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The Geospatial Landscape


A wide variety of different geospatial tools are currently available, ranging from simple web viewers to complex and sophisticated analysis systems. This page describes where Microsoft MapPoint fits in this landscape of geospatial applications.

Although the boundaries are not very well defined, modern geospatial applications tend to come in one of three categories:

  1. Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Sophisticated, complex, and very powerful analysis tools.
  2. Web based systems. These are typically viewers, and rarely have the interactive capabilities of a desktop system.
  3. Smaller desktop systems. Lower cost and easier to use than a GIS, these tend to do a small number of things very well.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

When people think of computers and geography, they usually think of a GIS (Geographic Information System). A GIS is a complete system that combines cartography, statistical analysis, and computer science; and is capable of capturing, manipulating, analyzing, managing, and presenting geographical data. For example, a hydrologist might capture their own field observations, combine these with topography and climate data, and then predict flood risks for different areas.

Sample GIS image

A sample GIS image showing multiple layers, including roads and property boundaries, drawn on an ortho-corrected aerial photograph.

A GIS will support virtually all continuous map projections and coordinate systems in general use today, and will also contain a wide range of different analysis tools. It might ship with some base map data, but generally the user has to supply the map data that they wish to use.

A GIS image showing a dataset derived from topography data. This could show fine landscape-derived parameters such as rain, soil type, or fire risk.

GIS systems are very powerful, but they tend to require a higher level of user expertise. They can also be expensive. Although some (e.g. GRASS and Quantum GIS) are open source, typically there will be additional training costs and map data costs.

Web-based Systems

Web-based geospatial applications have become very popular in recent years. These have been led by AJAX products such as Google Maps and Bing Maps, but also include a wide range of open source tool kits and libraries (e.g. OpenLayers, UMN MapServer, and GeoServer). The end result can be a very attractive and responsive application that works on most devices including smartphones and tablets.  A web based system also does not need to have a huge disk to store data maps. However the device does need to be connected to the Internet with at least a moderately fast connection, and this can be a serious limitation when it comes to portability.

Google Maps

Google Map scratchpad demonstrating code to place a pushpin and set the zoom level.

This bandwidth limitation can also limit the quantity of map data that can be displayed. A desktop solution could easily plot >10,000 data points (“pushpins”), but both Google Maps and Bing Maps will slow significantly once you get above a few hundred. There are workarounds to these problems (e.g. rendering the data points as raster tiles on the server), but they limit usability and flexibility. Similarly, web based systems rarely have the powerful geospatial tools found on GIS systems. Instead web based mapping systems are usually map viewers with limited (if any) update capabilities.

Bing Maps

Bing Maps displaying a county-level choropleth map (rendered as a separate raster layer).

Google Maps and Bing Maps both provide tools that make it very easy to produce relatively simple maps, and have APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for more sophisticated applications. Both are free for most non-commercial uses, but have high monthly subscription costs for commercial applications (typically thousands of dollars per month). Open source solutions will invariably require programming skills, but they offer more flexibility and no subscription costs. You do have to provide your own data, though. Free sources tend to be older (e.g. TIGER/Line), or of variable quality (OpenStreetMaps). However, OpenStreetMaps is rather like Wikipedia and has the advantage that if you see an error in the maps, you can easily fix the error yourself.

Most of the online mapping applications will only support one coordinate system and one map projection. If you wish to use non-conventional map projections and/or coordinate systems, you will typically have to use an open source solution such as OpenLayers.

Note: Many of the GIS vendors provide their own web server applications. These represent a half-way house and tend to offer more functionality than Google Maps or Bing Maps, at the expense of greater bandwidth requirements.

Smaller Desktop Systems

Finally we have the smaller desktop mapping applications. These offer many of the facilities of a full GIS but are easier to use and lower cost. They tend to be specialized in their abilities. Included in this category would be navigation packages intended for laptops, e.g. Streets & Trips, and DeLorme Street Atlas. Real time navigation is something which is typically too specialized for most GIS systems.

At the top end of this category, sits Microsoft MapPoint. Microsoft MapPoint supports all of Streets & Trips navigation and map annotation capabilities, but it also adds a range of data mapping (including database and choropleth) options. It also includes an API that enables MapPoint’s capabilities to be extended with custom programming or with third party tools.


MapPoint displaying a choropleth map of states, with sized pie charts for major cities.

As well as being low cost (less than a tenth the price of a typical commercial GIS system), MapPoint also has the advantage that it includes maps and datasets for roads, administrative boundaries, and demographics. It is also a lot easier to use than most GIS systems. However there are disadvantages. MapPoint only supports one coordinate system and one map projection, and its analytical abilities are relatively limited compared to a full GIS. Also, the built-in datasets are “fixed”. You cannot update these without buying a new edition. The exception is the demographic-type data (e.g. shaded area maps): You cannot replace the demographic data, but you can still import and plot your own demographic data, if you wish.

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