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The State of Mapping APIs, 5 Years On 100

Posted by timothy
from the where-are-you-now dept.
macslocum writes "Map APIs took off in 2005, and during the ensuing years the whole notion of maps has changed. Where once they were slick add-ons, map functionality is now a necessary — and expected — tool. In this piece, Adam DuVander looks at the current state of mapping and he explains how mobile devices, third-party services and ease of use are shaping the map development world."
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The State of Mapping APIs, 5 Years On

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  • by RobertM1968 (951074) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @08:31PM (#33504318) Homepage Journal

    "Google had the first mapping API and continues to keep its lead by adding useful new features. "

    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 (various with their own APIs), numerous ancient (Win95/98 era) which far predates Google's tools and APIs.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @08:40PM (#33504368)

      Obligatory: I work at ESRI and find it hilarious that we're not mentioned in that article apart from the related video.

      http://www.esri.com/software/mapping_for_everyone/api/index.html

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esri

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Yes, ESRI is the leading force in the cartographic industry. But outside of the industry 99% of people have never heard of ArcMap or anything else you make. They might see it in the end result if the local government uses your JavaScript/Flash/Silverlight API to cook up something, but Google's the big name in the room as they put something user-friendly on the web before you guys. Yeah, you still had the professional-grade software suite back then, but only the professionals used it then and only they use i

      • by batkiwi (137781)

        Have you ever tried to you ESRI mapping APIs though? A few THOUSAND poorly documented COM+ components (and 1:1 wrappers if you want to use dotnet) does not an API make.

        • I'm not personally heavily into GIS except as a (very) casual hobby, but I get the impression from my Geologist Significant Other that ESRI started stagnating pretty badly when they went "Windows Only".
      • by humblecoder (472099) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @10:01PM (#33504758) Homepage

        Seems like the article focuses on the interface layer (hence the name "The State of Mapping API's). However, I think the hard work is the collection of the underlying map data. One of the more interesting projects is the OpenStreetMap project where map data is crowdsourced.

        • by DarthVain (724186)

          Considering Google Maps/Google Earth got 99% of their data from someone else using the afore mentioned software...

      • by symbolset (646467) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @10:02PM (#33504764) Journal
        You guys make some neat stuff, but the license keeps it away from us.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @10:05PM (#33504778)

        Wow. You actually admit that wou work for ESRI? Like that is something to be proud of?! Oh wait, you did that anonymously. I certainly wouldn't want to be associated with that steaming pile of "software".

        The only reason you guys are anywhere is due to the way that you've muscled your way into government/state use and thereby forcing anyone wanting to do contract work to use your buggy, ridiculously over priced applications. Seriously, $7,000 for GIS editing software??? Then tens of thousands more for shitty, outdated ArcSDE?

        Yeah, I think there is a reason why ESRI wasn't mentioned and that is because your poorly documented APIs, lousy commitments / involvement in OGC (way to be an industry leader) and lack of any real innovation--nothing good has come out of Redlands in more than 5 years.

        • You think Arc is "steaming pile of 'software'"? I've tried a few of the free alternatives (QGIS, MapWindow, Thuban), and, while ambitious projects, they don't come anywhere close to Arc. Can you suggest something better?
          • by grcumb (781340) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @11:07PM (#33505080) Homepage Journal

            You think Arc is "steaming pile of 'software'"? I've tried a few of the free alternatives (QGIS, MapWindow, Thuban), and, while ambitious projects, they don't come anywhere close to Arc. Can you suggest something better?

            MS Word is better and more feature-ful than the competition, but that doesn't mean it's not a steaming pile [imagicity.com]. The two categories are not mutually exclusive.

            • by DarthVain (724186)

              Agreed. It IS a steaming pile of crap. It just happens to be the BEST steaming pile of crap currently available. I work with it, and have for 10 years. It is amazing the stuff that is wrong with it that never gets fixed. Or the stuff than breaks when they do actually fix or change something.

              For instance just last week my pet project / obsession was trying to permanently sort (ie so as soon as you close the attribute table your working on it doesn't revert back to the original sort order) a simple table. Aft

            • by DarthVain (724186)

              Oh and they still use DBF table structures. Wah?

              • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

                by Anonymous Coward

                Clueless users (or organizations with massive legacy problems) who still use shapefiles, a data format defined almost 20 years ago, still use DBF table structures. Esri has been trying to kill off shapefiles for quite a while now, but they're still heavily used as a data interchange format and simply by users who don't know any better.

            • by tehcyder (746570)
              If you want to use emacs or Wordperfect 5, then why not just do so? No-one is forcing you to use Word or Write or whatever piece of software. I don't see what the problem is.

              And anyway, for most users, a WYSIWYG word processor is a lot easier to get to grips with than a command/text-based system. Sorry, but it's true.
          • by Greyfox (87712)
            Gaia seems OK but I don't know if it does everything Arc does either. And it looks like you need a license for advanced functionality.
          • by Mendy (468439)

            uDIG seems the best of the free ones, if a bit slow at times.

            As an aside I'm curious to know if anyone has used Manifold [manifold.net], the website does seem to claim it does everything you might possibly want for one low-low price :)

            • by deniable (76198)
              And you get a demo by buying the software and asking for a refund within 30 days. We need to see it in action before we jump on board.
          • by mjwx (966435)

            You think Arc is "steaming pile of 'software'"? I've tried a few of the free alternatives (QGIS, MapWindow, Thuban), and, while ambitious projects, they don't come anywhere close to Arc. Can you suggest something better?

            The AC is right, ArcMAP, SDE, SERVER is a steaming pile of crap. Most GIS people would rather use MapInfo or ERDAS Imagine but the edict to use ESRI is handed down from on high. I used to work for a direct competitor to ESRI and our dinky little product outperformed ESRI's IMS and WMS up t

          • Just 2 cents: Depending on the application, you can get away with quite a few alternatives. Tatouk isn't too bad, it's been in used for nearly a decade in one of our GIS applications. I've investigated SharpMap, which (if you're looking for a barebones mapping app in C#) is great for simple mapping applications/components. A few of our new applications have been using the Google API, which has gone over well for their purposes. I personally don't feel you can suggest a software which is "better" withou
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by garcia (6573)

          I have mod points and I considered moderating your post but I couldn't decide to mark it down or up (it could easily work both ways) so I decided to respond instead:

          Yes, ESRI shapefiles are prevalent in the public sector and the software is expensive and difficult to use. Thankfully you can now easily convert SHP files into KML and display a lot of the work done in the public sector for use everywhere else.

          I have a small archive of stuff I have converted from SHP to KML in Minnesota available here [lazylightning.org] which are

        • by DarthVain (724186)

          I have used some of the alternatives. They are not good. ESRI has problems I will agree. With how technology is going, if they don't get off their laurels and hike up their socks, they are going to be in real trouble over the next ten years I predict.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by MrNonchalant (767683)

        I work at ESRI and find it hilarious that we're not mentioned in that article

        The rest of us also find this hilarious, but for different reasons.

      • by mjwx (966435)

        Obligatory: I work at ESRI and find it hilarious that we're not mentioned in that article apart from the related video.

        Just to clue everyone in, ESRI is the Microsoft of GIS except MS products typically have less bugs (yes I am trying to deploy ArcSDE 10 at the moment but for some reason it wont create the damn repository and the SDE (esri_sde) service crashes every time we try to start it).

        Grumble, grumble, yes ESRI have been at the whole web mapping (WMS - Web Mapping Service) thing a lot longer then

      • by DarthVain (724186)

        Yes comparing a free online service to a professional editing tool where a single licence runs you 10k is a fair comparison.

        • by Chasqui (601659)
          Actually, its an interesting comparison. I use ESRI products and more and more I am shifting to using free (such as Google) web and non-web products to do some display / mapping work. Why? Because, for one, as you said, every ESRI Arc 9.3 seat costs a shitload. Secondly, I can achieve a substantially similar result in half the time while leaving the license open for someone else. Will it come to a point that free/lower cost software solutions will eliminate ESRI? Maybe. Should they feel threatened? Absolute
          • by DarthVain (724186)

            "On the features and use - absolutely."

