How to Use APIs to Build GIS, Mapping and Location Applications

ProgrammableWeb recently published an article featuring the top 10 mapping category APIs. Most of the APIs featured in the article are for accessing map libraries or geographic data/content. However, the mapping category includes APIs for programmatically accessing map libraries, geographic data sources, geographic information system and spatial analysis software, location intelligence solutions, indoor venue maps and more.

Many companies not only provide APIs for developers, but also provide easy-to-use GIS and mapping solutions that make it possible for users with very little technical knowledge to create beautifully designed static, interactive or animated maps. No matter where you go on the Web these days you’re bound to find a map, all thanks to the availability of easy-to-use GIS solutions and APIs.

You can find maps on government open data websites like the DublinDashboard, which features a variety of Web maps that provide information for public transportation, housing, city planning and more. The city of Boston website features a nice selection of city data Web maps and a mapping application that citizens can use to estimate the cost of installing rooftop solar panels.

You can find maps in applications for calculating commuting distances like the EV Explorer Web app, which uses maps to help calculate how much money people would save if they drove an electronic vehicle. ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World Web app uses maps to provide the costs of different types of travel in antiquity across the Roman Empire.

Maps are everywhere and not just all over the Web. Maps can be found on smartphones, smartwatches, automobile dashboards, indoor kiosks, outdoor kiosks and more. Maps are being used by millions of people around the world every day.

This article highlights different types of GIS, mapping and location-based solutions. This article does not highlight low-level libraries such as D3.js and Three.js, which can also be used for map visualization.

Map Libraries


Leaflet is an open source JavaScript Library for building interactive maps. A Leaflet API can be used with other map libraries.

Most map libraries have a basic display model of one basemap with options that can include map layers, cartographic styles, map controls, customization via CSS and zoom animation. Map layers can include vector objects, image overlays, tiles, markers pop-ups and other features.

Many companies provide map libraries that can be used to add interactive maps to Web pages and mobile applications. Popular map libraries include amMap, ArcGIS, CartoDB, GIS Cloud, Google Maps, HERE, Leaflet, Mapbox, MapQuest and OpenLayers.

Geographic Data/Content and Services



OpenStreetMap is an open-content, collaborative project that provides a free, editable map of the whole world. The OpenStreetMap API can be used to retrieve and/or save raw geodata to the OpenStreetMap database.

Many companies provide geocoding services, routing services and/or geographic content. Geocoding takes location information like a street address and converts it into spatial data that can be displayed as a feature on a map. Routing services are used primarily for turn-by-turn directions and sometimes include detailed road attributes.

Content can include ready-to-use maps and data sets containing various types of information such as demographic, transportation, terrain and imagery.

A few examples of platforms that provide geocoding services, routing services and/or geographic content include ArcGIS, Foursquare, HERE, Mapbox, MapQuest, OpenStreetMap and Yahoo BOSS.

GIS and Spatial Analysis


Turf is a JavaScript library for advanced geospatial analysis. The Turf API can perform a wide variety of aggregation, measurement and transformation functions.

Geographic information system software allows users to capture, store, analyze, visualize and manage geographic information. Most GIS solutions feature spatial analysis capabilities and are able to analyze spatial data to uncover patterns, relationships, trends and other new information. GIS and spatial analysis software examine locations, objects, object attributes and relationships of features in spatial data using a variety of analytical techniques in order to provide valuable insights or address specific questions.

Applied Geographics, ArcGIS, CartoDB and Mapbox are just a few examples of platforms that feature GIS and spatial analysis capabilities. Open source JQuery plug-in jQuery Geo also includes geospatial functions. Turf is a JavaScript library for advanced geospatial analysis for browsers and Node.js.

Location Intelligence and Analytics


Cisco CMX (Connected Mobile Experiences) is a location analytics Platform built into Cisco Meraki APs. The Cisco CMX API is a real-time, cloud-based API that allows Feed data to be integrated with third-party applications.

Location intelligence software is used to discover meaningful insights from the geographical relationships found in most information. Objects such as businesses, points of interest and geographic regions are analyzed along with their spatial attributes.

Be sure to read the next Mapping article: Citymaps Seeks to Disrupt the Mapping API Business Model