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PostGIS ST_Collect vs. ST_Union

This post covers the topic of creating MULTI* geometries or GEOMETRYCOLLECTIONs in PostGIS using ST_Collect or ST_Union.

Often it doesn’t matter if you use ST_Collect or ST_Union. Both will return MULTI* geometries or – if different geometry types or multi geometries are mixed – GEOMETRYCOLLECTIONS.

Why you might want to use ST_Collect instead of ST_Union

ST_Collect is much faster than ST_Union [1]. That’s already a good argument. It’s faster because it does not dissolve boundaries or check for overlapping regions. It simply combines geometries into MULTI*s or GEOMETRYCOLLECTIONs.

This leads to reason two for why you might prefer ST_Collect: Dissolving boundaries and overlapping regions – like ST_Union does – can lead to undesired effects. For example, combining three LINESTRING geometries that partially overlap, results in a MULTILINESTRING consisting of more than three lines. The input lines are split where they overlap each other or themselves.

Analysis and visualization based on the resulting geometries might lead to incorrect conclusions if the user is not aware of the processes performed by the union command.

[1] http://postgis.refractions.net/documentation/manual-svn/ST_Collect.html

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