Ticket #11928 (closed Bugs: fixed)

Opened 14 months ago

Last modified 14 months ago

surveyor area method is inaccurate

Reported by: Charles Karney <charles@…> Owned by: barendgehrels
Milestone: Boost 1.61.0 Component: geometry
Version: Boost 1.58.0 Severity: Problem
Keywords: area Cc: charles.karney@…


The following code illustrates a problem with the "surveyor" strategy for computing planar areas. It computes the area of a square of area 2 and the same square translated by 108 in x and y. bg::area incorrectly computes the area in the second case as 0.

#include <iostream>
#include <boost/geometry.hpp>

namespace bg = boost::geometry;
typedef bg::model::point<double, 2, bg::cs::cartesian> pt;

int main() {
  bg::model::polygon<pt, false, false> poly;
  // A simple square of area 2
  bg::read_wkt("POLYGON((1 0,0 1,-1 0,0 -1))", poly);
  // Computes the correct area (= 2)
  std::cout << "area " << bg::area(poly) << "\n";
  // The same square shifted by (10^8 10^8)
  bg::read_wkt("POLYGON((100000001 100000000, \
                         100000000 100000001, \
                          99999999 100000000, \
                         100000000  99999999))", poly);
  // Should give 2 but instead gives 0
  std::cout << "area " << bg::area(poly) << "\n";

Running this code gives

area 2
area 0


  • Surely it's a bad idea to embed the algorithm name "surveyor" into the API. Computing 2d areas is really straightforward. Users shouldn't need to worry about the underlying method. Maybe "planar_area" is a better name.
  • In any case "surveyor" is a rather silly name of the type beloved of Wikipedia editors. There's no evidence that surveyors actually used this method.
  • It's more expensive (at 2*n multiplies and 2*n additions) than applying the trapezium rule (otherwise known as "doing the integral"), i.e., summing (x[i+1] - x[i]) * (y[i+1] + y[i]) / 2, which clocks in at n multiplies and 3*n additions.
  • Finally, as this example illustrates, it's subject to catastrophic loss of accuracy, while the trapezium rule will give the exact result. (Kahan contrasts evaluating x*x - y*y compared with (x - y) * (x + y) with x = 1e15+1, y = 1e15-1. The former result is wrong by 1.5% while the latter is exact.)


Change History

comment:1 Changed 14 months ago by awulkiew

The name of the formula seems to be older than Wikipedia [1][2].

I haven't measured it but I'd rather guess that nowadays the most expensive part in both cases is data access.

Furthermore I guess that in the case of the trapezium rule the result is also not precise in general when coordinates are big. So I'd rather fight with this issue by moving all of the coordinates closer to the origin of the coordinate system before passing them into the strategy, so doing it on the fly while calculating the area with any strategy. Similar technique was used before to improve the precision of centroid(). This solution should improve the precision of a function no matter what strategy was used.

With that said I'm not against changing the formula. But should trapezium rule be better in all cases or is there a reason why the old one could be left as it was?

[1] Flint, Abel. "A System of Geometry and Trigonometry: together with a treatise on surveying: teaching various ways of taking the survey of a field; also to protract the same and find the area. Likewise, Rectangular Surveying; Or, an accurate method of calculating the area of any field arithmetically, without the necessity of plotting it.", 1808

[2] Braden, Bart. "The surveyor’s area formula.", 1986

comment:2 Changed 14 months ago by Charles Karney <charles@…>

Thanks for the reference to Abel Flint (a great name!). You will see on pp. 59-63 that he describes the trapezium rule and not the so-called surveyor's method! Most of his contemporaries who were mathematicians would have recognized this as such and not, therefore, have seen it as some special technique invented by a surveyor.

The analysis of why

sum xi yi+1 - xi+1 yi

is typically subject to worse round off errors than

sum (xi+1 - xi) (yi+1 + yi)

goes as follows. Each formula contains

  1. products
  2. differences in forming each term in the sum
  3. differences in forming the sum itself

In the surveyors formula 2 follows 1 and so the mild round off errors from the products are sometimes catastrophically magnified. In the trapezium rule 2 precedes 1 and there is no round off error if xi+1 and xi are within a factor of 2 of each other (which is a common situation).

Both formulas are subject to potentially dangerous round off with 3. Centering the numbers might ameliorate this problem. Alternatively, merely switching to the other trapezium rule involving (yi+1 - yi) would help, e.g., in the case of UTM coordinates where often the northings are much larger than the eastings.

comment:3 Changed 14 months ago by Charles Karney <charles@…>

By the way, in  GeographicLib, I use an  Accumulator class to perform the summation. This effectively sums at double the normal precision.

comment:4 Changed 14 months ago by awulkiew

  • Status changed from new to closed
  • Resolution set to fixed
  • Milestone changed from To Be Determined to Boost 1.61.0

I tweaked the formula as you suggested. Thanks.


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