Free Map APIs v. Paid Map APIs: A Brief Comparison

August 7, 2018

Free vs. Paid Map APIsIf a map API is an integral part of your app, choosing the best fit for your mapping needs depends on several factors, with cost often listed near the top. Free map API options may sometimes be sufficient but defaulting to them to streamline budgets could mean missing out on enhanced benefits paid map APIs offer that could take your app to the next level. 

This brief comparison provides food for thought as you consider free and paid map API options.

Free Map APIs

The appeal is obvious — there’s no cost for these map APIs. The varied and rich data sets available, along with access to certain map features — like OpenStreetMap’s amenities, buildings, highways, places, shops and waterways — are also compelling reasons to use free map APIs.

However, without clearly understanding the downsides of free map APIs, you could wind up paying the price, so to speak:

  • Quality can be suspect. Since data is largely the product of volunteer mappers, there’s no consistent vetting or standardized process for creating maps. This creates hit-and-miss reliability, as maps for one part of the world may be highly detailed while others lag.
  • Accuracy can be challenging. Metadata is usually not associated with free map API layers. Instead of embedding maps into web pages, raw geodata is commonly retrieved or saved to API databases or open source mapping libraries. Even with thorough documentation (which is not a given with free map API options), you could risk using data that is out of date.
  • Data is not authoritative. There is typically no national resource such as U.S. census data against which free map API information is cross-checked and verified.

Paid Map APIs

Investing in paid map APIs may be a non-starter for app developers constrained by tight budgets or those desiring easy access to mapper communities. However, the advantages of using paid map APIs generally justify the cost for app developers in a position to use them. 

In addition to opening a wider variety of APIs to app developers, with paid map APIs: 

  • Quality is guaranteed. It may sound trite, but you get what you pay for. Paid map APIs are continually updated, ensuring accurate data that’s current and of the highest quality and reliability.
  • Documentation is detailed, thorough and readily available. The consistent ease of use, availability of tools and the ability to embed maps into web pages makes paid map APIs invaluable to app developers, who might otherwise struggle to find this level of functionality in non-paid options.
  • Data is authoritative. The guaranteed quality and accuracy of paid map APIs are backed by unrefuted authority. Google Maps, HERE and TomTom, for example, continually collect and extract data using computer vision and machine learning upon which they algorithmically build up layers for common and custom applications.

Weighing the pros and cons of free map APIs versus their paid counterparts will help guide you initially. However, taking the time to assess how a map API needs to perform within the parameters of the app build will often narrow available options and prevent missteps. Get to the appropriate map API solution faster using our tip sheet, 4 Steps App Developers Must Take to Build Apps Using Map APIs. Click the button below to access your copy now!

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