A Closer Look at Alpha Shapes in pgRouting

Alpha shapes are generalizations of the convex hull [1]. Convex hulls are well known and widely implemented in GIS systems. Alpha shapes are different in that they capture the shape of a point set. You can watch a great demo of how alpha shapes work on François Bélair’s website “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Alpha Shapes But Were Afraid to Ask” I borrowed the following pictures from that site:

Alpha shapes for different values of alpha. The left one equals the convex hull of the point set.

Alpha shapes for different values of alpha. The left one equals the convex hull of the point set.

pgRouting comes with an implementation of alpha shapes. There is an alpha shape function: alphashape(sql text) and a convenience wrapper: points_as_polygon(query character varying). The weird thing is that you don’t get to set an alpha value. The only thing supplied to the function is a set of points. Let’s see what kind of results it produces!

Starting point for this experiment is a 10 km catchment zone around node #2699 in my osm road network. Travel costs to nodes are calculated using driving_distance() function. (You can find more information on using this function in Catchment Areas with pgRouting driving_distance().)

CREATE TABLE home_catchment10km AS
   FROM osm_nodes
   (SELECT * FROM driving_distance('
      SELECT gid AS id,
          meters AS cost
      FROM osm_roads',
      false)) AS route
   ON = route.vertex_id

After costs are calculated, we can create some alpha shapes. The following queries create the table and insert an alpha shape for all points with a cost of less than 1500:

CREATE TABLE home_isodist (id serial, max_cost double precision);
SELECT AddGeometryColumn('home_isodist','the_geom',4326,'POLYGON',2);

INSERT INTO home_isodist (max_cost, the_geom) (
SELECT 1500, ST_SetSRID(the_geom,4326)
    'SELECT id, ST_X(the_geom) AS x, ST_Y(the_geom) AS y FROM home_catchment10km where cost < 1500'));

In previous posts, I’ve created catchment areas by first interpolating a cost raster and creating contours from there. Now, let’s see how the two different approaches compare!

The following picture shows resulting catchment areas for 500, 1000, 1500, and 2000 meters around a central node. Colored areas show the form of pgRouting alpha shape results. Black contours show the results of the interpolation method:

Comparison of pgRouting alpha shapes and interpolation method

At first glance, results look similar enough. Alpha shape results look like a generalized version of interpolation results. I guess that it would be possible to get even closer if the alpha value could be set to a smaller value. The function should then produce a finer, more detailed polygon.

For a general overview about which areas of a network are reachable within certain costs, pgRouting alpha shapes function seems a viable alternative to the interpolation method presented in previous posts. However, the alpha value used by pgRouting seems too big to produce detailed catchment areas.


    • underdark said:

      Thanks for the tip. Really looking forward to the time when PostGIS 2.0 will be standard.

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