            Not sure what world you are living in. One has lots of features, the other has zero pretty much. Google simply display's data, there is really nothing you can do with it.

            An apt analogy would be Adobe and Adobe Reader. Adobe Reader may be pretty good, and a copy of it may be installed on every persons computer in the whole world, and it is free.... but it ain't going to be hell of a lot of good without Adobe.

            ESRI should be wary, but until Google starts expanding into th

      • by benj_e (614605)

        I found that pretty funny too. I also find it painful to see heatmap used in a cartographic sense.

        I've been developing GIS software since 1996, and I have to tell you that while no one toolset is ideal, I've found ESRI's the easiest to use in a production environment. I've use most of the open source GIS tools, even written some papers on them (that apparently were good enough to be cited by other authors), and yet I keep coming back to ESRI's suite.

        Perfect, no. Better than the alternatives? definitely.

      • by autocracy (192714)

        There's an ESRI office down the hall from me...

        I really wonder why they have a satellite office here and what they do there. It's not listed on the website anywhere.

  • by cappp (1822388) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @08:39PM (#33504362)
    I've always been fascinated by maps and the curious space they occupy in the construction of personal and societal identities. What we map, how we illustrate it, how it's presented, where it's placed, each reveals an aspect of something culturally significant. I wonder if the shifting nature of mapping, as influenced by the demands of mobile devices and almost limitless storage capacity, will have as profound a cultural effect as other mapping technological shifts.

    For those interested in mapping - Strange Maps [bigthink.com] has some awesome examples.
    • by dj e-rock (700351)
      I had a professor in an anthropology class that I took during my undergrad at UCSD who had the class draw a map of San Diego. It was an interesting exercise since it wasn't prefaced with anything at all. The wide range of maps produced was staggering, with different things out of scale, etc. Mine, I recall, had an emphasis skewed particularly towards freeways that defined my usual routes of travel, combined with major thoroughfares that I would take . . . Genesee, LJV Dr., Nobel, etc.

      Given that cultur
  • by stimpleton (732392) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @08:54PM (#33504450)
    I did a post grad degree in GIS finishing 2003 haveing done IS degree before then. We used professional map tools for analytical work and presentation.

    Two things stood out in the culture of GIS:

    - A non importance of solid data handling and storage. Flat files were the order of the day.
    - Antialiasing was not prevalent. While not required for anayltical work, in presentation it was, but many big name tools did not make the jump. 8 bit was common.
    - Presentation was done by govt depts and were fairly snazzy for the day, in 8bit alisaed glory

    Now we see were we are today, and its all to do with the fact non mapping companies have got involved without the hangups of the old GIS attitudes from govt depts, universities, and the big name tool vendors influencing them. Companies like MS, Google, have presented maps and GIS so superior to the traditional industry, that even Depts Lands, Mapping and Survey(or whatever called in your country) are resorting to Google maps.

    We now have depts of GIS professionals along with proprietry vendor tools being trounced by private enterprise.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by cosm (1072588)
      In response to the old guard comments, some good supporting evidence of the newcomers understanding the importance of getting away from flat layer/shape/whatever files is SQL Spatial [microsoft.com] support in SQL Server 2008. If you haven't played with it, well, it is pretty impressive for Microsoft (at a hefty cost, of course).

      I also heard rumoring of upcoming Spatial support in Azure (might be already here), so if that goes well, companies dealing with alot of customer map data will have a sweet way to move it all to
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by cosm (1072588)
        Meant to post ESRI Web Mapping API [esri.com] link.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Zak3056 (69287)

        . If you haven't played with it, well, it is pretty impressive for Microsoft (at a hefty cost, of course).

        Can you amplify on this a bit? Looking at the editions comparison page, it appears that the spatial features are included even in the free version of SQL Server (SQL Server Express). Am I missing something? (like it's feature complete, and just doesn't include some proprietary dataset, or dev tools, or...?)

        • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          If you want free, go for PostGIS.

