on the previous page can be easily extended to cases when we have more than one predictor

  • When we have n>1 predictors, rather than getting a line in 2 dimensions, we get a line in n 1 dimensions (the ' 1' accounts for the dependent variable)
  • Each independent variable will have its own slope coefficient which will indicate the relationship of that particular predictor with the dependent variable, controlling for all other independent variables in the regression.
  • The equation of the best fit line becomes
    Dep. Variable = m1*predictor1 m2*predictor2 m3*predictor 3 b residuals
    where the m's are the coefficients of the corresponding predictors and b is the y-intercept term
  • The coefficient of each predictor may be interpreted as the amount by which the dependent variable changes as the independent variable increases by one unit (holding all other variables constant)

Some (Very) Basic Regression Diagnostics

  • R-squared: the percent of variance in the dependent variable that is explained by the independent variables
  • The so-called p-value of the coefficient
    • The probability of getting a coefficient (slope) value as far from zero as we observe in the case when the slope is actually zero
    • When p is less than 0.05, the independent variable is considered to be a statistically significant predictor of the dependent variable
    • One p-value per independent variable
  • The sign of the coefficient of the independent variable (i.e., the slope of the regression line)
    • One coefficient per independent variable
    • Indicates whether the relationship between the dependent and independent variables is positive or negative
    • We should look at the sign when the coefficient is statistically significant

Some (but not all) regression assumptions

  1. The dependent variable should be normally distributed (i.e., the histogram of the variable should look like a bell curve)
  2. Very importantly, the observations should be independent of each other. (The same holds for regression residuals). If this assumption is violated, our coefficient estimates could be wrong!

Part 3. Geostatistical Interpolation


  • Involve a set of statistical techniques called Kriging (there are a bunch of different Kriging methods)
  • Kriging is named after Danie Gerhardus Krige, a South African mining engineer who presented the ideas in his masters thesis in 1951. These ideas were later formalized by a prominent French mathematician Georges Matheron
  • For more information, see:
    • Krige, Danie G. (1951). "A statistical approach to some basic mine valuation problems on the Witwatersrand". J. of the Chem., Metal. and Mining Soc. of South Africa <b>52</b> (6): 119-139.
    • Matheron, Georges (1962). Trait de geostatistique applique, Editions Technip, France
  • Kriging has two parts: the quantification of the spatial structure in the data (called variography) and prediction of values at unknown points
  • Souce of this information:

Motivating Example: Ordinary Kriging

  • Imagine we have data on the concentration of gold (denote it by Y) in western Pennsylvania at a set of 200 sample locations (call them points pp200)
  • Since Y has a meaningful value at every point, our goal is to create a prediction surface for the entire region using these sample points
  • Notation: In this western PA region, Y(p) will denote the concentration level of gold at any point p

Global and Local Structure

  • Without any a priori knowledge about the distribution of gold in Western PA, we have no theoretical reason to expect to find different concentrations of gold at different locations in that region
    • i.e., theoretically, the expected value of gold concentration should not vary with latitude and longitude
    • In other words, we would expect that there is some general, average, value of gold concentration (called global structure) that is constant throughout the region (even though we assume it's constant, we do not know what its value is)
  • Of course, when we look at the data, we see that there is some variability in the gold concentrations at different points. We can consider this to be a local deviation from the overall global structure, known as the local structure or residual or error term
  • In other words, geostatisticians would decompose the value of gold Y(p) into the global structure γ(p) and local structure γ(p).
    • Y(p) = γ(p) γ(p)


  • As per the First Law of Geography, the local structures γ(p) of nearby observations will often be correlated. That is, there is still some meaningful information (i.e., spatial dependencies) that can be extracted from the spatially dependent component of the residuals
  • So, our ordinary kriging model will:
    • Estimate this constant but unknown global structure γ(p), and
    • Incorporate the dependencies among the residuals γ(p). Doing so will enable us to create a continuous surface of gold concentration in western PA

Assumptions of Ordinary Kriging

  • For the sake of the methods that we will be employing, we need to make some assumptions:
    • Y(p) should be normally distributed
    • The global structure γ(p) is constant and unknown (as in the gold example)
    • Covariance between values of γ depends only on distance between the points,
      • To put it more formally, for each distance h and each pair of locations p and t within the region of interest that are h units are apart, there exists a common covariance value, C(h), such that covariance
        [γ(p), γ(t)] = C(h)
      • This is called isotropy

Covariance and Distance

  • From the First Law of Geography it would then follow that as distance between points increases, the similarity (i.e., covariance or correlation) between the values at these points decreases
  • If we plot this out, with inter-point distance h on the x-axis, and covariance C(h) on the y-axis, we get a graph that looks something like the one below. This representation of covariance as a function of distance is called as the covariogram
  • Alternatively, we can plot correlation against distance (the correlogram)

