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A quick survey of online map generation options

I have a client who wants to put some maps on his commercial website. I’ve done a bit of looking around, and it’s not clear to me what the best way to do it is. There are really two types of mapping services out there. One depends on URL creation, like MapQuest, MapBlast, Yahoo and Google–you don’t register or do much coding at all, you just create a GET string with the address encoded in it. The other is a web service where you register for a key and use an API to generate a map, like Yahoo, Google and MapPoint. You’ll note that Yahoo and Google appear on both of those lists–that’s because they provide both a URL interface and a more formal API.

Now, even though I am not a lawyer, it seems to me, via looking around at the various Terms Of Service (TOS), that commercial use of any of the URL interfaces is not an option. The Yahoo Maps TOS says

The data included in Yahoo! Maps, including but not limited to maps, routes, and/or directions (“Data”), is provided for your personal use only…

while the MapQuest TOS says

…MapQuest grants you a nonexclusive, non-transferable license to view and print the Materials solely for your own personal non-commercial use.

Google Maps, which has been extensively mashed up with other sorts of data, appears to abide by the general Google TOS which say

The Google Services are made available for your personal, non-commercial use only. You may not use the Google Services to sell a product or service, or to increase traffic to your Web site for commercial reasons, such as advertising sales.

To be fair, you may contact Google about commercial services: [i]f you want to make commercial use of the Google Services, you must enter into an agreement with Google to do so in advance. Updated, 10/30: apparently the maps API is governed by a different TOS, which apparently allows commercial use “as long your site is generally accessible to consumers without charge”. My apologies. I didn’t look at MapBlast too carefully, because it’s built on the MapPoint web service, which has a noncommercial provision.

Luckily, at least for those of us in the United States of America, there are two services provided by the Census Bureau (see, those taxes you’re paying are worth something!) which provide mapping data. As far as I could find, these services have no limits on commercial or non commercial use, but they are a bit hokier than the ones I laid out above. (Here are the Tiger TOS and the general Census position of resale.) The Tiger site was the preferable of the two, because it actually gives you a marker for your location. Of course, you have to geocode your address to find your lat/long, but makes this easy, and even provides instructions on making your own service. The data for Tiger is from 1998, however. If you’re looking for more recent data, FactFinder is worth looking at. It didn’t work for my client because it provided no way to pinpoint a particular address, though it did allow you to recenter on one without geocoding it.

Neither of these provide directions, as far as I could see, so if you’re looking for that, as well as if you want the cooler interfaces of the private sector, you need to look to the web services.

MapPoint, which is a Microsoft service, explicitly denies external commercial use in its TOS:

MapPoint Web Service is for your individual use, solely for internal use by you for your business, or for your own personal use.

Yahoo and Google, however, take a bit more flexible position. For each of these services, according to their TOS, you need to contact them to use the web service they provide in a commercial context. (Yahoo Maps Web Service TOS, and the Google TOS for the web service which is the same as that for the URL interface service.) I have no idea what kind of licensing agreement will emerge from talks with these companies, but, from reading their TOSes, it appears to me that if you want to use their data in a commercial manner, you need to have that conversation.

I’ve covered all the services that provide maps that I know of. Please let me know if there are any that I’ve missed or anything I’ve misinterpreted.