Agencies are increasingly being asked by clients to look for alternatives to Google Maps.

Luckily for developers, there are many alternatives – with more being developed all the time.  What’s really exciting about these new kids on the block is that, rather than being second-rate Google Maps knock-offs, they are producing some really beautiful, characterful maps.

While Google Maps being free was great for site owners, it wasn’t necessarily so for app-builders, or the end user, as it suppressed the development of alternatives. Now the number of both proprietary and open-mapping APIs has exploded, this is great news for all of us, as different APIs have unique features and capabilities which will hopefully lead to some great new online maps. And many of their features are available for free use.

In digital mapping, as in any other area of technological innovation, competition is key to creative progress.

Here are six of the best:

Map Box

An open mapping platform, MapBox is a perfect example of the new breed.  As they explain:

“MapBox helps you design beautiful maps and publish them across the web and mobile devices at scale. Our open-source tools and cloud infrastructure are the base of a new kind of platform, making maps more social.”

The maps are beautifully designed and powered by OpenStreetMap data, and, best of all, it’s very easy to customise the colours and features to fit any style or brand.

Polymaps

Polymaps is a free JavaScript library for making dynamic, interactive maps in modern web browsers. The library provides speedy displays of multi-zoom datasets over maps and supports a variety of visual presentations for tiled vector data – in addition to the usual cartography from OpenStreetMap, CloudMade, Bing, and other providers of image-based web maps.

Because Polymaps can load data at a full range of scales, it’s ideal for showing information from country level right down to states, cities, neighbourhoods, and individual streets. The site uses SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) to display information, so you can use familiar, comfortable CSS rules to define the design of your data. And the well-known spherical Mercator tile format is used for the imagery and data, making publishing a snap.

Below is a map showing our Archer Street office using their Midnight Commander design, described by Polymaps as follows: “You know, for when you’re Jason Bourne and you’re on the run from the man and you break into the command center and you pull up the secret map interface? That one.”

Leaflet

Developed by Vladimir Agafonkin of CloudMade, with a team of dedicated contributors, Leaflet is a modern open-source JavaScript library for mobile-friendly interactive maps. It weighs in at just about 27 KB of gzipped JavaScript code. And yet it still has all the features most developers will ever need for online maps, while providing a really smooth, pleasant user experience.

It’s built from the ground up to work efficiently on both desktop and mobile platforms like iOS and Android, taking advantage of HTML5 and CSS3 on modern browsers. The focus is on usability, performance, small size, A-grade browser support, and a simple API with convention over configuration. The OOP-based code of the library is designed to be modular, extensible and very easy to understand.

Staman

Staman allows you to change the way OpenStreetMap data is displayed to one of their impressive designs. (I’m desperate to come up with an excuse to use their “watercolour wash”.) Their tiles are made available as part of the CityTracking project, funded by the Knight Foundation, in which Stamen is building web services and open-source tools to display public data in easy-to-understand, highly visual ways.

Kartograph

A simple, lightweight framework for building interactive map applications without Google Maps (or any other mapping service), Kartograph was created with the needs of designers and data journalists in mind. Actually, Kartograph is two libraries. One generates beautiful and compact SVG maps; the other helps you create interactive maps that run across all major browsers.

Modest Maps

Modest Maps is a small, extensible, and free library for designers and developers who want to use interactive maps in their own projects. It provides a core set of features in a tight, clean package with plenty of hooks for additional functionality.

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