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Help & Resources Links, information, and code to get you started.

The Port Authority uses a large selection of open source technology to store and process GIS data. Whether you are new to GIS and learning about it, or already integrate it in some way in your business processes, the links below are a useful place to get started when building new applications. .

Mapping Platforms
For displaying digital maps on your website.

For storing GIS data and serving maps.

For crunching GIS data and tracking/navigation.

Libraries & CLI
For including in your app and converting formats.

Background on Cartography

The Earth is not 2D flat, or even a 3D sphere. It is commonly referred to as a oblate spheroid, which is like a sphere that has been squashed at the top and bottom. When squashed flat onto a piece of paper on a desk (i.e. a map), it requires a 2D system to identify points on its surface, which appears as a grid. That grid is represented in data the same as any other you would draw.

The system of using longitude and latitude creates an X,Y grid over a flattened map of the world. These are just ordinary floating point decimal numbers, but measuring the journey between two sets typically uses the Haversine Formula ( to determine the approximate Great Circle Distance ( "as the crow flies".

Longitude is the horizontal or X axis that runs from east to west, from 180 degrees to -180 degrees, through the Greenwich (Prime) Meridian at 0 degrees.

Latitude is the vertical or Y axis that runs from north to south, from 90 degrees to -90 degrees, through the Equator at 0 degrees.

  • Longitude: X grid axis, 180 (map right) to -180 (map left)
  • Latitude: Y grid axis, 90 (map top) to -90 (map bottom)

Example Coordinates
  • New York City: -74.005941, 40.712784 (X/Lng, Y/Lat)
  • London: -0.127758, 51.507351 (X/Lng, Y/Lat)
  • Beijing: 116.407395, 39.904211 (X/Lng, Y/Lat)


  • The ellipsoid geography of the Earth obviously doesn't make any of this as simple as it is presented here for real navigational purposes, or the relationship of planetary orbit with time. The explanation above is simply to relate the geometry to how it is stored in a database.

Background On Postal Areas

Postal districts (or zip codes in the US) are typically area measurements of distributed human population used by postal services for categorising mail for delivery to inhabited zones. The information is reviewed from a periodic national census.

Governments and postal services refer to these areas in technical terms, rather than "postal" shapes.

United States

In the US, these zones are called Zip Code Tabulation Areas (ZCTAs). A zipcode has 5 numeric digits. There are approximately 45,000.

In the US, a zipcode has one shape.


In Canada, postal codes follow the British system, and can be either 3 characters, or 6 characters (e.g A0A, or A0A 1AF). These zones are called Forward Sortation Areas (FSAs). There are approximately 1,700 3-digit wider codes, which dissolve into over 830,000 6-digit variants for specificity.

In Canada, a postal code can be a collection of neighbouring shapes, or polygons. For example, the postcode A0A has 5+ separate geographic areas.

Centres & Boundaries
Each postal or zip code is given a centre point of longitude and latitude.

Each postal or zip code has an approximate shape or border (or set of them), known as its boundaries, which can be simplistically represented on a map as a polygon (or set of them). These can overlap, and should never be considered forensically accurate.

New postal areas are added every quarter, with the best records being held by the postal services of each country.

Sourcing the Data

Getting hold of postal data can be extremely difficult, because a) in many cases it is subject to postal service copyright, and b) it is referred to in technical terms (e.g. "FSA boundaries").

it is important to understand that the data is generated, stored, and manipulated for Geographic Information System (GIS) programs, which use both compiled and textual formats, such as shape files (.shp), and geography markup (.gml). Newer formats include Keyhole (.kml) and GeoJSON (.json).

Well-known platforms for opening, viewing, and converting layers of these data files are ArcGIS, OpenGIS, and qGIS (Mac).


Free Government Data

Most governments publish geographic area data after they take a periodic census. This data has been imported and adapted frequently into Google FusionTables.

United States ZCTAs:

Canada FSAs:

Private Paid Data

Many companies offer much more detailed and curated information that is updated monthly, and can be licensed annually for a cost of $2-7000 USD.

Importing GIS data

In many cases, the easiest way to manipulate the data is from XML formats that can deserialized into programmatically-accessible objects (e.g. traversible DOM). Several of both these input and output files can be hundreds of megabytes in size, with over 5000 lng/lat points that comprise a single boundary.

The simplest route to an XML-based source is to open the data file as a layer in qGIS (Mac), and export/convert it to either KML or GeoJSON for parsing inside your application.

Storing Spatial Data In MySQL

MySQL has a sweet GIS extension for storing information about points, lines, and shapes that need to be represented on a grid, and searched. The database engine stores the data natively, but has functions to retrieve it as Well-Known Text (WKT).

The grid being search through runs from 90 to -90 on the Y axis, and -180 to 180 on the X axis. Most MySQL documentation tends to refer to arbitrary values such as 1-10, or 0,0, and so on. There is no difference between 0,0 or 2,5, or -90 to +180 - they are just X and Y axis values for a grid.

