Open alternatives to Google Maps

Lately there was a not much surprising news about Google products and services. Among other things Google has changed the Google Maps API use policy and will charge to those users that exceed some download limits.

It is well known that Google Maps is one of the most (or the most) famous mapping service used around the net and it starts the web GIS revolution some years ago but hopefully it is not the only API we can use. Bing and the discontinued Yahoo Maps, are great competitors but this post is related to open source alternatives you can find to create your web mapping applications.

Please, don’t confuse the API with the imagery you are using. Google will charge you by the imagery usage so if you use an alternative API but continues consuming Google tiles you are in a similar situacion.


OpenLayers is probably the most famous open source web mapping project. I want to think so because two factors: first it is the older project presented on this post and second because it is the most complete and, because this, the most complex.

OpenLayers is close to OGC standards, it separates between geometries, features and styles. You can load raster tiles layers from Google, Bing, OpenStreetMaps, etc or vector data from GML, KML or GeoJSON formats.

OpenLayers is not only restricted to spherical mercator, you can use almost any projection you know (plus many others), you can load data from WMS or WFS servers and most important, you are not limited to visualise data, you can create and edit new features sending them to the WFS server.


Polymaps is a project born from SimpleGeo and Stamen association. The main reason behind Polymaps is the use of vector-tiled layers.

What we mean by vector-tiled data? Since GoogleMaps everybody knows about raster-tiled layers, where each zoom level contains more tiles with more resolution.

A vector-tiles layer is similar, in the sense every zoom level has more resolution, but the data of every tile is not an image but vector data is rendered using SVG. This means you need a SVG compliant browser to use Polymaps.


Leaflet is a lightweight library specially oriented to make tile-based maps for desktop and mobile web browser.

It is really easy to use and offers the basic things everybody needs for a typical web mapping application: access to tile-based imagery, markers, popups, polygons, points, etc. Believe me, put an eye on this project, it has many more to say.

As a note, I would like to say Leaflet is a project from CloudMade and it is close to their Web Map API (

And what about imagery?

Google Maps is not the unique imagery provider and there are other alternatives like Bing or Yahoo imagery, but the question is: where can I found real open imagery I can use for commercial applications and not limited by their usage?

I think the most famous open source alternative is OpenStreetMap. Their data is maintained by the community, anybody can add data or improve it. It demonstrates its quality and usefulness in the Haiti disaster because their information was more accurate than any other provider.

In addition, some time ago there was a similar project called OpenAerialMap, currently discontinued, that tries to create something similar than OpenStreetMap but with aerial images. The problem in this case is that obtain aerial data isn’t as easy as get vector data with a GPS. If you have a plane and a good camera and want to share your imagery then contact with OpenAerialMap author.

Finally, I would like to mention one more service provider. Yes it is not completely open source, but it is close. CloudMade (yes the creators of Leaflet and other free tools) is a company based on OpenStreetMap data. Among other great tools they allow to configure the style of the tiles you can later add to your map in a similar way Google Style Maps doesn but they do some year before Google.


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10 Responses

  1. Brian May November 15, 2011 / 17:21

    OpenAerialMap is being revived, but it is not intended to be a free tile service. Its intention is to catalog available imagery and provide references to imagery stored on various servers around the world. This link further explains the latest –

    MapQuest is providing a free and “open” (review their terms) OSM tile service and aerial tile service. In the US, the aerials are based on the NAIP imagery. I’m not sure what is going on outside the US with their imagery tiles. More info here:

    OpenLayers is awesome, but it can be difficult to get your head around it. There is a great intro book called OpenLayers 2.10 Beginner’s Guide by Erik Hazzard that will save you a tremendous amount of time learning OpenLayers. I bought and read it and its helped me a lot and I’ve been using the API for a few years. Link to book:

    And finally, OpenStreetMap is the wave of the future, but it needs more contributors, especially people who are dedicated to spending a good bit of time editing streets, POIs, hydrography, land use areas, etc. When you get a decent number of people who make large contributions for a given area, the map quickly becomes better than anything else out there and mapping progress snowballs. Its really exciting to see the maps come to life. Metro areas in Europe are the best examples of major progress, but many metro areas in the US are looking good now as well. There’s a couple good books on OpenStreetMap to help jump-start those interested in diving in headfirst to OSM and there’s more and more online materials being developed as time goes on. A couple links:

    I bought the book by Frederik Ramm, and that helped a lot when learning more advanced editing techniques for OSM.

  2. Ed November 23, 2011 / 18:41

    It’s worth also mentioning

    A simple library that allows you to write code once and then switch map libraries.

  3. Andrew Turner November 23, 2011 / 18:44

    And make sure to check out Mapstraction. It’s a Javascript wrapper for all the major map libraries (including those above) that insulates developers from TOS and functionality changes.

  4. Steve February 11, 2012 / 18:05

    This article may help provide a nice summary of googles capabilities.

    One thing i would consider is that open layers is merely a RIA control for delivering data that your need to provide. Open layers is a great maps control with massive amounts of functionality but when selecting open layers your not getting may google maps services that provide data such as:
    1. base mapping data
    2. Routing
    3. Geocoding
    4. places Checkin
    5. Elevation

    For most application uses the key services that google offers that are very valuable are the base mapping data and geocoding (turn an address/place into an x,y – think how do i find a location on the map).

  5. asantiago February 11, 2012 / 19:54

    Great comments !!!
    Thanks to everybody

  6. aplicaciones android July 2, 2012 / 13:17

    It’s actually a great and helpful piece of info. I’m satisfied that you simply shared this useful info with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Alex Davies-Moore December 12, 2012 / 10:12

    Bit late to the party, but also worth mentioning Modest Maps and for anyone interested in a bit of quick prototype styling TileMill…

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