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All spatial data models are approaches for storing the spatial location of geographic features in a database. Vector storage implies the use of vectors (directional lines) to represent a geographic feature. Vector data is characterized by the use of sequential points or vertices to define a linear segment. Each vertex consists of an X coordinate and a Y coordinate.

Vector lines are often referred to as arcs and consist of a string of vertices terminated by a node. A node is defined as a vertex that starts or ends an arc segment. Point features are defined by one coordinate pair, a vertex. Polygonal features are defined by a set of closed coordinate pairs. In vector representation, the storage of the vertices for each feature is important, as well as the connectivity between features, e.g. the sharing of common vertices where features connect.

Several different vector data models exist, however only two are commonly used in GIS data storage.

The most popular method of retaining spatial relationships among features is to explicitly record adjacency information in what is known as the topologic data model. Topology is a mathematical concept that has its basis in the principles of feature adjacency and connectivity.

The topologic data structure is often referred to as an intelligent data structure because spatial relationships between geographic features are easily derived when using them. Primarily for this reason the topologic model is the dominant vector data structure currently used in GIS technology. Many of the complex data analysis functions cannot effectively be undertaken without a topologic vector data structure. Topology is reviewed in greater detail later on in the book.

The secondary vector data structure that is common among GIS software is the computer-aided drafting (CAD) data structure. This structure consists of listing elements, not features, defined by strings of vertices, to define geographic features, e.g. points, lines, or areas. There is considerable redundancy with this data model since the boundary segment between two polygons can be stored twice, once for each feature. The CAD structure emerged from the development of computer graphics systems without specific considerations of processing geographic features. Accordingly, since features, e.g. polygons, are self-contained and independent, questions about the adjacency of features can be difficult to answer. The CAD vector model lacks the definition of spatial relationships between features that is defined by the topologic data model.

GIS MAP Structure - VECTOR systems (Adapted from Berry)