By Thomas Harrington, Chief Marketing Officer

Mapping Platforms are Challenging the Status Quo of GIS Software

It has been said that humans co-evolve with their tools. We shape our tools and our tools shape us. 

The rapid rise and adoption of mapping platforms from the launch of Google Maps APIs in 2005 has challenged the status quo of GIS software (for more details on this see also AppGeo’s blog “How AppGeo is Navigating the Shift to Cloud-based Mapping Platforms, and Why You Should Too”). Right from the start, mapping platforms were designed to answer specific spatial questions (locate, identify, navigate) through APIs, rather than delivering GIS software user experiences. 

The adoption of cloud-native mapping platforms for application development reflects a natural response to the demands of the information economy for speed and performance, ease of use, and ease of implementation. Mapping platforms are proving to be an optimal way to achieve all of the benefits of adding location intelligence to common applications and business processes with the least amount of friction.

How Do Mapping Platforms Compare with Traditional GIS Software? 

APIs

One of the main advantages of mapping platforms is they are made up of sets of pre-packaged APIs that are built and tested for complex calculations (route finding and point to point navigation), high-speed transactions (autocomplete place-based searches, geocoding, map loads), and rich visualizations (data overlay, tilt, rotate, 2D and 3D rendering, cartographic styling). Developers can leverage these tools to create high performance and customized mapping experiences very quickly and reliably. 

Basemap Data

Mapping platforms directly incorporate and serve continually updated base map data – imagery, streets, terrain, land cover, and other representations – on which businesses and governments can display their own data for maximum utility. These base maps provide a consistent schema and global coverage, and a familiar look and feel, e.g., most internet users are immediately familiar with the look and feel and interactive possibilities of Google Maps. The inclusion of basemap data is a significant time and cost saver for application development. 

Specialized Location Data

Mapping platform providers typically offer a variety of additional  location-based data products (street view imagery, place-based data, roadway characteristics, and more) that provide important context such as business operating hours or building entrance locations, and important details such as speed limits, turn lanes, or underpass heights. The types of bundled data offered with each mapping platform are a significant value-add for application development. That plus differences in the terms of use can often be the reason to choose one platform over another. 

Cloud IT Infrastructure 

Fourth but not least important, cloud-based and cloud native mapping platforms take care of a lot of the IT part of the equation – providing storage, data back ups, scaling, reliability, security, and performance. The value of the cloud-based IT infrastructure harnessed by these mapping platforms is a significant differentiator from traditional GIS software purchases, eliminating the need for in-house software installation and management, upgrades and updates, security, IT support, performance monitoring, storage and much more.  On the other hand, the pivot to cloud assets and decentralization of processing resources also present a new IT management challenge of keeping track of these disparate resources that can quickly spread across many clouds and providers. It requires a new breed of IT expert / manager.

The Many Benefits of Mapping Platforms for Governments and Businesses

The following are my observations on how mapping platforms are changing the way governments and businesses apply location intelligence to their use cases and the benefits they can realize. These observations are drawn from AppGeo’s experience working with hundreds of customers in the role of technical advisor to customer development teams, or as an outside application development resource, or through our growing managed services program, Spatial IQ.

Mapping platforms are breaking down barriers

In ecommerce, logistics, health, and public safety, for example, mapping platforms are enabling subject matter experts to put spatial analysis and location-based services to work in applications and expert systems. New and different types of professionals are interacting with location data and geospatial analysis, often without backgrounds in geography, geospatial science, cartography, etc., but with other types of skills and knowledge, such as data science and software engineering. This is because mapping platforms make it possible to forgo the learning curve of complex GIS software and get right to the spatial analysis functions for applications – place-based search, navigation and routing, location tracking, geofencing, geocoding – and the data needed to support those functions. The ease and scale with which mapping platforms provide the core capabilities of geospatial data, data analysis and data services, are a game changer for government and business needing to access and use spatial data. 

Mapping platforms shortcut the time to development

Developers accessing documented APIs can quickly embed spatial analysis functions and data to add location intelligence to their web applications. Mapping platforms foster innovation by providing documentation, DIY encouragement, and certified partner ecosystems that appeal to a wide circle of (non-GIS trained) developers and data scientists interested in geospatial analysis and location-based services. Technical support and guidance from certified partners, such as AppGeo, can accelerate the process and reduce the risk of adopting new technologies. 

Mapping platforms change the way we think about the role of maps in applications

Mapping platforms, paradoxically, are not just about the map. They expand the potential for GIS to be an essential but small part of non-geo-centric applications, for example, an embedded store locator map in an e-commerce page, or a link to driving directions on a business website.  Mapping platforms are an antidote to the myopia of GIS software applications centered on maps, encumbered with all sorts of map controls and map metaphors.  Mapping platform APIs perform spatial calculation in the background and offer flexibility as to how the results are displayed in combinations of maps, tables, charts and graphs, or text. In this way, mapping platforms change the paradigm in the GIS field, moving applications and innovation off GIS software islands and local servers, and onto the mainland of location-based intelligence for data modernization and system transformation.

Mapping Platforms perform at scale

Mapping platforms make it possible to incorporate location intelligence into larger and more high performance systems by leveraging cloud infrastructure and cloud-native mapping capabilities that are better suited to developers building modern, highly scalable systems. 

Mapping platforms combine functionality and data

Mapping platforms incorporate more and different types of data with greater ease, security and performance, both data that is packaged or bundled with mapping platforms, and other data served through web services, gathered from sensors, and otherwise provisioned by the data economy. 

Mapping platforms’ freemium and “for free” usage thresholds make it possible to “try before you buy”

“Try before you buy” options are breaking down the traditional software procurement barriers to experimentation and learning. Mapping (and spatial data content) platforms are a welcome alternative to buying, installing, setting up, and maintaining GIS software environments, and learning how to use them to create custom web and data web services. 

Help Adopting Mapping Platform Technologies

Disruptive technologies and new ways of doing things are a source of change and growth. Sometimes it is only in hindsight that we realize just how disruptive a new technology has become. At AppGeo, we fully recognize that mapping (and content) platforms are changing the way we and our customers think about and “do” geospatial. 

For many years, we’ve embraced the new reality that requires our team of GIS practitioners to develop additional types of skills, knowledge and specializations. These include the ability to interact with cloud-based data systems and spatial analysis tools delivered through APIs, to become better versed in data science and able to work with data scientists, and to become more conversant with the tools and methods of cloud computing. Along the way, we’ve become knowledgeable about the intricacies of compliance with terms of service, and developed useful strategies to help customers manage costs under “pay as you go” subscription models. And we’ve engaged in formal partnership with several major mapping platform providers – Google, Carto, Hexagon, and HERE – that enable us to provide specialized services and advice. 

To help customers successfully adopt and transition to mapping platforms, AppGeo also has developed “Spatial IQ”, a managed services program. Spatial IQ gives customers direct access to AppGeo staff who are experts in mapping platform and data content programs. We can help you answer questions as basic as, how do I get started?, to how do I manage and monitor my rate of API usage? to as complicated as, how do I optimize the deployment of APIs for my particular use cases?   

Our Map-enriched and Locationally Intelligent Future

The ongoing improvement and expansion of mapping platforms enables us to imagine a future that is even more map-enriched and locationally intelligent than we experience today, and we welcome the opportunity to build that future with you.