        • by cosm (1072588)
          From a spatial standpoint, there almost identical in terms of datatype support. For tinker development, Express will work just fine. Its just the limitations of express will put a hamper on larger projects (10 GB limitation, 1 CPU, Partitioning). But then again, if your operation is encroaching on those limitations, hopefully the full Server will be within your reach. Something like a web app that has routing and centerline data for the entire country, and with you perhaps offering an web API for accessing
      • by karavelov (863935) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @10:16PM (#33504822) Homepage

        There is a module for PostgreSQL called PostGIS with quite impressive feature set... It's there for a while, it is actively developed and have support from PostgreSQL core hackers.

      • by sr180 (700526)

        Oracle have supported GIS data for quite some time. In the mapping industry its quite common.

        Anyway, WMS was left out of the article. Its been around since 1999. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_Map_Service [wikipedia.org]

    • Two things stood out in the culture of GIS:

      - A non importance of solid data handling and storage. Flat files were the order of the day.

      - Antialiasing was not prevalent. While not required for anayltical work, in presentation it was, but many big name tools did not make the jump. 8 bit was common.

      - Presentation was done by govt depts and were fairly snazzy for the day, in 8bit alisaed glory

      If that is how you count to 2, I hope to the spaghetti monster that I never have to use one of your maps.

      • by micheas (231635)

        Two things stood out in the culture of GIS:

        - A non importance of solid data handling and storage. Flat files were the order of the day.

        - Antialiasing was not prevalent. While not required for anayltical work, in presentation it was, but many big name tools did not make the jump. 8 bit was common.

        - Presentation was done by govt depts and were fairly snazzy for the day, in 8bit alisaed glory

        If that is how you count to 2, I hope to the spaghetti monster that I never have to use one of your maps.

        How a programmer counts to two: 0, 1, 2.

    • by DarthVain (724186)

      Yes and no.

      1) Where do you think Google Maps/Google Earth got its data from? The afore mentioned dinosaurs.
      2) While easy on the eyes, you can't do analytical work with them. The tools and the data just isn't there, as it has all be simplified for public consumption. If we want a pretty map, in the past we would call a cartographer and build us a pretty map. GIS was and is for analytical work, for use in making decisions.

      While serving it up to the public is nice, and sometimes snazzy it hasn't been the prima

  • Licenses? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SnapShot (171582) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @10:33PM (#33504918)

    What I want is a blog post that actually explains all the various mapping licenses. Preferably in a simple table format. I don't like to read.

    • by mjwx (966435)

      What I want is a blog post that actually explains all the various mapping licenses. Preferably in a simple table format. I don't like to read.

      I second that and I do like to read but reading license agreements is like torture.

  • by geoffrobinson (109879) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @10:59PM (#33505050) Homepage

    I think the thing that was most impressive, at the time, was how they got JavaScript to do all that in a browser. Now, that was impressive.

    Is it my impression or did AJAX really take off after people saw Google Maps?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by PCM2 (4486)

      Is it my impression or did AJAX really take off after people saw Google Maps?

      I kind of remember it that way, too, but there were already AJAX (or AJAX-like) toolkits in the works by the time Google Maps was announced in 2005. Tibco General Interface certainly predates it, and so does Dojo Toolkit. Prototype came out around the same time. I think the truth is that a lot of people got the same ideas around the same time, but Google was among the first to market with a cool (and visually impressive) use for those ideas.

      • by maxume (22995)

        Yeah, after a whole bunch of people noticed that Outlook web access wasn't messing around with iframes.

  • ok seriously (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JeanBaptiste (537955) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @11:43PM (#33505222)

    why cant they take all this map data and have racing or GTA type games where you can drive in places you're familiar with?

    • I'd be happy with a flight simulator that had an option to pull its ground textures from these sites. yeah, i know about the flight sim in google earth... I'm talking about something a more complex., like x-plane, ms flight sim, or even orbiter.

