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It was not long ago that the term mapping platform meant Geographic Information System (GIS). That is a system designed to help visualize, question, analyze and interpret geographic data. Most often the output from a GIS was a map.

The popularity of mobile and cloud technology has led to increased interest in maps and questions focused on where:

Where is my Uber ride?

Where is the closest Mexican restaurant?

Where are the most flooded areas?

We are today seeing an explosion in the number and type of mapping platforms. In this post we will discuss the differences between these mapping platforms, and why you might choose one over the other.

The Secret of Mapping Platforms

What is a mapping platform?

A mapping platform provides individuals and businesses the ability to map data. A map is made up of two fundamental elements:

a) Base map

b) Map layers

A basemap could be a satellite image, roads, topography. It is the basemap which provides context: this is my city, my house is in this road. A map layer is information overlaid on top of the map. That is the data of interest. Think about when you do a Google Maps search. If you search for coffee shops, the results will appear as points on the map. Tap or click on a point and you will see more information about that particular shop; its attributes.

Google Maps Search for Coffee Shops

Google Maps is one of the more popular mapping platforms. It is a consumer focused platform which supports Google’s advertising business model.

But what about if I would like to map my own data? Maybe I’m a real estate broker who wants to add points to a map showing my current list of comps. That means creating my own map layer. I can do that by publishing my data to a mapping platform, and having that platform generate a layer for me. Sounds complicated? This process has actually become quite simple, and is a fundamental capability of many mapping platforms.

Commercial Real Estate Comps in the Denver Area.

Map layers can take 3 forms: points (eg. comps), lines (eg. rivers), and polygons (eg. parks). Think about a city, it is made up of buildings, water lines, roads, traffic lights on and on. Managing a city can be challenging. But if the assets owned by a city can be mapped, that task becomes a little easier.

Why might you need a mapping platform?

So maps are made up of basemaps and map layers. A mapping platform helps you build maps which contain yours and others data. Custom maps, or maps designed specifically for your need, are fundamental why mapping platforms are useful. That means easy ways to see your data, that might be as points, or a heat map for instance.

Twitter Heatmap of Eastern US

What if you wish to ask questions of your data? Now we are talking about mapping apps. That is a map which has tools which enable you to ask questions. What are the demographics of the area around my proposed store? How do I get from A to B and avoid traffic? How do I update information about our water valves?

The type of location-based questions you have will determine which mapping platform best fits your needs.

What is the best mapping platform for my need? 

When you consider the questions you need answered, are they simple or complex?

Your questions will determine your choice of mapping platform. In this post we will compare, at a high level, two platforms: Mapbox and ArcGIS. One is designed for simplicity, the other complexity.

a) Mapbox

Mapbox is relatively new on the mapping platform scene. With offices in New York and San Francisco they have brought together an innovative team of geospatial experts. Their platform provides beautiful, customizable base maps and makes map layer generation easy. “Targeted at developers and designers” is how they market themselves. Mapbox makes adding maps to your organization simple. They take a modular approach, meaning their maps can be integrated anywhere into your existing business solutions. That might mean a simple interactive map in a web page, or more complex Tableau integration. These guys have their roots in open source, so they give much away: see vector tiles as one example.

We like Mapbox because they provide the building blocks to custom maps and apps.

b) ArcGIS

Esri have dominated the GIS landscape for 40 years. The ArcGIS platform is designed to answer the simplest to most complex location-based questions. Like other mapping platforms, ArcGIS provides an array of basemaps and makes map layer generation easy. But where ArcGIS comes into its own is the complexity of questions it is able to answer. If you have in-house GIS experts, or are prepared to roll up your sleeves and learn ArcGIS, you have a universe of possibilities at your fingertips. But be warned ArcGIS requires core GIS knowledge and skills: The Science of Where as Esri is now branded. That said, if you are a large complex organization, in need or a wide range of custom maps and apps, ArcGIS is a great solution.

These are examples of two proprietary mapping platforms. There are many others in the marketplace. We did not discuss pure open source,  that is for a future blog post.

Whichever mapping platform best fits your needs, always look for simple, flexible solutions which best fit your budget and in-house expertise. What may on the surface appear simple, may prove quite the opposite when you pull back the covers. So due diligence in making your choice is essential.

Final thoughts

We spend our time as a company focused fundamentally on location-based data;  that means working with mapping platforms building custom maps and apps. We help customers understand better their mapping platform options, then put in place maps and apps to best answer their questions. We are technology agnostic.

Today there are many mapping platform available. Choose wisely based on your need, always keeping in mind the location-based questions in need of answers.

Have mapping platform questions. Contact me directly at [email protected] or call 801.410.2532.

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