Great Open Source Map Tools for Web Developers

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The commerce behind the toolsAll of these open source tools don't come out of nowhere. TileMill, for instance, was created by MapBox, a company that makes its money by selling downloads of the map tiles. You can fiddle with the data and make all of the pretty pictures for free, but once people look at your map tiles more than 3,000 times in a month, it's time to pay.

The higher-priced plans offer more than just endless streams of map tiles. You get analytical charts that help you understand who is looking at which corner of the globe. MapBox has a cloud-based infrastructure that can optimize your maps to make sure they work as smoothly as possible in the mobile browsers.

MapBox contributes a fair amount of open source code, including not only TileMill but also Wax, a tool that makes it a bit easier to use libraries like Modest Maps to embed MapBox tiles in your site. My favorite part of Wax is TileJSON, a basic format for wrapping up the data about the tiles.

This example at shows the use of Stamen's Watercolor, Toner, and Terrain tiles within the same map.

OpenGeo is another company built around a collection of open source projects. You can work with the community edition of its suite or invest in its enterprise version. The four different price points correspond to more and more stability and support on Java servers. The group is happy to add features or develop other software as consultants too.

The OpenGeo software is a complete stack that includes a database tuned for storing geographic data (PostGIS); a server and cache for delivering map tiles (GeoServer and GeoWebCache); and display libraries in JavaScript (OpenLayers and GeoExt). When you buy a license from OpenGeo, you get a stack that integrates all of them from some of the same programmers who take care of them.

If you're just playing with maps, CloudMade is a good place to begin. CloudMade gives away some maps it created from OpenStreetMap data. Like the data, these are protected by the Creative Commons-Share Alike license. If you want to make use of these tiles, CloudMade offers Leaflet, a full-featured library for putting maps in Web pages. It's small and optimized for adding extra layers and pins. Here's an example I made with Leaflet.

What if you want to go deeper? If you're interested in connecting location with games, for instance, you'll want to visit the business end of CloudMade where they're pioneering this integration. One library, for instance, helps you figure out the weather and time of the person playing your game. The game can adjust itself using this data so that the action on the screen can take place in the dark if it's night or light if it's day. Or maybe you just want to serve up the opposite of the grim reality surrounding the player. If it's a cold and gray January day, you could offer tropical weather in your game.

Another clever idea is sponsored locations, in which advertisers might pay you to include a connection with their local business. If someone is near the coffee shop, the game could tell the user about a discount coupon and even offer to unlock certain levels for free if they redeem it. In one blog post, the company notes that our brains love dopamine and that it's tightly linked with seeking out and searching. In other words, games plus marketing yield dopamine for the user and money for the company.

This collection of mapping tools and the companies behind them show the power of open source to unlock competition while encouraging cooperation. Everyone has an incentive to contribute data to the central pool kept by OpenStreetMap, yet everyone is also striving to outdo the next company with better code and prettier renderings.

There's no doubt that Google is feeling some pressure from this ersatz collective. The company announced it was lowering its prices dramatically, knocking down fees almost 90 percent from $4 per 1,000 views to 50 cents per 1,000 views. This price will be billed only to sites that regularly exceed 25,000 views per day.

While this is a dramatic change, I'm not certain it would be enough to turn me away from these open source alternatives. While there's no doubt that the major Web companies provide great tools, there's something wonderful about controlling your own destiny. The ability to customize my own map tiles is so dangerously seductive that I'm sure I'll lose too many hours fiddling with the colors and the fonts so the maps look just so. Sure it's work, but the power and control are hard to beat.

This story, "Great open source map tools for Web developers," was originally published at Follow the latest news in application development and JavaScript at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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