The state of mapping APIs

Mobile, utility and server-side development will define the future of maps.

Guest blogger Adam DuVander is the author of “Map Scripting 101,” an example-driven guide to building interactive maps on multiple platforms. He also serves as executive editor of ProgrammableWeb.


Maps took over the web in mid-2005, shortly after the first Where 2.0 conference. They quickly moved from fancy feature to necessary element of any site that contained even a trace of geographic content. Today we’re amidst another location and mapping revolution, with mobile making its impact on the web. And with it, we’re seeing even more geo services provided by both the old guard and innovative new mapping platforms.

Though the map itself continues to be important, other geographic data is having a larger impact. Providers are making this data, such as driving directions and business listings, available in increasingly open ways.

The old guard

This screen is from Marcelo Montagna's Custom Tile Layers with Opacity Google Maps demo.
A screenshot from Marcelo Montagna’s “Custom Tile Layers with Opacity” Google Maps demo.

Google had the first mapping API and continues to keep its lead by adding useful new features. The company’s Maps V3 was originally optimized for mobile, but in May Google made it the go-to platform for the web as well. With this move, Google showed that the mobile web is at least as important as the web we access from our homes and offices.

Another sign of mobile’s influence on mobile appears in how Google is making some of its newest services available. Geocoding, driving directions and business listings are no longer confined to access via JavaScript. Instead, Google has made these all available via web services, giving developers the freedom to use the results in multiple ways, such as in a native smart phone application.

Yahoo has done little to expand its mapping platform in recent years, though it is almost as old as Google’s. Due to Yahoo’s more lenient terms, its auxiliary geo services, such as geocoding and static maps, get consistent interest from developers. And the company has made improvements, such as its next-generation geocoder, PlaceFinder, which it announced in June.

Yet, with Yahoo’s tremendous potential, the mapping platform remains untouched. There’s hope, given the recent deal with Nokia to provide maps on Yahoo proper. Both Yahoo and Nokia are mum on whether the deal will extend to Yahoo’s developer platform, which makes me wonder if it will leave behind an industry it helped create.

MapQuest is oft-forgotten by developers, though it has made some of the largest strides with its mapping platform in the last year. A sixth version of its JavaScript API, written from the ground up, recently came out of beta. The new platform takes advantage of the web services that MapQuest has released. It’s an attempt to make the thin client code even thinner.

One of these web services, Directions, made MapQuest a leader among mapping APIs. Launched a year ago, Directions marked the first time routing was available for free without being constricted with JavaScript-only access. Most recently MapQuest made the same service available built on top of OpenStreetMap data.

The newcomers

Bing may seem like a strange newcomer, since Microsoft has had a mapping API for some time. Previously called Virtual Earth, it was re-branded in 2009 along with the launch of Microsoft’s new search engine. But it’s not just surface-level changes. Microsoft has continued to launch new developer services with Bing.

In addition to the JavaScript SDK, Bing Maps can also be created with Silverlight, which makes for smoother transitions and animation. The Bing Maps site itself runs on Silverlight, and in June Microsoft launched the ability to create map apps, which can run on the main Bing Maps site.

CloudMade is a company built upon OpenStreetMap, the project creating a wiki-like map that anyone can edit. Using this open data, CloudMade’s API gives you access to the Open Street Map tiles in a way that is more reliable — and style-able — than the project itself.

CloudMade’s Map Style Editor lets you set colors for features, such as roads and parks. Then, make your own style available for embedding using the JavaScript API. CloudMade supplies much of the same power that super-users have when making map tiles server-side in a point-and-click interface.

Where have all the hackers gone?

With so many official mapping APIs available, it’s easy to forget that the map mashup culture was founded upon hacking. Paul Rademacher created HousingMaps to show Craigslist rentals and homes for sale on a Google Map before Google had an API. Adrian Holovaty made Chicago Crime to show crime data (which he scraped from the police bureau’s website) on a hacked and embedded Google Map.

Rademacher joined Google in 2005, created the Google Earth plugin and now is part of the team that makes Google Maps. Holovaty’s Chicago Crime project became part of EveryBlock, a local news aggregator that sold to MSNBC last year. Ironically, EveryBlock doesn’t use any mapping API, instead opting for using its own minimalist map tiles.

The mapping hackers of 2010 have also gone server-side, away from the APIs. Using tools like Mapnik, they’re styling their own maps, almost always with OpenStreetMap data. Sometimes it’s for fun, like Brett Camper’s 8-Bit City. And when an earthquake struck Haiti, map hackers responded.

