Working with Spatial Data in MATLAB

Andrew M Fischer, University of Tasmania, Instrittue for Marine and Antarctice Studies
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Initial Publication Date: September 18, 2020 | Reviewed: April 13, 2021


Students are introduced to two spatial data models, vector and raster. By the end of this activity, students will be able to describe the two different data models and create, import and visualize various spatial datasets.

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Learning Goals

This activity addresses the following questions.

  • What is vector data?
  • What is raster data?
  • What is NetCDF?
  • What are the various functions in MATLAB for working with both raster and vector data?
  • How to get data from the Australian Ocean Data Network (AODN) and use it in MATLAB?

Students essentially follow a script, working through a variety of examples from Mathworks and AODN data. This activity is simply a data reading and plotting activity. Students must understand the difference between vector and raster data and be able to apply the appropriate function to plot these data sets. This activity is just 1 of 10 in a full semester class and is presented early in the semester.

Context for Use

Currently this activity is being administered through MyLO Blackboard, MATLAB Online and MATLAB Grader. The activity is part of a class called Environmental and Spatial Data Analysis. It typically has about 25-30 students. This is an introductory graduate level class for students in the marine sciences with no prior MATLAB experience and limited quantitative skills. The main aim of this teaching students how to access and work with a variety of spatial data sets in MATLAB and create publication quality plots for their research.

Description and Teaching Materials

Included is the activity sheet and two supporting data files. Students are also asked to get data from the Australian Ocean Data Network, Australian Marine Parks and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans.
Student Handout (Acrobat (PDF) 189kB Sep11 20)
NERP Dataset (Comma Separated Values 460kB Sep11 20)
Austrlian 250k Coastline Shapefile (Zip Archive 868kB Sep11 20)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students are introduced to raster and vector data in a 50 minute lecture. They are then asked to complete the activity sheet. The lecture is given on Blackboard web conferencing. Students stay online and ask questions through the web conferencing and further instruction and clarification is given through sharing the MATLAB online screen. Extra practice questions are provided through MATLAB Grader.


Basically, students are required to submit three plots that they create as part of the script they follow. If they simply follow the instructions they can easily create the plots required. Plots are assessed on these criteria

  1. The required data are plotted.
  2. Axes are clearly labelled, good choice of color and font size.
  3. Figure caption, describing the content of the plot is provided.

References and Resources