How to serve categorical data with Terracotta

Categorical datasets are special , because the numerical pixel values carry no direct meaning, but rather encode which category or label the pixel belongs to. Because labels must be preserved, serving categorical data comes with its own set of complications:

  • Dynamical stretching does not make sense

  • Nearest neighbor resampling must be used

  • Labels must be mapped to colors consistently

Terracotta does not know categories and labels, but the API is flexible enough to give you the tools to build your own system and do the interpretation in the frontend. You can serve categorical data by following these steps:

During ingestion

  1. Create an additional key to encode whether a dataset is categorical or not. E.g., if you are currently using the keys sensor, date, and band, ingest your data with the keys [type, sensor, date, band], where type can take one of the values categorical, index, reflectance, or whatever makes sense for your given application.

  2. Attach a mapping category name -> pixel value to the metadata of your categorical dataset. Using the Python API, you could do it like this:

    import terracotta as tc
    driver = tc.get_driver('terracotta.sqlite')
    # assuming key names are [type, sensor, date, band]
    key_values = ['categorical', 'S2', '20181010', 'cloudmask']
    raster_path = 'cloud_mask.tif'
    category_map = {
        'clear land': 0,
        'clear water': 1,
        'cloud': 2,
        'cloud shadow': 3
    with driver.connect():
        metadata = driver.compute_metadata(
            extra_metadata={'categories': category_map}
        driver.insert(key_values, raster_path, metadata=metadata)

In the frontend

Ingesting categorical data this way allows us to access it from the frontend. Given that your Terracotta server runs at, you can use the following functionality:

  • To get a list of all categorical data, simply send a GET request to

  • To get the available categories of a dataset, query The returned JSON object will contain a section like this:

        "metadata": {
            "categories": {
                "clear land": 0,
                "clear water": 1,
                "cloud": 2,
                "cloud shadow": 3
  • To get correctly labelled imagery, the frontend will have to pass an explicit color mapping of pixel values to colors by using /singleband’s explicit_color_map argument. In our case, this could look like this:
    {"0": "99d594", "1": "2b83ba", "2": "ffffff", "3": "404040"}


    Depending on your architecture, it might be required to encode all special characters in the query, such as {, }, and :. This is e.g. the case when using AWS API Gateway / AWS Lambda.

    Supplying an explicit color map in this fashion suppresses stretching, and forces Terracotta to only use nearest neighbor resampling when reading the data.

    Colors can be passed as hex strings (as in this example) or RGBA color tuples. In case you are looking for a nice color scheme for your categorical datasets, color brewer features some excellent suggestions.