Guide to Choosing a Digital Mapping Service

Many tools exist for web maps and data visuals: I’ve compiled a sizable list of tools for making geographic maps, if you’re looking to make beautiful, creative, fast-loading, and embeddable web maps, take a look at which tool might be useful for you.

1. Google Maps API: One of the most widely used APIs on the internet, Google Maps API is a ubiquitous mapping service that is useful for direction/navigation, map embeds, and data visualization. The Google Maps platform is very diverse; however, the JavaScript API allows for developers to customize maps in an applied sense. The Maps API differs from regular embedded links in that the API allows for you to create custom market pins (possibly for a company locator tool), make layers load by default (traffic, biking, or transit layers), and allows you to change the background colors of the map. For a widespread lists of Maps API applications, click here.

Pick Your Own - Dallas/Fort Worth

The Maps API was used in this example to show a list of local farms (there’s a post on this map as well); it’s a useful map that is able to display practical information in an easy to read format.

One of the best parts about the Google Maps API is the ability to load up to 25,000 maps a day for free with an API key, after that Google’s terms of service say that they’ll get in contact with with if the maps keep loading at 25k views per day. So in essence, you don’t need to worry about map views or data limits until you get past this threshold. It’s nice because you can test out nearly all the features of the Google Maps API for free.


The Google Maps API requires some knowledge of JavaScript/HTML in order to properly setup variables, map objects, and create arrays. If you want to get more advanced with mySQL/PHP, there’s a great tutorial for getting started; this becomes more useful for loading LARGE data sets from a database.

Overall, the Google Maps API is a fantastic service that allow for a great mix of practicality and creativity. It’s a reliable service which is constantly updated; really, it’s the king of mapping services.

2. Google MyMaps: Google MyMaps is a light-version of the Google Maps API; however it offers a simple approach to allow users to create useful maps without knowledge of web design languages.

The functionality of MyMaps has been growing the past few years; it seems that the demand for custom maps may have driven Google to increase the availability of easy-to-use mapping tools to compete with other mapping services.

nationparks_screensqYou have the option to import .CSV files or Excel spreadsheets into your Google Drive and load them into MyMaps. If you need a map for a personal or company website, MyMaps is great for displaying a list of locations with custom markers. The User Interface is easy-to-use and you can embed your newly created map on an external site too.

Overall, it’s a functional light-version of the Google Maps API. It’s a great alternative for sure if you want to start making digital maps.

3. CartoDB: The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company, CartoDB, is trying to make room for itself in the increasingly competitive digital mapping industry. CartoDB’s online platform allows for web maps to be created and shared within the browser.

Usually ending up with beautiful maps, the CartoDB platform gives users an array of styles that are relatively easy to implement. Data sets can be uploaded and modified in just a few minutes. For a map gallery, click here.

Here’s a map I created of Airports in 2013 with the largest cargo transports by weight. A relatively large data set, which was easily (and quickly!) imported into CartoDB. The map took a few minutes to style, but that was the fun part!


Signing up for a free account gives you access to 50 mb of data, which could be many maps or just a few depending on how large the data sets you import end up being (for example I had a complex .SHP file with border regions shaded that ended up being 25 mb alone). However, the map above is under 200 kb so this sort of data can be used in a free account repeatedly.

4. ESRI ArcGIS JavaScript API and ArcGIS online: Geospatial technology company, ESRI, have developed an API for their powerhouse GIS software. The ArcGIS JavaScript API is able to render modern data visuals on a web map (for example you could move your cursor over a map to display incomes levels or ages differences in a region-specific population).


The ESRI documentation includes many links for downloading sample HTML files to download, for sample code of the ArcGIS API click here. You can take this sample code as modify it as you please to get a hang of the API itself. Fortunately, you can download the files to your desktop and run them on your browser.

One downside to the API is that it’s going to cost you for larger scale applications. It’s free to use, but has usage limits. The 8 plans range from FREE-$4000/month, so there’s a wide spectrum to choose from. For personal sites, the free plan should be acceptable; whereas paid plans give your the ability to load more maps if your site gets a lot of traffic.

Overall, this API is fully functional and should be able to process complex data sets with ease.

I also have familiarly with their ArcGIS Business Analyst 2012 desktop version; the desktop version is very processor intensive, however the API makes a smooth transition and loads quickly. The ArcGIS API allows for an in-depth application of geospatial visuals rendered in the browser. If you desire modern-looking visuals this API would be a great choice.

5. Google Chart’s – Geo Charts: Google offers yet a third tool to create a digital map. The Google Chart’s GeoChart is a minimalist mapping tool to display countries, cities, and metropolitan areas. For creative data visuals, the GeoChart shines. The color scheme is fully configurable and can be used to shade countries in a global map or display a weighted bubble chart by cities.

The JavaScript for the GeoChart is similar, yet different, from the Google Maps API, however the code is modifiable and you can use JavaScript arrays to setup new charts. I have yet to test out mySQL integrations with the GeoChart, however it would be useful for large data sets.

This GeoChart displays the count of Energy Star Buildings in the USA by city in 2015; take a look at the full post here.

Google Charts has many different diagrams to choose from, it’s an extensive library that is worth checking out. Here’s my page on Google Chart examples, if you’re interested in making interactive graphics.

Overall, these mapping services represent a fraction of the mapping tools available in 2015; digital mapping trends have become increasingly relevant as terms like ‘big data’ and ‘GPS’ become commonplace terms. I enjoy learning about cool tools and unique map designs, so I’ll be testing out more mapping tools in the future.

In a following post, I wanna take a look at tools such as:

-OpenStreet Maps, MapBox, Polymaps, Gephi, OpenLayers3

-And any others that might be worthwhile

If you have a tool you’d like to share please send an email: will[at]

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