  • UMN Mapserver (Score:2, Informative)

    by tuxicle (996538)
    No mention of the University of Minnesota Mapserver [mapserver.org] program. It can render GIS data with antialiasing, auto-placing labels, etc. With some work on a configuration file, you can have it produce images that are nearly identical to Google Maps, but can be arbitrarily scaled (ie, not based on tilesets). Support for WMS makes images from Mapserver available to external programs via a simple HTTP-based RPC. You can also query for features using WFS. I use it to generate maps for use with a weather radar display.
  • Closely related to maps are satellite images, and they are in serious need of a cleanup as well. I was recently asked to find some images for a specific area in Antarctica [gdargaud.net] and do specific processing on them. I'll pass on how hard it was to find images (for free or fee), the USGS was the best source but with other commercial satellites it was simply impossible to get samples. Not, the problem was in the format: basically every generation of satellite has its own data format and/or associated geolocation desc
    • If you want a software package comparable to ENVI or ERDAS Imagine, check out Opticks. http://opticks.org/confluence/display/opticks/Welcome+To+Opticks [opticks.org] It's open source and runs on a variety of systems. GDAL is also worth a look. It's good for simple, quick jobs, large, compex scripts etc. http://www.gdal.org/ [gdal.org]
    • I have had a similar experience with satellite imagery and data, but I have to say, despite the ESRI bashing going on earlier in the comments (much of which I agree with) ArcInfo was ultimately able to handle everything I threw at it without too much fuss. They certainly don't make it easy to figure out how to avoid the "fuss", though.

    • I was distracted and forgot the main points I wanted to make, regarding getting at the data in the first place and processing it. Getting the data also involves a lot of "fuss" but once you figure out where the thing you want comes from (NASA, USGS, etc. all have their own sites and systems for accessing the data) it's fairly trivial. Again, they don't make it easy to figure out how to avoid the fussing around, so I definitely agree with you there.

      Also I was quite frustrated with doing analysis. GeoTIFF sou

  • by bemymonkey (1244086) on Wednesday September 08, 2010 @03:14AM (#33505982)

    Why is there no way to add/update POI on apps like Google Maps?

    So many of the existing POI are out of date, and many are missing... why can't I just edit the information myself directly from my Android phone or Maps on the PC? Of course, the changes would need to be approved before they're actually integrated into Maps, but I feel like they're leaving a lot of potential untapped here.

    OSM supports this, of course, but the Android apps are absolute crap... not to mention the maps of Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe. :(

    • by gbjbaanb (229885)

      most PoI are created from external data sources, not entered by hand. So your beef is with the companies that supply that data. The problem with manually modifying them is that there are a lot of them, and you'd so quickly build up a backlog longer than anyone could manage. Maybe they could get an automated system in place, where enough people who update the same POI 'validate' their own work and have the update accepted would work.

      • Ah, good point. Is there a place where I could check which sources Google uses for their Maps POI? Some of them are clearly marked/stated but others are just there without any hint as to how they got there...

        • by gbjbaanb (229885)

          no idea, sorry. It will change according to the country anyway. Usually its government datasets, plus 'yellow pages' type data from commercial companies.

    • by T.E.D. (34228)
      They used to do that back in the early 2000's, but some loser named vpotus@whitehouse.gov kept erasing his own house from the database.
  • The 'map' API will remain fairly useless until they also develop the 'reduce' API. Then developers will get the full power of a map-reduce API.

  • Yeah, remember when people used to print maps from MapQuest to each other because in-car GPS modules were expensive and a bit "beta?"

    Now, Garmin's newest GPS doubles as an Android phone, the iPad (still waiting for an Android tablet) is the biggest GPS module available and one can find their way from practically anywhere with internet access just by knowing the destination.

    Paper maps aren't dead, but they are needed much less nowadays.
  • I recently became interested in hiking/orientiering, and i tried to find maps geographical maps online that could be used for this purpose. Couldn't find any apart from the government (Sweden). I will have to pay for the maps.

    I was quite surprise to tell the truth. I have no involvment with the mapping industry, but I would have thought by now after Google came out with Google Earth and satellite images became so prevalent that it was simply a matter of time before all mapping was free? I can go onto th

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