SVG Images from Postgres

Martin Davis

9 min read

PostGIS excels at storing, manipulating and analyzing geospatial data. At some point it's usually desired to convert raw spatial data into a two-dimensional representation to utilize the integrative capabilities of the human visual cortex. In other words, to see things on a map.

PostGIS is a popular backend for mapping technology, so there are many options to choose from to create maps. Data can be rendered to a raster image using a web map server like GeoServer or MapServer; it can be converted to GeoJSON or vector tiles via servers such as pg_featureserv and pg_tileserv and then shipped to a Web browser for rendering by a library such as OpenLayers, MapLibre or Leaflet; or a GIS application such as QGIS can connect to the database and create richly-styled maps from spatial queries.

What these options have in common is that they require external tools which need to be installed, configured and maintained in a separate environment. This can introduce unwanted complexity to a geospatial architecture.

This post presents a simple way to generate maps entirely within the database, with no external infrastructure required.

SVG for the win

A great way to display vector data is to use the Scalable Vector Graphic (SVG) format. It provides rich functionality for displaying and styling geometric shapes. SVG is widely supported by web browsers and other tools.

By including CSS and Javascript it's possible to add advanced styling, custom popups, dynamic behaviour and interaction with other web page elements.

Introducing pg-svg

Generating SVG "by hand" is difficult. It requires detailed knowledge of the SVG specification, and constructing a complex text format in SQL is highly error-prone. While PostGIS has had the function ST_AsSVG for years, it only produces the SVG path data attribute value. Much more is required to create a fully-styled SVG document.

The PL/pgSQL library pg-svg solves this problem! It makes it easy to convert PostGIS data into styled SVG documents. The library provides a simple API as a set of PL/pgSQL functions which allow creating an SVG document in a single SQL query. Best of all, this installs with a set of functions, nothing else required!

Example map of US high points

The best way to understand how pg-svg works is to see an example. We'll create an SVG map of the United States showing the highest point in each state. The map has the following features:

  • All 50 states are shown, with Alaska and Hawaii transformed to better fit the map
  • States are labeled, and filled with a gradient
  • High points are shown at their location by triangles whose color and size indicate the height of the high point.
  • Tooltips provide more information about states and highpoints.

The resulting map looks like this (to see tooltips open the raw image):

a scramble of state names and a map of the US

The SQL query to generate the map is here. It can be downloaded and run using psql:

psql -A -t -o us-highpt.svg  < us-highpt-svg.sql

The SVG output us-highpt.svg can be viewed in any web browser.

How it Works

Let's break the query down to see how the data is prepared and then rendered to SVG. A dataset of US states in geodetic coordinate system (WGS84, SRID = 4326) is required. We used the Natural Earth states and provinces data available here. It is loaded into a table ne.admin_1_state_prov with the following command:

shp2pgsql -c -D -s 4326 -i -I ne_10m_admin_1_states_provinces.shp ne.admin_1_state_prov | psql

The query uses the SQL WITH construct to organize processing into simple, modular steps. We'll describe each one in turn.

Select US state features

First, the US state features are selected from the Natural Earth boundaries table ne.admin_1_state_prov.

us_state AS (SELECT name, abbrev, postal, geom
  FROM ne.admin_1_state_prov
  WHERE adm0_a3 = 'USA')

Make a US state map

Next, the map is made more compact by realigning the far-flung states of Alaska and Hawaii.
This is done using PostGIS affine transformation functions. The states are made more proportionate using ST_Scale, and moved closer to the lower 48 using ST_Translate. The scaling is done around the location of the state high point, to make it easy to apply the same transformation to the high point feature.

,us_map AS (SELECT name, abbrev, postal,
    -- transform AK and HI to make them fit map
    CASE WHEN name = 'Alaska' THEN
        ST_Intersection( ST_GeometryN(geom,1), 'SRID=4326;POLYGON ((-141 80, -141 50, -170 50, -170 80, -141 80))'),
        'POINT(0.5 0.75)', 'POINT(-151.007222 63.069444)'::geometry), 18, -17)
    WHEN name = 'Hawaii' THEN
        ST_Intersection(geom, 'SRID=4326;POLYGON ((-161 23, -154 23, -154 18, -161 18, -161 23))'),
        'POINT(3 3)', 'POINT(-155.468333 19.821028)'::geometry), 32, 10)
    ELSE geom END AS geom
  FROM us_state)

High Points of US states

Data for the highest point in each state is provided as an inline table of values:

,high_pt(name, state, hgt_m, hgt_ft, lon, lat) AS (VALUES
 ('Denali',              'AK', 6198, 20320,  -151.007222,63.069444)
,('Mount Whitney',       'CA', 4421, 14505,  -118.292,36.578583)
,('Britton Hill',        'FL',  105,   345,  -86.281944,30.988333)

Prepare High Point symbols

The next query does several things:

  • translates the lon and lat location for Alaska and Hawaii high points to match the transformation applied to the state geometry
  • computes the symHeight attribute for the height of the high point triangle symbol
  • assigns a fill color value to each high point based on the height
  • uses ORDER BY to sort the high points by latitude, so that their symbols overlap correctly when rendered
,highpt_shape AS (SELECT name, state, hgt_ft,
    -- translate high points to match shifted states
    CASE WHEN state = 'AK' THEN lon + 18
      WHEN state = 'HI' THEN lon + 32
      ELSE lon END AS lon,
    CASE WHEN state = 'AK' THEN lat - 17
      WHEN state = 'HI' THEN lat + 10
      ELSE lat END AS lat,
    (2.0 * hgt_ft) / 15000.0 + 0.5 AS symHeight,
    CASE WHEN hgt_ft > 14000 THEN '#ffffff'
         WHEN hgt_ft >  7000 THEN '#aaaaaa'
         WHEN hgt_ft >  5000 THEN '#ff8800'
         WHEN hgt_ft >  2000 THEN '#ffff44'
         WHEN hgt_ft >  1000 THEN '#aaffaa'
                             ELSE '#558800'
    END AS clr
  FROM high_pt ORDER BY lat DESC)

Generate SVG elements

The previous queries transformed the raw data into a form suitable for rendering.
Now we get to see pg-svg in action! The next query generates the SVG text for each output image element, as separate records in a result set called shapes.

The SVG elements are generated in the order in which they are drawn - states and labels first, with high-point symbols on top. Let's break it down:

SVG for states

The first subquery produces SVG shapes from the state geometries. The svgShape function produces an SVG shape element for any PostGIS geometry. It also provides optional parameters supporting other capabilities of SVG. Here title specifies that the state name is displayed as a tooltip, and style specifies the styling of the shape. Styling in SVG can be provided using properties defined in the Cascaded Style Sheets (CSS) specification. pg-svg provides the svgStyle function to make it easy to specify the names and values of CSS styling properties.

Note that the fill property value is a URL instead of a color specifier. This refers to an SVG gradient fill which is defined later.

The state geometry is also included in the subquery result set, for reasons which will be discussed below.

,shapes AS (
  -- State shapes
  SELECT geom, svgShape( geom,
    title => name,
    style => svgStyle(  'stroke', '#ffffff',
                        'stroke-width', 0.1::text,
                        'fill', 'url(#state)',
                        'stroke-linejoin', 'round' ) )
    svg FROM us_map

SVG for state labels

Labels for state abbreviations are positioned at the point produced by the ST_PointOnSurface function. (Alternatively, ST_MaximumInscribedCircle could be used.) The SVG is generated by the svgText function, using the specified styling.

  -- State names
  SELECT NULL, svgText( ST_PointOnSurface( geom ), abbrev,
    style => svgStyle(  'fill', '#6666ff', 'text-anchor', 'middle', 'font', '0.8px sans-serif' ) )
    svg FROM us_map

SVG for high point symbols

The high point features are displayed as triangular symbols. We use the convenient svgPolygon function with a simple array of ordinates specifying a triangle based at the high point location, with height given by the previously computed svgHeight column. The title is provided for a tooltip, and the styling uses the computed clr attribute as the fill.

  -- High point triangles
  SELECT NULL, svgPolygon( ARRAY[ lon-0.5, -lat, lon+0.5, -lat, lon, -lat-symHeight ],
    title => name || ' ' || state || ' - ' || hgt_ft || ' ft',
    style => svgStyle(  'stroke', '#000000',
                        'stroke-width', 0.1::text,
                        'fill', clr  ) )
    svg FROM highpt_shape

Produce final SVG image

The generated shape elements need to be wrapped in an <svg> document element. This is handled by the svgDoc function.

The viewable extent of the SVG data needs to be provided by the viewbox parameter. The most common case is to display all of the rendered data. An easy way to determine this is to apply the PostGIS ST_Exrtent aggregate function to the input data (this is why we included the geom column as well as the svg text column). We can include a border by enlarging the extent using the ST_Expand function. The function svgViewBox converts the PostGIS geometry for the extent into SVG format.

We also include a definition for an SVG linear gradient to be used as the fill style for the state features.

SELECT svgDoc( array_agg( svg ),
    viewbox => svgViewbox( ST_Expand( ST_Extent(geom), 2)),
    def => svgLinearGradient('state', '#8080ff', '#c0c0ff')
  ) AS svg FROM shapes;

The output from svgDoc is a text value which can be used anywhere that SVG is supported.

More to Explore

We've shown how the pg-svg SQL function library lets you easily generate map images from PostGIS data right in the database. This can be used as a simple ad-hoc way of visualizing spatial data. Or, it could be embedded in a larger system to automate repetitive map generation workflows.

Although SVG is a natural fit for vector data, there may be situations where producing a map as a bitmap (raster) image makes sense.
For a way of generating raster maps right in the database see this PostGIS Day 2022 presentation. This would be especially appealing where the map is displaying data stored using PostGIS raster data. It would also be possible to combine vector and raster data into a hybrid SVG/image output.

Although we've focussed on creating maps of geospatial data, SVG is often used for creating other kinds of graphics. For examples of using it to create geometric and mathematical designs see the pg-svg demo folder. Here's an image of a Lissajous knot generated by this SQL.

Lissajous Knot

You could even use pg-svg to generate charts of non-spatial data (although this would be better handled by a more task-specific API).

Let us know if you find pg-svg useful, or if you have ideas for improving it!

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Martin Davis

May 30, 2023 More by this author