Magdalena Jackiewicz
Editorial Expert

GIS software development: how to cut map usage costs with OpenStreetMap

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With location-based services marketing growing at a steady rate, Geographic Information System, or simply GIS applications are increasingly becoming a requirement across a number of industries. Founders looking to launch their GIS software will find they have several choices to make on the journey, including the selection of a spatial data provider. There are several options when it comes to geographic information systems providers. We’ve already compared Google Maps, Mapbox and OpenStreetMap for their pros and cons in an earlier article.

In this article, we’d like to present some of the available GIS solutions solely from the pricing perspective. This is indeed an important factor, since pricing models are vastly different across the different providers and your usage bills will vary depending on the provider you choose. We’ll take a look at what Google Maps and Mapbox can offer through their GIS systems and ready-to-use APIs and juxtapose it with an open-source alternative OpenStreetMap.

Let’s start with the tech giant.

Google Maps pricing

Google Maps, one of the most popular API providers for GIS application development, doesn’t really need an introduction. It offers top data quality and it charges for it. The company dramatically increased its pricing back in 2018 - in some cases, by as much as 14 times! At the same time, it offers free tiers that may be a good option for those who look for some basic functionalities and expect rather limited traffic.

Google Maps charges for the usage per every API product. The pricing options are divided into three tiers based on the volume of requests: 0–100,000; 100,001–500,000 and 500,001+. I listed the rates for some of the most common APIs in a table further below. Google’s pricing ranges are among the most expensive on the market.

Although the tech giant certainly provides unmatched quality on the geographical data market (they rely mainly on cars with mapping technologies and aggregated user data), customization options for the APIs offered are rather limited - you will always have to use the default base layer of Google Maps. Mapbox may be a more attractive alternative in this department.

Mapbox pricing

Mapbox was created in 2013. This GIS software rose in popularity specifically after Google increased its pricing for map APIs usage. Apps that are currently powered by Mapbox include Facebook, Pinterest, Shopify, Grubhub, Airbnb and many others.

Similarly to Google Maps, with Mapbox you only pay for the API usage. The provider offers solid free tiers for a limited number of requests per month as well. It offers different pricing options for individual users at four different tiers: 0-1,000, 100,1-50,000, 50,001-100,000, 100,001-200,000 and 200k+. The prices are somewhat less strenuous to the budget than Google’s offering.

Mapbox sources map data from OpenStreetMap, Microsoft Open Maps, Wikidata and other data vendors. The OpenStreetMap layers and features can be customized and added directly in Mapbox Studio. In fact, customization is the greatest strength of Mapbox; developers are free to customize its base layer.

OpenStreetMap pricing

OpenStreetMap was founded in the UK in 2004 when map data sources were controlled by governments and private companies, and thus were expensive. OpenStreetMap, an open source project run mainly by volunteers, was supposed to solve this problem. Unlike Google Maps and Mapbox, which provide map APIs, OpenStreetMap is solely a data pool and is available for free. Google Maps and Mapbox don’t share the map data unless you pay for it. If you’re able to self-host, you may want to look at the free Mapbox-like project that offers ready-to-use vector map packages. With OpenStreetMap, location-based startups don’t have to bear the map usage costs, no matter the volume of requests. However, they will have to custom develop whatever features they want to include in their tool. That will leave them with the infrastructure, development and maintenance bills. Altogether, the costs may be significant.

All in all, opting for a custom-developed solution based on OpenStreetMap will help you cut the costs under the right circumstances. What are they? To arrive at the answer, you should first consider these crucial questions:

What are your GIS software use cases?

If you’re building an application for public transport, navigation, weather visualization, geospatial information processing, map-based business data or any other highly-advanced solution that will involve the processing of large amounts of data, then a custom-developed solution with OpenStreetMap could allow you to significantly cut the usage costs. Building such solutions with paid map APIs is bound to incur hefty bills.

What traffic are you anticipating?

Both Google Maps and Mapbox offer free tiers for low map usage. If you only need to embed a simple map and expect low traffic, this is a perfect option for your business. Startups could certainly benefit from these free tiers, however, they should also consider how they plan to scale in the long run.

What are your custom project design needs?

What custom features do you want to incorporate in your location based application? Perhaps you want to add a custom graphic layout? You won’t be able to create custom designs with Google Maps. Mapbox, on the other hand, offers a lot of different customization options. If you are pressed to include specific features or characteristics that API providers don’t offer, you will have to opt for custom map development. In such cases, OpenStreetMap will be your best option.

What specific functionalities are you looking for?

How complex is the solution you are building? You need to list the specific features you want in your tool and check them against the features offered by API providers. Do you want to include route tracking? Will you need dynamic or non-dynamic data? Do you want to display e.g. the types of vehicles? Complex functionalities will either require customizing what is available or building it from scratch.

How much time do you have at hand?

This is an important question. If your project is time sensitive, you will have to consider whether you actually have time to custom develop the mapping functionalities from scratch. If not, opting for ready-to-use APIs that you can adjust to your needs may be a quicker and better option. Preparation, development and maintenance will take much longer than implementing ready-made APIs from Google Maps or Mapbox. However, you will still have to consider the map usage costs and the benefits of switching to a custom solution a few years down the road.

What geographic data quality do you require?

In comparison to map providers like Google Maps, open source-based solutions like OpenStreetMap and Mapbox will somewhat compromise on the quality of data in use. Remote areas may not be properly covered by open-source spatial data, for example. Is this good enough for you? The lack of systematic quality checks of data in OpenStreetMap may be a disadvantage.

What region are you planning to cover?

If you’re focusing on a specific region, you may want to check on the data quality you intend to get for that specific area. The detailedness of map data will vary across different geographic regions. Geospatial data is prone to errors related to e.g. positional, attribute and temporal accuracy, as well as logical consistency and completeness of data. Some parts of the world aren’t commonly navigated or easily accessible, and that could affect that data quality. OpenStreetMap offers lower coverage than Google Maps and somewhat lower than Mapbox (as it also uses OSM but enriches its data from other sources).

What's your custom development budget?

Your application traffic will be generating the map usage costs, so it’s important to know the expected traffic level. If we’re talking about a relatively low usage, you may be better off with what paid API providers can offer. Consider specifically the free tiers that both Google Maps and Mapbox offer; I have listed in the table right above. With a custom-developed solution, you will only have to cover the development costs once, but these can be significant if you’re building a complex application.

Cutting GIS programming costs with OpenStreetMap

When you’re considering the different map providers for your GIS software development project, opting for an open source solution may be a good alternative to paid API providers like Google Maps or Mapbox, if you’re oriented at cutting the costs stemming from map usage. We built Trans.eu, a logistics platform that handles 30 million requests on a monthly basis, with OpenStreetMap.

To determine whether OpenStreetMap is the right option for your location-based tool, you should first consider the traffic levels you are expecting and planning in the long run, the use cases as well as the features and functionalities to be offered by your GIS solutions.

Smaller applications might be better off using Google Maps or Mapbox APIs. Depending on your needs, you may benefit from promotions, beneficial pricing models or free tiers. Complex GIS solutions with advanced functionalities that require custom development can definitely benefit from OpenStreetMap, as long as you are fine with a somewhat lower data quality.

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