Covariograms and Weights

  • Geostatistical methods incorporate this covariance-distance relationship into the interpolation models
    • More specifically, this information is used to calculate the weights
    • As in IDW, kriging is a weighted average of points in the vicinity
      • Recall that in IDW, in order to predict the value at an unknown point, we assume that nearer points will have higher weights (i.e., weights are determined based on distance)
      • In geostatistical techniques, we calculate the distances between the unknown point at which we want to make a prediction and the measured points nearby, and use the value of the covariogram for those distances to calculate the weight of each of these surrounding measured points
        • i.e., the weight of a point h units away will depend on the value of C(h)


  • Unfortunately, it so happens that one generally cannot estimate covariograms and correlograms directly
  • For that purpose, a related function of distance (h) called the semi-variogram (or simply the variogram) is calculated
    • The variogram is denoted by γ(h)
    • One can easily obtain the covariogram from the variogram (but not the other way around)
  • Covariograms and variograms tell us the spatial structure of the data

Interpretation of Variograms

  • As mentioned earlier, a covariogram might be thought of as covariance (i.e., similarity) between point values as a function of distance, such that C(h) is greater at smaller distances
  • A variogram, on the other hand, might be thought of as "dissimilarity between point values as a function of distance", such that the dissimilarity is greater for points that are farther apart
  • Variograms are usually interpreted in terms of the corresponding covariograms or correlograms
  • A common mistake when interpreting variograms is to say that variance increases with distance

Bandwidth (The Maximum Value of h)

  • When there are n points, the number of inter-point distances is equal to (n(n-1))/2
  • Example:
    • With 15 points, we have (15(15-1))/2 = 105 inter-point distances (marked in yellow on the grid in the lower left)
    • Since we're using Euclidean distance, the distance between points 1 and 2 is the same as the distance between points 2 and 1, so we count it only once. Also, the distance between a point and itself will always be zero, and is of no interest here
  • The maximum distance h on a covariogram or variogram is called the bandwidth, and should equal half the maximum inter-point distance
    • In the figure on the lower right, the blue line connects the points that are the farthest away from each other. The bandwidth in this example would then equal to half the length of the blue line

Mathematical definition of a variogram

  • In other words, for each distance h between 0 and the bandwidth
    • Find all pairs of points i and j that are separated by that distance h
    • For each such point pair, subtract the value of Y at point j from the value of Y at point i, and square the difference
    • Average these square distances across all point pairs and divide the average by 2. That's your variogram value!
      • Division by 2 -> hence the occasionally used name semi-variogram
  • However, in practice, there will generally be only one pair of points that are exactly h units apart, unless we're dealing with regularly spaced samples. Therefore, we create "bins", or distance ranges, into which we place point pairs with similar distances, and estimate ? only for midpoints of these bins rather than at all individual distances
    • These bins are generally of the same size
    • It's a rule of thumb to have at least 30 point pairs per bin
  • We call these estimates of γ(h) at the bin midpoints the empirical variogram

Fitting a Variogram Model

  • Now, we're going to fit a variogram model (i.e., curve) to the empirical variogram
  • That is, based on the shape of the empirical variogram, different variogram curves might be fit
  • The curve fitting generally employs the method of least squares � the same method that's used in regression analysis

A very comprehensive guide on variography by Dr. Tony Smith
(University of Pennsylvania)

The Variogram Parameters

  • The variogram models are a function of three parameters, known as the range, the sill, and the nugget
    • The range is typically the level of h at the correlation between point values is zero (i.e., there is no longer any spatial autocorrelation)
    • The value of γ at r is called the sill, and is generally denoted by s
      • The variance of the sample is used as an estimate of the sill
    • Different models have slightly different definitions of these parameters
    • The nugget deserves a slide of its own

Graph taken from:

Spatial Independence at Small Distances

  • Even though we assume that values at points that are very near each other are correlated, points that are separated by very, very small values might be considerably less correlated
    • E.g.: you might find a gold nugget and no more gold in the vicinity
  • In other words, even though γ(0) is always 0, however γ at very, very small distances will be equal to a value a that is considerably greater than 0
  • This value denoted by a is called the nugget
  • The ratio of the nugget to the sill is known as the nugget effect, and may be interpreted as the percentage of variation in the data that is not spatial
  • The difference between the sill and the nugget is known as the partial sill
    • The partial sill, and not the sill itself, is reported in GeoStatistical Analyst

Pure Nugget Effect Variograms

  • Pure nugget effect is when the covariance between point values is zero at all distances h
  • That is, there is absolutely no spatial autocorrelation in the data (even at small distances)
  • Pure nugget effect covariogram and variogram are presented below
  • Interpolation won't give a reasonable predictions
  • Most cases are not as extreme and have both a spatially dependent and a spatially independent component, regardless of variogram model chosen (discussed on following slides)

The Spherical Model

  • The spherical model is the most widely used variogram model
  • Monotonically non-decreasing
    • i.e., as h increases, the value of γ(h) does not decrease - i.e., it goes up (until hγr) or stays the same (h>r)
  • γ(hγr)=s and C(hγr)=0
    • That is, covariance is assumed to be exactly zero at distances h?r

The Exponential Model

  • The exponential variogram looks very similar to the spherical model, but assumes that the correlation never reaches exactly zero, regardless of how great the distances between points are
  • In other words, the variogram approaches the value of the sill asymptotically
  • Because the sill is never actually reached, the range is generally considered to be the smallest distance after which the covariance is 5% or less of the maximum covariance
  • The model is monotonically increasing
    • i.e., as h goes up, so does γ(h)

The Wave (AKA Hole-Effect) Model

  • On the picture to the left, the waves exhibit a periodic pattern. A non-standard form of spatial autocorrelation applies. Peaks are similar in values to other peaks, and troughs are similar in values to other troughs. However, note the dampening in the covariogram and variogram on the right: That is, peaks that are closer together have values that are more correlated than peaks that are father apart (and same holds for troughs)
  • More is said about the applicability of these models in
  • Variogram graph edited slightly from:

Variograms and Kriging Weights

  • Imagine our dataset exhibits a wave pattern, as shown on the variogram. IDW weights (based only on distance) would ignore it, however kriging weights would take that spatial structure into account
    • Because of this wave pattern, the unknown point will actually be more similar to the point that is 400m away than to the point that is 150m away

Reviewing Ordinary Kriging

  • Again, ordinary kriging will:
    • Give us an estimate of the constant but unknown global structure γ(p), and
    • Use variography to examine the dependencies among the residuals γ(p) and to create kriging weights
      • We calculate the distances between the unknown point at which we want to make a prediction and the measured points that are nearby and use the value of the covariogram for those distances to calculate the weight of each of these surrounding measured points
  • The end result is, of course, a continuous prediction surface
  • Prediction standard errors can also be obtained, this is a surface indicating the accuracy of prediction

Universal Kriging

  • Now, take another example: imagine we have data on the temperature at 100 different weather stations (call them w1..w100) throughout Florida, and we want to predict the values of temperature (T) at every point w in the entire state using these data
  • Notation: temperature at point w is denoted by T(w)
  • We know that temperature at lower latitudes are expected to be higher. So, T(w) will be expected to vary with latitude
    • Ordinary kriging is not appropriate here, because it assumes that the global structure is the same everywhere. This is clearly not the case here
    • A method called universal kriging allows for a non-constant global structure
      • We might model the global structure ? as in regression:
      • Everything else in universal kriging is pretty much the same as in ordinary kriging (e.g., variography)

Some More Advanced Techniques

  • Indicator Kriging is a geostatistical interpolation method does not require the data to be normally distributed
  • Co-kriging is an interpolation technique that is used when there is a second variable that is strongly correlated with the variable from which we're trying to create a surface, and which is sampled at the same set of locations as our variable of interest and at a number of additional locations
  • For more details on indicator kriging and co-kriging, see one of the texts suggested at the end of this presentation

Isotropy vs. Anisotropy

  • When we use isotropic (or omnidirectional) covariograms, we assume that the covariance between the point values depends only on distance
    • Recall the covariance stationarity assumption
  • Anisotropic (or directional) covariograms are used when we have reason to believe that direction plays a role as well (i.e., covariance is a function of both distance and direction)
    • E.g., in some problems, accounting for direction is appropriate (e.g., when wind or water currents might be a factor)
  • For more on anisotropic variograms, see

IDW vs. Kriging

  • We get a more "natural" look to the data with Kriging
  • You see the "bulls eye" effect in IDW but not (as much) in Kriging
  • Helps to compensate for the effects of data clustering, assigning individual points within a cluster less weight than isolated data points (or, treating clusters more like single points)
  • Kriging also give us a standard error
  • If the data locations are quite dense and uniformly distributed throughout the area of interest, we will get decent estimates regardless of which interpolation method we choose
  • On the other hand, if the data locations fall in a few clusters and there are gaps in between these clusters, we will obtain pretty unreliable estimates regardless of whether we use IDW or Kriging

These are interpolation results using the gold data in Western PA (IDW vs. Ordinary Kriging)

Some Widely Used Texts on Geostatistics

  • Bailey, T.C. and Gatrell, A.C. (1995) Interactive Spatial Data Analysis.
    Addison Wesley Longman, Harlow, Essex.
  • Cressie, N.A.C. (1993) Statistics for Spatial Data.
    (Revised Edition). Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.,
  • Isaaks, E.H. and Srivastava, R.M. (1989) An Introduction to Applied Geostatistics.
    Oxford University Press, New York, 561 p.