Choosing An Online Mapping Service

The availability of online mapping services has exploded over the past few years, and today there is a wide range of products and capabilities available to organizations.

Some organizations develop their online mapping capabilities in-house using technologies like Microsoft Silverlight, but this article focuses on choosing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) online mapping services such as ArcGIS Online or Latitude Geographics Geocortex Essentials.

Several general-purpose online mapping services have cropped up lately such as the popular Mapbox service, which provides cloud-based mapping services to sites such as Foursquare and Pinterest. These type of mapping services focus on offering tile-based services such as OpenStreetMap and geocoding capabilities.

GIS focused COTS solutions like ArcGIS Online offer services that enable organizations to publish their existing GIS data in the form of map services that can be shared with the public or internally to their entire organization.

There are many factors to consider when choosing an online mapping service for your organization. The first obvious factor to consider is the audience.  It’s important to think about what specific actions the audience needs to perform with the maps:  are they going to only need to visualize the data and key attributes, or do they need to perform simple analysis like buffering?

Also, the technical competency of the audience is an important factor. If the audience will consist of general business-users whose level of tech savviness will widely vary, then it’s important to choose an easy-to-use, intuitive online mapping service.  If the audience is going to consist of GIS savvy users, it’s a good idea to choose a service that will offer advanced analytical capabilities in order to gain the most value.

Some COTS online mapping solutions offer complete cloud-based solutions where there is no need to dedicate any internal IT resources. While this may be a convenient option, this is not a viable option for security-sensitive companies and industries that require complete control of their data. Typically, service providers are flexible in regards to where the data is hosted, but it’s important to confirm this before choosing a service.

Performance is a huge factor in the success of online mapping service. One of the main reasons an organization chooses to implement online mapping is to increase the value of their GIS by expanding the audience. However, if the organization’s online maps consistently suffer poor performance (i.e., slow drawing times and crashes), then you’ll quickly lose the interest of the expanded audience. This is particularly crucial in the oil & gas industry where typically there’s a need to visualize large amounts of data, even in small geographic areas.

It’s worth researching the company offering the online mapping service. How long has the company been offering online mapping services? Do they offer customer service? Most service providers offer a portfolio of existing sites, which is a quick and easy way to check-out the look and feel of the service before purchasing.

In summary, there are many factors to consider before choosing an online mapping service for your organization. If you want to meet the goals of expanding the audience and gaining the most value of your existing GIS, it’s crucial that all factors be considered before choosing a service.

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