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Web Maps – A Comparative Summary

By Emerging Technologies Group •  June 3, 2013
Many institutions are already embedding data on top of digital map views using geographic information systems (GIS) to provide a common operating picture that helps users visualize, interpret and analyze data using a geographic approach.  A GIS integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. It allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts.
Creating a highly interactive map application with animation is a challenge for many developers. Depending on requirements, a map that will be used in a desktop application will require either a WPF or Java SDK. On the other hand a map that will be used in a web application will require a Javascript or any other web API. Developers will also need to look for a map with a rich feature set, such as the ability to manipulate pushpins, lines, shapes and other elements. Event support and handling is also vital to provide the ability to track mouse and touch events when using the map.
There are dozens of free map applications available on the Internet that already include many of the features mentioned above to create a highly interactive map. The most popular map applications are:
    1. Bing Maps
    2. Google Maps
    3. MapQuest
    4. Nokia Here
    5. Open Street Maps
All of these maps provide the basic capabilities of allowing users to zoom in and out to different levels, pan the view in various directions and switch to different map styles.  However, map services now extend more functionalities and even provide APIs that developers can use for integration.  These APIs have further extended the use of maps for applications such as GPS tracking, weather overlays, and facilities and network management.
The following is a comparative summary of the different features that developers frequently require when integrating applications with a map service as well as a brief description of five leading map services.
Bing Maps is one of the best maps out there. WPF application developers especially love to use it because of the tight integration between the two. Bing Maps supports a large range of APIs, including WPF, AJAX, iOS, Silverlight, SOAP and REST APIs.
Google Maps is near the top of our list of map services, not only because of its popularity but also because of the wide developer support that you can get online when you need it. It is also notable that the Google Maps project is very active in planning and introducing new features and services that developers would love to integrate into their applications.
MapQuest is the oldest of these map frameworks. The UI is not as sophisticated as the others and zooming in and out of the map is not that smooth. There are Javascript, iOS, Android and even Flash APIs available for use with MapQuest.
Nokia Here is the new kid on the block and it looks very promising. Their UI is simple and easy to use. A majority of their controls are collapsible and are strategically placed. Much thought must have been given during the design process of their UI. Users can choose from a set of map views — default map, satellite, terrain, community or the new 3D map view with an option to switch to ‘3D glasses’ mode. Currently they have APIs for REST, Javascript, HTML5 and Java for developers to use.
OpenStreet Map is a fully free map service but it does not provide its own set of APIs. However, there are third-party APIs available for OpenStreet Map.  Leaflet is one of the well-known Javascript APIs that can be utilized when creating web applications that leverage this service.
Overall, maps provide a way for users to visualize geographically based information.  With continuous development of the services and features they provide, map-based applications will continue to improve and mature no matter which device they’re used on.



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