The most used of these is the "Geometry-From-Text" function:

SELECT ST_AsText(field_name) FROM table;
          INSERT INTO table (field_name) VALUES (GeomFromText("POINT(X,Y)"))


The simplest form of location that can be stored is the POINT field, which is expressed as POINT(X,Y), or in geographic terms: POINT(LNG, LAT).

INSERT INTO table (city, coords)
          VALUES (
            'New York',
            GeomFromText("POINT(-74.005941, 40.712784)")

Retrieving the data is equally simple.

SELECT ST_AsText(coords) FROM table;
          SELECT X(coords) FROM table AS longitude;
          SELECT Y(coords) FROM table AS latitude;


Polygons are a little more tricky, as they need to close themselves. A polygon comprises a list of X,Y grid values. The last X,Y values of the list must be the same as the first in order to self-close the shape. If not, the shape will evaluate to NULL.

A polygon has an inner and outer ring (two parentheses), and can be expressed simply as:

POLYGON(( X1 Y1, X2 Y2, X3 Y3, X4 Y4, X1 Y1 ))
INSERT INTO table (area_name, shape_field) VALUES (
             'My Area Name',
               POLYGON((LON1 LAT1, LON2 LAT2, LON3 LAT3, LON4 LAT4,     LON1 LAT1)) ")

Retrieving the data again requires the function to turn it back into text:

SELECT ST_AsText(shape_field) FROM table;


Multi-polygons are essentially a list of polygons to store grouped in one field, which makes them ideally suited for postal areas.

Polygons are simply separated by commas. but eventually have three parentheses.

             (X1 Y1, X2 Y2, X3 Y3, X4 Y4, X1 Y1),
             (X1 Y1, X2 Y2, X3 Y3, X4 Y4, X1 Y1),
             (X1 Y1, X2 Y2, X3 Y3, X4 Y4, X1 Y1)

You can store 1 polygon in a multi-polygon field, or many.

INSERT INTO table (area_name, shape_field) VALUES (
             'My Area Name',
                 (LON1 LAT1, LON2 LAT2, LON3 LAT3, LON4 LAT4, LON1 LAT1),
                 (LON1 LAT1, LON2 LAT2, LON3 LAT3, LON4 LAT4, LON1 LAT1),
                 (LON1 LAT1, LON2 LAT2, LON3 LAT3, LON4 LAT4, LON1 LAT1)

Retrieving the data again requires the function to turn it back into text:

SELECT ST_AsText(shape_field) FROM table;

Others (Lines etc)

MySQL also allows you store many different types that can be useful for mapping and journeying applications:

  • Arbitrary shapes (GEOMETRY)
  • Multiple arbitrary shapes (GEOMETRYCOLLECTION)
  • Lines from one place to another (LINESTRING)
  • Multiple points (MULTIPOINT)
  • Multiple lines (MULTILINESTRING)

Many of these are useful for determining whether 2 lines intersect/cross, or simply storing drawings set on a grid for a floor of a house.


  • MySQL uses the X,Y format (Lng/Lat). Google Maps uses the opposite, or Y,X (Lat/Lng).
  • The first and last co-ordinates (X/Y, or Lng/Lat) of polygons must be the same, or they will evaluate to NULL.
  • Note the double parantheses: polygons require an inner and outer ring. Most often, these are the same.
  • Serializing raw database results into JSON or other formats will inject illegal characters into your HTML string output. You must use ST_AsText (field_name) format to retrieve and parse the Well-Known Text (WKT) value.

Spatially Querying Geometric Data

All of this is well and good, but why would you want to go through all of this to store the information in the first place?

Almost all applications tend to use the same approach when it comes to geometry calculations with database resultsets: the Haversine Formula as a function or stored procedure for working out distance, and row-by-row Point-In-Polygon formulas for searching areas.

This often comes from Google's own guide, which is frequently cited:

          ( 3959 * acos( cos( radians(37) ) * cos( radians( lat ) ) * cos( radians( lng ) - radians(-122) ) + sin( radians(37) ) * sin( radians( lat ) ) ) ) AS distance
          FROM table
          HAVING distance < 25
          ORDER BY distance
          LIMIT 0, 20;

This is generally bearable for store locators with less than 5000 rows, taking around 500ms. It's slightly different when it goes over 10,000 (without indexing FLOAT columns).

It also gets difficult when it comes to a table with 100+ polygon areas, stored assumedly as text or JSON. For the latter, you are forced to retrieve your entire result base, and then programatically interrogate whether the specified lat/lng is geometrically contained in the polygon, vertex by terrible vertex. Just a single postal boundary can contain 1000 - 8000 vertices.

function contains($point, $polygon)
              if($polygon[0] != $polygon[count($polygon)-1])
                  $polygon[count($polygon)] = $polygon[0];
              $j = 0;
              $oddNodes = false;
              $x = $point[1];
              $y = $point[0];
              $n = count($polygon);
              for ($i = 0; $i < $n; $i++)
                  if ($j == $n)
                      $j = 0;
                  if ((($polygon[$i][0] < $y) && ($polygon[$j][0] >= $y)) || (($polygon[$j][0] < $y) && ($polygon[$i][0] >=
                      if ($polygon[$i][1] + ($y - $polygon[$i][0]) / ($polygon[$j][0] - $polygon[$i][0]) * ($polygon[$j][1] -
                          $polygon[$i][1]) < $x)
                          $oddNodes = !$oddNodes;
              return $oddNodes;


Why write this when MySQL can do this natively, and much more - with indexing, for 500,000+ records, with all GIS functionality, in less than 50ms?

