Raster data models incorporate the use of a grid-cell data structure where the geographic area is divided into cells identified by row and column. This data structure is commonly called raster. While the term raster implies a regularly spaced grid other tessellated data structures do exist in grid based GIS systems. In particular, the quadtree data structure has found some acceptance as an alternative raster data model.

The size of cells in a tessellated data structure is selected on the basis of the data accuracy and the resolution needed by the user. There is no explicit coding of geographic coordinates required since that is implicit in the layout of the cells. A raster data structure is in fact a matrix where any coordinate can be quickly calculated if the origin point is known, and the size of the grid cells is known. Since grid-cells can be handled as two-dimensional arrays in computer encoding many analytical operations are easy to program. This makes tessellated data structures a popular choice for many GIS software. Topology is not a relevant concept with tessellated structures since adjacency and connectivity are implicit in the location of a particular cell in the data matrix.

Several tessellated data structures exist, however only two are commonly used in GIS's. The most popular cell structure is the regularly spaced matrix or raster structure. This data structure involves a division of spatial data into regularly spaced cells. Each cell is of the same shape and size. Squares are most commonly utilized.

Since geographic data is rarely distinguished by regularly spaced shapes, cells must be classified as to the most common attribute for the cell. The problem of determining the proper resolution for a particular data layer can be a concern. If one selects too coarse a cell size then data may be overly generalized. If one selects too fine a cell size then too many cells may be created resulting in a large data volume, slower processing times, and a more cumbersome data set. As well, one can imply accuracy greater than that of the original data capture process and this may result in some erroneous results during analysis.

As well, since most data is captured in a vector format, e.g. digitizing, data must be converted to the raster data structure. This is called vector-raster conversion. Most GIS software allows the user to define the raster grid (cell) size for vector-raster conversion. It is imperative that the original scale, e.g. accuracy, of the data be known prior to conversion. The accuracy of the data, often referred to as the resolution, should determine the cell size of the output raster map during conversion.

Most raster based GIS software requires that the raster cell contain only a single discrete value. Accordingly, a data layer, e.g. forest inventory stands, may be broken down into a series of raster maps, each representing an attribute type, e.g. a species map, a height map, a density map, etc. These are often referred to as one attribute maps. This is in contrast to most conventional vector data models that maintain data as multiple attribute maps, e.g. forest inventory polygons linked to a database table containing all attributes as columns. This basic distinction of raster data storage provides the foundation for quantitative analysis techniques. This is often referred to as raster or map algebra. The use of raster data structures allow for sophisticated mathematical modelling processes while vector based systems are often constrained by the capabilities and language of a relational DBMS.

GIS MAP Structure - RASTER systems (Adapted from Berry)

This difference is the major distinguishing factor between vector and raster based GIS software. It is also important to understand that the selection of a particular data structure can provide advantages during the analysis stage. For example, the vector data model does not handle continuous data, e.g. elevation, very well while the raster data model is more ideally suited for this type of analysis. Accordingly, the raster structure does not handle linear data analysis, e.g. shortest path, very well while vector systems do. It is important for the user to understand that there are certain advantages and disadvantages to each data model.

The selection of a particular data model, vector or raster, is dependent on the source and type of data, as well as the intended use of the data. Certain analytical procedures require raster data while others are better suited to vector data.