Georeferencing means that the internal coordinate system of a map or aerial photo image can be related to a geographic coordinate system. The relevant coordinate transforms are typically stored within the image file (GeoPDF and GeoTIFF are examples), though there are many possible mechanisms for implementing georeferencing. The most visible effect of georeferencing is that display software can show ground coordinates (such as latitude/longitude or UTM coordinates) and also measure ground distances and areas.
In other words, georeferencing means to associate a digital image file with locations in physical space. The term is commonly used in the geographic information systems field to describe the process of associating a physical map or raster image of a map with spatial locations. Georeferencing may be applied to any kind of object or structure that can be related to a geographical location, such as points of interest, roads, places, bridges, or buildings.
There are various GIS tools available that can transform image data to some geographic control framework, like the commercial ArcMap, Manifold System, PCI Geomatica, TNTmips (MicroImages) or ERDAS Imagine, as well as FOSS tools like QGIS and GDAL. One can georeference a set of points, lines, polygons, images, or 3D structures. For instance, a GPS device will record latitude and longitude coordinates for a given point of interest, effectively georeferencing this point. A georeference must be a unique identifier. In other words, there must be only one location for which a georeference acts as the reference.
To georeference an image, one first needs to establish control points, input the known geographic coordinates of these control points, choose the coordinate system and other projection parameters and then minimize residuals. Residuals are the difference between the actual coordinates of the control points and the coordinates predicted by the geographic model created using the control points. They provide a method of determining the level of accuracy of the georeferencing process.
In situations where data has been collected and assigned to postal or area codes, it is usually necessary to convert these to geographic coordinates by use of a definitive directory or gazetteer file. Such gazetteers are often produced by census agencies, national mapping organizations or postal service providers. At their simplest, these may simply comprise a list of area codes or place names and another list of corresponding codes, names or coordinate locations. The range and purpose of the codes available is country-specific. An example is the UK's National Statistics Postcode Directory which shows each postcode's membership of census, administrative, electoral and other geographical areas. In this case, the directory also provides dates of creation and deletion, address counts and an Ordnance Survey grid reference for each postcode, allowing it to be mapped directly. Such gazetteer files support many web-based mapping systems which will place a symbol on a map or undertaken analysis such as route-finding, on the basis of postal codes, addresses or place names input by the user.