What's the distance between two points?

              POINT(LNG1, LAT1),
              POINT(LNG2, LAT2)
          ) AS map_degrees;

ST_DISTANCE measures the difference between the points in map degrees. To get the value in actual length units, you need to multiple the result by the amount of degrees in that unit.

Each degree on a map is roughly 69.047 miles, or 111.32 km.

              POINT(LNG1, LAT1),
              POINT(LNG2, LAT2)
          ) * 69.047 AS miles;

              POINT(LNG1, LAT1),
              POINT(LNG2, LAT2)
          ) * 111.32 AS km;

What's the distance between a lat/lng and every row?

              POINT(-74.005941, 40.712784)
          FROM table;

Which rows are within 50 miles nearby of a lat/lng?

          ST_DISTANCE(POINT(LON, LAT), point_field) * 69.047 AS miles
          FROM table
          WHERE ST_DISTANCE(POINT(LON, LAT), point_field) <= (50 / 69.047);

Is a lat/lng inside a polygon field value?

              POINT(-74.005941, 40.712784)

This function asks if argument 2 is within argument 1. The inverse function ST_WITHIN does the opposite.

How big is a polygon?

SELECT ST_AREA(polygon_field)
          FROM table
          WHERE id = 200

What's the 20th point of a polygon?

              ST_GEOMETRYN(ST_GEOMFROMTEXT(polygon_field), 20)
          FROM table;

Is a lat/lng within a 50 unit radius of any row point field?

          ST_DISTANCE(POINT(-74.005941, 40.712784), point_field) AS map_degrees
          FROM table
              ST_BUFFER(point_field, 50), /* temporary area value */
              POINT(-74.005941, 40.712784)

Which point rows are within the polygon area i specify?

          FROM table
          WHERE ST_WITHIN(
              PolyFromText("POLYGON((LON1 LAT1, LON2 LAT2, LON3 LAT3, LON4 LAT4,LON1 LAT1)) ")

Other GIS functions

There are dozens of useful ST_ functions available inside MySQL that allow you to query your world map grid in any way you like.

Examples include:

  • ST_AsGeoJSON()
  • ST_GeomFromGeoJSON()
  • ST_UNION()


Speed With Indexing

Indexing any data inside an RDBMS is necessary for datasets over 1000 rows, and can massively accelerate queries. Spatial indexing is only currently supported on MyISAM tables, and not available with InnoDB.

To create a table with a spatial index:

CREATE TABLE geometries
             postal_boundaries MULTIPOLYGON NOT NULL,
             SPATIAL INDEX (postal_boundaries)
          ON geometries (postal_boundaries);


  • Spatial indexes in MySQL require that no rows are empty or NULL. You cannot create an index if one or more of your rows has a NULL value, or insert a new row with an empty spatial field.
Optimised Proximity query (SQL)

Find the neareast 15 points that are within a bounding box of 50km of a lat/lon.

          z.latitude, z.longitude,
                   * DEGREES(ACOS(COS(RADIANS(p.latpoint))
                   * COS(RADIANS(z.latitude))
                   * COS(RADIANS(p.longpoint) - RADIANS(z.longitude))
                   + SIN(RADIANS(p.latpoint))
                   * SIN(RADIANS(z.latitude)))) AS distance_in_km
    FROM zip AS z
    JOIN (   /* these are the query parameters */
          SELECT  42.81  AS latpoint,  -70.81 AS longpoint,
                  50.0 AS radius,      111.045 AS distance_unit
      ) AS p ON 1=1
    WHERE z.latitude
       BETWEEN p.latpoint  - (p.radius / p.distance_unit)
           AND p.latpoint  + (p.radius / p.distance_unit)
      AND z.longitude
       BETWEEN p.longpoint - (p.radius / (p.distance_unit * COS(RADIANS(p.latpoint))))
           AND p.longpoint + (p.radius / (p.distance_unit * COS(RADIANS(p.latpoint))))
    ORDER BY distance_in_km
    LIMIT 15
Point-In-Polygon NoSQL query (Elasticsearch)
  GET /_search
      "query": {
          "bool" : {
              "must" : {
                  "match_all" : {}
              "filter" : {
                  "geo_polygon" : {
                      "person.location" : {
                          "points" : [
                          {"lat" : 40, "lon" : -70},
                          {"lat" : 30, "lon" : -80},
                          {"lat" : 20, "lon" : -90}

Imagine Applications

Boundary Shapes / Lat/Lng Points / Desktop Files / Databases