Mapping the future

Mapping providers will likely make it easier to create your own customized maps. Already Google Maps V3 has simple styling via CSS-like code. And the process of creating OpenStreetMap tiles is greatly simplified by Tile Drawer.

But it’s not just making the map itself that needs simplification, but storing and accessing the data on top of it. For years developers have had to set up their own databases of locations, which raises the bar for the type of developer who can use maps. Now there are tools like SimpleGeo to make the process easier. However, it would be useful to see these tools baked into the mapping APIs and we likely will soon.

Similarly, we need easier ways of expressing data without just adding more markers. Graphic overlays, such as choropleths (regions shaded based on data) and heatmaps, are not accessible to most developers. The processes need to run on a server capable of geo-referencing the graphic it outputs. And services available to do this tend to charge. The open government movement is already tied closely to mapping. Hopefully projects for the greater good will fill in feature gaps where mapping providers don’t see business opportunities.

Obviously, mobile will play a huge role in the future of mapping. Already we’ve seen an impact, yet there are far fewer sites taking advantage of the user’s location than could. Expect the next generation of store locators, for example, to be much more exciting. But that’s just the beginning.

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  • http://www.sustainableGIS.com/blog/cfg11n/ PaulH

    i really don’t think there’s “tremendous potential” when it comes to yahoo’s data–once you leave the US & i guess europe, it isn’t very good.

    while you mention silverlight, you seem to have skipped right over google map’s flex/flash API which work quite well. something against flash?

    and while crowd sourcing sounds swell in theory & certainly works in emergency situations, i’ve been mostly disappointed by crowd sourced data when it comes to practical uses (again, outside the US).

  • http://www.tile5.org/ Damon Oehlman

    Nice article Adam – nice to hear your thoughts on the future of mapping and I definitely agree with what you have to say. Additionally, thanks for the heads up on Tile Drawer as that it looks extremely useful (I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t know about it already).

    If you get a chance I’d certainly appreciate your feedback on a generic HTML5 javascript mapping API that I’m writing with the goal of reducing the lock in that developers may feel with any particular map provider. It’s early days yet, but so far so good.

    Cheers,
    Damon.

  • http://www.startreknewvoyages.com/ RobertMfromLI

    I suspect the government and the various contractors and outside programmers who worked with them or with their data had the first mapping API. It was used for the TigerLINE data that all the rest of this data is originally based off of. It wasnt some internal govt only project, but something anyone could either download (free) or purchase and use. There are a variety of such tools, numerous ancient (Win 3.1/Win95) which far predates Google’s tools and APIs.

  • Scott

    Bing maps’ Virtual Earth was originally an independent operation (www.mapblast.com) that MS purchased and promptly trashed by mis-commercializing it (big surprise), at which point it sank beneath the waves for some time.

    It was one of the few sites that would give you an accurate GPS-usable fix (if only in lat/long form) in the late 1990s.

  • Al

    Scott, the MapPoint Web Service (which is still “under” Bing) was Microsoft’s web mapping API. Mapblast was the mapping system in the Vicinity acqusition – which also brought along a a number of paying customers.

    I don’t think you can say they “miscomercialized”. They learned from the acqusition and moved customers over to the MapPoint Web Service, then Virtual Earth and now Bing.

  • TR

    Scott, you are an idiot.

    Sincerely,
    The internet.

  • TR

    Scott, you are an idiot.

    Sincerely,
    The internet.

  • Bolo

    What about OpenLayers?. Today is one of the most powerful Maps API and more used, with the advantage that is open source.

  • Jackaranda

    Have to second the comment on OpenLayers. Have switched to it for a number of projects after frustrations with Google Maps API. Quite a major omission from the article!

  • RW

    TR,

    you, Sir, seem to not be able to argue.

    Best,
    The real word.

  • Or

    Great review, thanks!

    I’m interested in navigation API’s. No real progress in that direction for some time… Google maps navigation for Android don’t have an API AFAIK, and Nokia presented Ovi Maps SDK a year ago, but it is still under development.

    Any other developments in that front, anyone?

    Thanks!

  • BQ

    Or,

    You might want to have a look at:

    http://open.mapquestapi.com/directions/

    Still very much in beta but under active development.


    Brian

  • Kristin

    Interesting, Thanks.

