Great open source map tools for Web developers

A rich ecosystem of free maps, free data, and free libraries give developers excellent alternatives to Google Maps

A long time ago, when Web 2.0 was just Web 1.0, we had to ask people for directions, copy them down, and hope we had a foldable map to help us find our way. Then along came MapQuest, followed by Google Maps in 2005. Today, it seems impossible to imagine finding our way without handheld phones and Web-based maps.

Google Maps and its cousins Yahoo Maps and MapQuest have grown into integral parts of the Web. It's now odd for a website to offer an address without a map showing the location and offering directions. The mapping APIs made it easy for people to insert snippets of maps into their websites; now the maps are everywhere.

[ How much do you know about this stalwart developer tool? Find out in InfoWorld's JavaScript IQ test. | Learn how to work smarter, not harder with InfoWorld's Developers' Survival Guide. | Keep up with the latest developer news with InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter. ]

These APIs were also one of the leaders in the Web 2.0 vanguard because they offered stunning visual proof that users can do great things with remixed data. Everyone started plotting their geographic data on their websites because the JavaScript code made it as easy as adding a few lines.

The explosive growth and endless optimism came crashing to an end in October 2011, when Google started charging heavy users. Light users could still get the services for free, but everyone else was going to pay to support the big map in the sky. It wasn't as tragic as it might seem, but Google's decision was one of the first to signal the end of totally free era.

While some groused, others saw opportunity. Before the price change, everyone was happy to let the big companies do the hard work because no one wanted to compete with a free service from Google. Why pay for what you could get for free? The new prices were steep enough to open the door to competition, making it possible for new companies to get traction.

These new stacks use liberal amounts of open source software mixed with proprietary tools and services. You do what you want on your own and pay for what you can't do. Open source licenses give you the control. While some will still grouse about not getting everything for free, there's no doubt the new marketplace offers many more options and opportunities than before.

To understand the breadth and depth of this new ecosystem, I spent some time building maps and hacking code using these tools. The options are expanding quickly as companies are building their own databases for holding geographical data, their own rendering tools for building maps, and their own software for embedding the maps in websites. I built maps, added data, created overlays, and stuck virtual pushpins all over the place.

Working with these tools can be a bit more complex than working with a big provider like Google. Some of these companies make JavaScript tools for displaying the maps, and others just deliver the raw tiles that the browsers use to assemble the maps. (All browser-based map tools break the maps up into pre-rendered squares or tiles that can be downloaded independently.) Working with the code means making decisions about how you want to assemble the pieces -- now within your control. You can stick with one simple library or combine someone else's library with tiles you produce yourself.

1 2 3 4 5 6 Page
From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies