Friday, July 20, 2012

Switching Mapping APIs

Like many companies who do a lot of mapping, FlightStats had a bit of a shock in October 2011 when Google announced that they would start charging top users of the Google Maps API. We were very heavy users of Google Maps and the cost would have been a considerable amount of money for us. So we started looking at alternatives.

I don't begrudge Google for charging for their maps, but our needs were actually fairly modest. We didn't need any of the fancier features like driving directions, traffic, streetview, or 3D buildings; we mainly needed to show the location of airplanes. At the same time, we had spent a lot of time modifying and extending the Google Map API to add our own layers for things like weather and airplane routes. We had even developed our own basemap for some of our apps. But like many companies, we had started using Google Maps when it was the only game in town and had never looked around later to see if there was something else that would fit our needs.

The Top Seven Alternative to the Google Maps API
Luckily for us, there was. Not only that, but many of the alternatives were not just free, but had significant advantages for us. To help other people who are looking to replace Google Maps, we recently published an article  reviewing all the major alternatives, both proprietary and open source.

 You can read this article at:

In the end, we picked the Leaflet map API, built by people at CloudMade but open source. Leaflet is a fairly new library, but it has become very popular. It had all the features we needed and is very easy to extend and customize. This made it much easier to build things like dynamic maps, where airplanes move around in real time, or with animations of weather radar. It also works well on mobile devices.

For basemaps, we had one that we had built ourselves, but we also found that there are a wealth of free maps out there. The Google basemaps are mainly designed for automobiles, but we found maps that were better for displaying our information (mostly by having less detail in the basemap itself, making it easier to see flight positions or weather overlays).

I knew we had done the right thing when Google announced that they were lowering their price by 88%. I asked around if anyone regretted the effort we spent moving to a new API and maps. The answer was no.

I really want to thank Google for inventing the technology that allowed people and companies like us to create interactive map applications. But now I'm really happy that there is some competition and variety, so we can pick the API and maps that are most suitable for what we are trying to do.

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