    But I still await a fully functional GIS that I can edit or query from anywhere in a secure manner if I wish, that doesnt cost an arm and a leg! We are seriously under serving the whole of the charitable and community groups sectors still, and with the UK pushing for the “big society” may need this very soon!

  • http://@kristinstweets Kristin

    Interesting, Thanks.

    But I still await a fully functional GIS that I can edit or query from anywhere in a secure manner if I wish, that doesnt cost an arm and a leg! We are seriously under serving the whole of the charitable and community groups sectors still, and with the UK pushing for the “big society” may need this very soon!

  • Kay Murray

    Kristin,

    esri have a non profit scheme for such groups.
    See http://www.esri.com/nonprofit/index.html
    All a bonifide organisation need do is apply, and hey prestow, you can get fully fuctional ArcGIs with extensions. What more could you ever want.

  • JohnC

    Unfortunately mapping while exciting and full of possibility in the browsing world is utterly dead in the desktop application world due to draconian licensing rules from all the main players despite technically being easy to work with.

    Unless your mapping app is hosted on a web server you are screwed as a developer.

  • sam

    @JohnC

    Not so: there’s GRASS, MapWindow, QGIS, uDIG, OpenJump and gvSIG – all fine desktop GIS applications that have zero “draconian licensing rules”. So: take your pick based on your language skillset and start contributing new code or bug fixes to the codebase

  • http://www.web-gis.co.uk Chris

    Great article – agree with above – you should have OpenLayers in there. I’ve linked to this article from my website – see http://www.web-gis.co.uk/phurl/h

  • http://www.web-gis.co.uk Chris

    Great article – agree with above – you should have OpenLayers in there. I’ve linked to this article from my website – see http://www.web-gis.co.uk/phurl/h

  • http://www.FurlanGo.com Ryan

    Nice article. Btw, FurlanGo.com is new mash up result of google maps and some events API nicely showing events around u

  • http://highearthorbit.com Andrew Turner

    I think what’s also particularly interesting is that the “hackers” of 5-years ago are now running venture backed companies or within larger organizations. These projects and hacks have emerged to become the tools powering many web-based mapping tools.

    Can innovation happen as quickly when you’re building products? Is the technology settled enough, and companies agile enough to now take back the lead in developing the cutting edge technology, oOr are we going to see a settling as the current wave of Where2.0 innovators get pulled deep and there needs to be another wave of eternal hackers to push the envelope.

    Mapnik, OpenLayers, et al. all occured in

  • http://mapscripting.com AdamD

    Thanks everyone for the great comments. You’re right that I should have included OpenLayers, especially since I mentioned Mapnik and Open Street Map.

    @Andrew, I agree with you about the hackers finding more mainstream gigs. The map hacking also seems to be following this pattern of being less on the fringe, as the tools have matured. Everything is more “usable,” which is great because it means more developers can use them.

    @PaulH, I appreciate all of your points. Thank you.

    @RobertMfromLI, I suppose I should have specified “open web mapping APIs,” not just mapping APIs in general. This post is really meant to be viewed from the context of the geo web frenzy that Google Maps caused in early-mid 2005. That said, it’s important to note that many knowledgeable people have been working with maps on the web for some time and maps in general for much longer.

    Thanks again for all the interest and conversation.

  • http://vaporizer-store.net Michael Fever

    If you want to see how maps can be implemented into interactive websites, take a look at the google html5 experiment with the Arcade Fire. You enter in your address of where you grew up as a child and it integrates it into the multimedia presentation in the video. Worth checking out. I think they could have done more with the mapping aspect of it, but its still pretty cool. I think mapping API’s are going to blow up really soon.

  • http://yserver.blogspot.com Rapideo

    Keep Posting, Thumbs Up!

  • http://developer.decarta.com Steven Citron-Pousty

    Or:
    You can look at the deCarta APIs. Adam deCarta has APIs and we have them on mobile as well as web. More APIs coming in time for CTIA.
    Thanks
    Steve

  • http://www.bortignon.org/ Adrian

    Excellent Post, thanks

  • http://www.totallyawesomemapping.com Drew Kesler

    Hi! This is a really good article. Even some of the comments are informative too!

  • http://www.cartologic.com Ahmed

    Not all hackers are gone server side.
    Check out CartoView, you can do a lot of map authoring on the client
    http://www.cartologic.com/cartoview/demos.aspx

  • http://quebec-canada.ru Dzianis

    thanks for a good article!