Instant Heatmap with pg_featureserv

Paul Ramsey

5 min read

The pg_featureserv micro-service is a thin middleware that binds tables and functions in a PostgreSQL database to a JSON collections API, accessible over HTTP. Using the Crunchy Bridge container apps, I'm going to give a quick overview of how to set up a web based spatial heatmap from Postgres.


The application uses PostgreSQL to store and search 2.2M geographic names in the USA. Type in the search box and the auto-fill form will find candidate words. Select a word, and the database will perform a full-text search for all the names that match your word, and return the result to the map. The map displays the result using a heat map.

More names closer together will get more vibrant colors, so you can see name density. Try some regional names: bayou, swamp, cherokee, baptist, cougar. Try it for yourself.


Using pg_featureserv to build a demonstration application is pretty easy all you need is:

  • PostgreSQL running somewhere
  • pg_featureserv running somewhere
  • A web page hosted somewhere.

Wait, "running somewhere" is doing a lot of work here! Is there any way to do this without become a specialist in managing database and container ops?

Yes, we can do all the heavy lifting with Crunchy Bridge!

  • Crunchy Bridge hosts the database.
  • Crunchy Bridge container apps host the pg_featureserv microservice and a varnish web cache.
  • The static web page goes anywhere that can hold a static web page (S3 in this case).

Prepare the Data

We will build a small web application that can visualize the location of named places in the United States. This is far more interesting than it sounds, because named places carry a lot of local history and context with them, and that context shows up in maps!

Start by downloading the US named places.


For added security, we will connect our pg_featureserv microservice using an application account, and make a separate database for the application.

-- as postgres
CREATE DATABASE geonames WITH OWNER = application;

Then create a table to receive the data and load it up.

Create Table and Copy
CREATE TABLE geonames (
    geonameid      integer primary key,
    name           text,
    asciiname      text,
    alternatenames text,
    latitude       float8,
    longitude      float8,
    featureclass   text,
    featurecode    text,
    countrycode    text,
    countrycode2   text,
    admin1         text,
    admin2         text,
    admin3         text,
    admin4         text,
    population     bigint,
    elevation      integer,
    dem            integer,
    timezone       text,
    modified       date

\copy geonames FROM 'US.txt' WITH (
    FORMAT csv,
    DELIMITER E'\t',
    HEADER false,
    ENCODING utf8)

Create Indexes

There are 2.2M named places in the database, and we want to very quickly find names that match our query word. Often the names are multi-word ("Gold River", "West Gold Hills") and we will be searching with just one word. This is where full-text search indexing comes in handy.

Full-text indexes can only be built on a tsvector type. We can either add a new tsvector column to our table, and then populate it, or save a little space and just build a functional index on the tsvector construction function.

CREATE INDEX geonames_name_x
   ON geonames
   USING GIN (to_tsvector('english', name))

The drop-down form fill needs a list of unique name components, preferably in order of frequency, so "interesting" ones appear at the top of the list. We build that by stripping down and aggregating all the names in the table.

CREATE TABLE geonames_stats AS
      count(*) AS ndoc,
      unnest(regexp_split_to_array(lower(trim(name)), E'[^a-zA-Z]')) AS word
    FROM geonames GROUP BY 2;

CREATE INDEX geonames_stats_word_x ON geonames_stats (word text_pattern_ops);

Create Functions to Publish

The web map application needs an HTTP API to connect to, this is where pg_featureserv comes in. We will create two functions:

  • One function to drive the dropdown form field, which takes the characters currently typed and finds all matching words.
  • One function to drive the map, which takes in the query word and returns all matching places.

The magic power of pg_featureserv is in the ability to publish user defined functions.

Any function defined in the postgisftw schema will be published as a web end point.

Define a function to populate the dropdown form field.
CREATE SCHEMA postgisftw;

DROP FUNCTION IF EXISTS postgisftw.geonames_stats_query;

CREATE FUNCTION postgisftw.geonames_stats_query(
    q text DEFAULT 'bea')
RETURNS TABLE(value text, ndoc bigint)
AS $$
        SELECT g.word as value, g.ndoc
        FROM geonames_stats g
        WHERE g.word LIKE q || '%'
        ORDER BY g.ndoc DESC
        LIMIT 15;
LANGUAGE 'plpgsql'
Define a function to query for place names.
DROP FUNCTION IF EXISTS postgisftw.geonames_query;

CREATE FUNCTION postgisftw.geonames_query(q text DEFAULT 'beach')
RETURNS TABLE(name text, featureclass text, longitude float8, latitude float8)
AS $$
        FROM geonames g
        WHERE to_tsvector('english', @@ plainto_tsquery('english', q)
        ORDER BY md5(
        LIMIT 10000;
LANGUAGE 'plpgsql'

Run the Microservices

Our architecture uses two microservices: pg_featureserv to publish the database functions as web services; and varnish to protect the feature service from excessive load if the application gets a lot of traffic.

These services are run as Crunchy Bridge Container Apps using an extension called pgpodman.


Once the extension is enabled, the containers can be turned on. This involves some magic strings, primarily the DNS name of the database host, which is available in the connection strings, and also in the container apps user interface.

Run the pg_featureserv container.

SELECT run_container('
    -dt -p 5442:9000/tcp
    --log-driver k8s-file
    --log-opt max-size=1mb
    -e DATABASE_URL="postgres://"
    -e PGFS_PAGING_LIMITMAX=10000');

(Newlines are inserted into this example so you can see how the parameters are passed to the container. Environment variables to configure the service are passed in with -e.)

Run the varnish container.

SELECT run_container('
    -dt -p 5435:6081/tcp
    --log-driver k8s-file
    --log-opt max-size=1mb
    -e DNS_ENABLED=false
    -e COOKIES=true
    -e PARAM_VALUE="-p default_ttl=3600"');

The varnish container is the "outward facing" service, so web requests should come into port 5435, where they will be passed to the varnish process inside the container on port 6081. Then varnish will call out to its BACKEND host (pg_featureserv) this time on port 5442, which in turn is proxied into port 9000 inside the container.

Try it Manually

Once the services are running, you can hit them manually from the outside.

Of course, it is much more fun to use the functions with the web map!


  • Publishing web services using the Crunchy Bridge Container Apps is a neat way to quickly stand up web services.
  • PostgreSQL full-text indexes can very quickly search very large corpuses of text.
  • Seeing data visually in a map is a great way to explore it!
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Paul Ramsey

May 19, 2022 More by this author