Whether you’re finding an address or tracking a food delivery, you’re using mapping software. Its impact on daily life is undeniable.
But the widespread use of maps also makes it challenging to find the tool right for you. There’s so much to choose from.
Do you want to map your upcoming vacation? Accompany business slides with an illuminating visualization? Manage assets, coordinate field work, or run analytics for your company?
These are just a few of the applications of mapping software, and each requires a different tool.
In this blog, we’ll identify what to look for, walk you through the different types of mapping software, and provide several recommendations to jumpstart your search.
Key Question: What Do You Need to Map?
To find the right software, it’s critical to first understand your needs. What are you planning to do with the software?
Do you need to create a map from scratch?
Perhaps you’re looking to create an infographic, a map for a school project, or your own fantasy world. Some mapping software works more like Photoshop – where you can edit, paint, and illustrate a static image or PDF.
- Simple drawing and annotation tools
- A database of ready-made icons and imagery
- Easy import/export
Do you need to map existing data?
Have spreadsheets? A folder full of photos? GIS data? Drone surveys? Blueprints? Other file types that need to be pinned to a map?
Some mapping tools can import and layer existing data, but you’ll need to know which file types they’ll accept. And it’s best to take the software for a test run in a free trial to assess how easy it is to upload your files. You may need to pay an additional fee for more complex datasets.
- Import of your file types
- Bulk file upload
- Rapid export of data into your desired file type
- Intuitive visualization and organization of your data
Do you need to collect field data?
Maps are incredibly valuable to people navigating the real world – whether that’s a construction crew, a team sampling water quality, or a fire department. And in the field, it’s often just as important to collect new data on site conditions as it is to access historical records.
- iOS and Android apps
- Offline mode & automatic data syncing
- Multimedia capture
- Data collection forms
Do you need to annotate satellite imagery or a topographic map?
Instead of creating everything from scratch, you may need an existing map to serve as a reliable basis for your project, reflect real-world conditions, and support boots on the ground.
- Satellite imagery, topography & other preset map layers
- Import of aerial photography
- Simple drawing & annotation tools
- Seamless data sharing
Do you need to collaborate with team members?
Some tools produce a static PDF that grows out-of-date or is easily lost between emails and text messages. Others offer multiple user licenses and promise collaboration but support limited in-app communication.
Brainstorm how your team plans on using the mapping software and identify where data might fall between the cracks. If your workflow depends on email, texts, radio, or some other channel to communicate, efficiency and data integrity are at risk.
- Cloud-based, real-time mapping
- User roles (Creators, Viewers, Admins, etc.)
- In-app communication & notifications (commenting, tagging, linking, etc.)
- Work assignments & progress tracking
Do you need a map accessible by the public?
Interactive maps are common on company or government websites. They may represent store locations or catalog complex demographic information.
While all software can export your map, and you could post this manually on your website, not every tool can support a fully interactive map.
- A “public map” or “interactive map” among the features
- The ability to embed maps on websites
4 Types of Mapping Software
After you answer the above questions, you should have a list of features that you need in your mapping software. But what software is available?
You’ll find most mapping software falls into one of these four categories:
1. Map generators
Best for Presentations
Need to create an infographic? A fantasy map? A historic map? Then you need a map generator like Visme or Inkarnate.
These tools take a static image or template, and make it easy to add statistics, color code areas, write commentary, and draw from a library of icons and imagery. The power of a map generator is clear in the professional presentation and design.
- Produce professional-looking maps with ease
- Design every aspect of your map – traditional “mapmaking”
- Static maps need frequent updating and support limited collaboration
- Creating a map from scratch can be time consuming
2. Online maps
Best for Personal Use & Simple Projects
This is a large category that covers Google My Maps, Google Earth, Mapme, and many others you’ll encounter online. If you need to map locations, annotate satellite imagery, or upload simple file types, you’ll find what you need here.
These tools start with satellite imagery, topography, or another map layer, where you can drop pins, overlay data, draw boundaries, upload files, and add text.
While you don’t have the design freedom of a map generator, you do have a map that’s tied to real-world coordinates.
Ever wanted to take a sharpie to Google Maps? Then these tools are for you.
- Easy-to-use drawing, annotation, and upload tools
- Simple data visualizations
- Limited in the file types, collaboration, or mobility supported
- Not designed with data collection or field work in mind
3. Mobile GIS
Best for Field Work & Mixed Datasets
Mobile Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are similar to the online mapping platforms described above, but are built to support field teams with data collection tools and a mixed dataset. Three features are key: mobility, ease of use, and communication.
A construction crew, for instance, may need to access photos, drone imagery, drawings, work packages, and other documentation as they navigate their jobsite – all in one place. They’ll also need to update the status of assignments, document work, and message team members.
Mobile GIS supports these teams with a context-rich map and real-time communication.
It’s an excellent option for organizations looking to get started in GIS or simply streamline workflows in the field.
Don’t be turned off by the “GIS” in the title – there’s no special training required.
- Intuitive data collection, annotation tools & collaboration
- A context-rich map that incorporates diverse file types (forms, orthomosaics, multimedia, GIS, 3D models, and more)
- Lacks the data analytics possible in Desktop GIS
- Lacks the easy design customization of map generators and online maps
4. Desktop GIS
Best for Data Analytics
Desktop Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are powerful mapping tools used by companies to maintain asset records, document work, and run analytics.
Large organizations maintain both a complex Desktop GIS that’s run by specialists in the office and a simpler Mobile GIS used by field teams.
- Detailed, multi-layered maps that can represent assets, field work, weather data, and much, much more
- Advanced data manipulation, analytics, and modeling
- Requires specialized training to install, maintain, and operate
- Often too expensive for individuals or small teams
Mapping Software Worth Trying Out
To get you started, we’ve assembled a list of online map makers. You’ll likely find what you need in one of the tools listed below.
My Maps by Google (Online Map)
Best for Simple Points, Shapes & Labeling
Visme (Map Generator)
Best for Infographics & Presentations
Mapme (Online Map)
Best for Interactive Maps
Zeemaps (Online Map)
Best for Large Datasets
Scribble Maps (Online Map)
Best for Software Developers & Programmers
OnePlace (Mobile GIS)
Best for Mixed Datasets, Field Work & Collaboration
Why Everyone’s Making Maps Online
There’s a reason you’re looking for mapping software: Maps offer an intuitive way to visualize information. They make sense to people.
We’ve been using maps for thousands of years
In fact, the first documented map is a cave drawing dated between 6100 and 6300 BC. The drawing represents a volcano and nearby village.
A painting in a cave may be a far cry from Google Maps, but this discovery and other ancient world maps underscore two key points:
1. Maps have always been an effective way to communicate complex information.
2. Maps are the simplest way to present information about the physical world and our relation to it – which is fundamental to much of our daily lives and work.
Ultimately, maps can unlock a critical aspect of our data: real-world context. Now more than ever, there are countless opportunities to take advantage of this context.
Today, digital maps are everywhere you look
Almost everyone has used Google Maps, Apple Maps, or another map app at least once – if not every day while navigating traffic or looking up a business.
Plus, most people don’t give a second thought to tracking a package or food delivery on a map. And that’s only scratching the surface. Ever played Pokemon Go? Or Minecraft?
Maps are common in travel planning, tourism, games, science, history, news, and more.
Increasingly, companies are turning to mapping to support planning and streamline work.
Mapping has transformed business and industry
Today’s cartography tools have taken mapmaking to new heights. There are five key advancements worth noting:
1. Aerial photography (e.g., drones)
2. Sensors (e.g., LiDAR)
3. Global Positioning System (GPS)
4. Satellite imagery
5. Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
Examine these technologies in more detail in Modern Cartography - History, Tools & Applications.
You may have seen a drone whiz by in a park, explored satellite imagery in Google Earth before, or seen your mobile device on a map using GPS, but fewer people are familiar with GIS – a critical tool for businesses that do work out in the real world.
GIS is robust mapping software that enables people to pin detailed information about work or assets, layer important contextual data, and analyze key patterns and relationships. A simple way to think about it is like Google Earth on steroids.
What does this look like?
Consider a utility. They need to maintain thousands of miles of power lines and pipelines – and they need a way to visualize this infrastructure in order to assign work, plan for the future, and respond to emergencies. Ultimately, they need GIS.
Take a deep dive and see how GIS has transformed key industries in our blogs on utilities, oil & gas, construction, urban planning, and telecom.
Depending on your project, you’ll find that the mapping tools, process, and end product will look very different. After all, Pokemon Go, Google Earth, and GIS all include maps, but they have very different applications.
Conclusion: How to Get Started Mapping
If you’re still unsure which mapping software to use after reading this guide, there’s only one way you can find out: a free trial!
Most products offer free trials, so you can explore the software interface and features.
Spending five or ten minutes digging into a mapping tool will not only cross off an option from your list but help you understand what you need in the first place.