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 MapsFollow @peterwayner
The new tools are great, but the up-and-comers will continue to face stiff competition from the big companies. MapQuest still has the prettiest maps, in my opinion. Microsoft's Bing Maps offer a neat bird's-eye view that gives a nicer perspective than vertical photos. Google has been pumping more money into better 3D imagery and better street-level views -- including those you can take offline. Google is also rapidly integrating Google Maps with its other databases. It's now possible, for instance, to search the maps with the name of a business. All of the above are competing, it turns out, with Apple, which is releasing its own mapping tools for iOS developers.
Of course, these commercial juggernauts have plenty of resources to draw your attention to their mapping tools. The list that follows highlights some of the smaller upstarts that seem ready to give the bigger companies some true competition. The tools are smooth, elegant, and flexible. They're going to give the big companies a real run.
The source of data for many of these programs is OpenStreetMap, a big collection of coordinates and names for streets around the world. If you want a map, you can grab this huge collection of coordinates and plot them. Voilà!
The real fun comes if you create an account on the website. Suddenly, an Edit button appears and you can fire up an editor to make changes as you would in a wiki built around text. The site keeps getting better and better as people add roads, streams, and trails to the data set.
The license is a bit tighter than many of the standard open source licenses. If you improve the data, you have to share your improvements with everyone. You can do what you want with any maps you create, but once you start sharing the maps built with improved data, you must share the data too. In the parlance of open source licenses, the stickiness quotient is high. If you start using the data, you'll be stuck contributing.
The OpenStreetMap servers also distribute the raw tiles built from this data, but the project discourages any use that puts a strain on its equipment. The website points to a long list of companies that turn the data into services that you can use.
You can edit your own neighborhood with the browser-based interface of OpenStreetMap, an open source collective building the data structures that describe the world.