November 2007

Microsoft plans to support spatial data types in SQL Server 2008, and a preview is available to the community in the latest CTP (community technology preview), available here.

John O’Brien, a Windows Live Developer MVP, has been trying out the new spatial types in some cool Virtual Earth projects (John’s site is here), and in one of his projects, SQL Server threw an interesting error message. When he zoomed far enough out in Virtual Earth, then tried to create a polygon from the map bounds, SQL Server reacted with:

“The specified input does not represent a valid geography instance because it exceeds a single hemisphere. Each geography instance must fit inside a single hemisphere. A common reason for this error is that a polygon has the wrong ring orientation.”

John found a workaround, dividing the map into two pieces, but he was interested to know what the SQL Server folk thought about the situation. Here’s my reply. It’s less a response to John’s inquiry than it is a ramble about geometry and what hemispheres and orientation have to do with how you can or can’t specify polygons.

To begin, think of the earth’s Equator as a polygon. How would you answer the following questions?

  • “If I travel Eastbound around the earth along the equator, have I gone clockwise or counter-clockwise?”
  • “Is the north pole inside the equator or outside the equator?”

In the plane (or on a flat map of the world), a polygon or other closed non-self-intersecting curve has a well-defined “inside” and “outside”. A polygon separates the plane into two regions, one that has finite area and one that is unbounded. The finite region is deemed “inside” the polygon. On a sphere, however, a closed curve determines two finite regions, either of which might be what someone thinks of as the inside.

For example, the four-sided outline of the US state of Wyoming separates the earth into what you could call “Wyoming” and “anti-Wyoming.” But are we so sure which is the inside and which is the outside? Our intuition is that the smaller region is always the inside, but there’s nothing about geometry and geography to tell us that. Maybe Wyoming is most of the world. A single geographic region could contain most of the earth’s surface within its borders, couldn’t it?

Suppose Wyoming declared itself to be Great Wyoming and annexed all of North America, Europe, and continued to conquer the world. Suppose its armies crossed the equator and eventually took over almost everything—everything but Antarctica, in fact.

Then the boundary of Great Wyoming would then be the same as the boundary of Antarctica. You would probably want Great Wyoming to be inside the boundary of Great Wyoming and Antarctica to be inside the boundary of Antarctica, but how can that work—the boundaries are the same?

This is a problem. On a sphere, the naïve idea of interior/exterior isn’t well-defined. One solution would be to pass a law that every polygon on earth must fit inside a single hemisphere with room to spare. We could then define the interior of a polygon to be the smaller of the two regions it determines. This would place Antarctica, not Wyoming, within the borders of Great Wyoming—wrong, but unambiguous. And anyway, who would ever need to consider a region bigger than 640K that doesn’t fit inside a single hemisphere?

Fortunately, though, we don’t have to abandon or compromise the notion of interior and exterior on the earth’s surface: Antarctica can remain outside Greater Wyoming. All we need to do is be precise about the direction in which we describe a polygon. When specifying the boundary of a region, you can give a forwards/backwards or clockwise/counter-clockwise sense to the boundary by choosing the way you order the list of vertices. List them so that what you consider inside the region is on your left as you “connect the dots,” because we will adopt the convention that the left side as you walk the perimeter is the inside. What’s on the right will be interpreted as outside. Now you can describe the boundary of Great Wyoming. Just describe it as drawn from west to east, so Antarctica is on the right (exterior). (This works because a sphere is an “orientable surface.” SQL Server’s new geography data type isn’t supported on a Klein bottle, where CultureInfo.IsOrientableWorld—if such a property existed—would be false.)

Once we require polygons to be oriented, there’s no need to require that they fit within a single hemisphere, but nonetheless, SQL Server 2008’s geography data type adopts the hemisphere requirement. For geometry objects of type Polygon, I think this is a good idea. I’m not sure whether it’s a standard GIS requirement or just SQL Server’s, but it prevents users from accidentally entering the coordinates of Wyoming in clockwise fashion only to discover later that Perth and Addis Ababa, but not Cheyenne, are in Wyoming. [For some of the other geography types, such as LineString, I don’t see a benefit from requiring the object to fit in a hemisphere, but consistency isn’t a bad thing.]

A week ago, a small-town reporter named Steve Pokin wrote an emotional story for the St. Charles (Missouri) Journal. With headings like “SHADOWY CYBERSPACE”, “AX AND SLEDGEHAMMER”, and “THE AFTERMATH IS PAIN”, Pokin wove a modern tragedy about the October 2006 death of young Megan Meier. In Pokin’s tale, a neighbor fabricated a MySpace account through which the girl was tormented to commit suicide.

Whatever tragedy might have taken place in 2006, another tragedy is taking place now, in reaction to Pokin’s story. The AP picked it up yesterday, and it’s being republished widely, often under the headline “Mom: Web Hoax Led Girl to Kill Herself.”

Pokin’s story is taken at face value, people react with outrage and anger, and the supposed villain of the story has been identified and named by bloggers.

I’m not suggesting Pokin got the facts wrong, nor am I suggesting he got them right, either. I wasn’t there. I’m also not suggesting Pokin expected or intended the kind of reaction his story has produced. Pokin appears to have based his story mostly, if not entirely, on the word of one guilt-ridden, aggrieved mother (“I have this awful, horrible guilt and this I can never change,” she said. “Ever.”) and on the second-hand words of the story’s villain, summarized in a police report about an incident between the two families involved. From the reaction so far, that’s apparently all the information many people need to call for (or take) mob action.

A local television station quotes the St. Charles County Prosecutor, Jack Banas as saying, “Me personally, I’ve never seen anything on this case.”