Web Mapping
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by The Google Map Makerpedia team

In Short

Learn the history and applications of web mapping.


Web mapping involves the design, creation, and distribution of maps using the world wide web. The technology that enables web mapping was first introduced in 1993, with the advent of dynamically generated content and functionality allowing hyperlinked images. The use of the web as a medium for mapping is a major breakthrough in cartography. The web medium allows for more frequent, cheaper, and efficient updates of data, personalized map content and facilitates the sharing of geographic information. Before web mapping cartography as an activity was restricted to a few companies and organizations and required expensive tools and skilled labor. The widespread availability of online mapping tools and geodata have enabled a greater number of people to produce maps.

Web Maps

The primary distinction between web map types is between static and dynamic maps. While the first web maps were primarily static due to technical restrictions, today's web maps can be fully interactive and often integrate multiple forms of media. Static web maps are fixed images and non-interactive. These maps are similar to paper maps and may not be optimized for screen viewing. Dynamic maps are created on demand each time a webpage is accessed, usually from information stored in a database.  They are often interactive, allowing users to change parameters such as zoom and the area of view.

Broader categories of web maps include the following:  

Collaborative web maps rely upon content creation by a large number of users. Examples include OpenStreetMap and Google Map Maker.

Customizable web maps are designed  to be modified or added to and used in others people's web pages. Examples include the Open Layers Framework and Google Maps.

Distributed web maps are created from multiple independent data sources.

Personalized web maps allow users to filter map data and select the content to be displayed.

Realtime maps display time-dependent information on demand. Examples are weather maps and traffic maps.


Interactive maps have been one of the most significant and practical uses of the internet, and the development of web mapping closely mirrors the development of the world wide web.   In 1993 Xerox PARC released the first web mapping service, the Xerox PARC Map Viewer, which enabled other people to create sites that combined their own content with others' base maps.  

In the following years other mapping services began to appear which allowed for this activity, known as mashups. Among the notable early services was  TIGER Mapping Service, which was created by the Census Bureau. In 1995 ForNet at the University of Minnesota was launched, which incorporated the first widely-used, free, open-source web mapping software.

MapQuest, the first commercial online map service, was released in 1996.  Terraserver, a popular web map service by the USGS, Microsoft, and HP using aerial images and USGS graphics, was released in this period as well.  

The early 2000s marked the introduction of OpenStreetMap, a web-based collaborative project to create a world map under free licence, and in 2005 Google Maps was introduced, allowing  the easily integration of map services into existing websites.  

Benefits of Web Maps

Web mapping has a number of advantages over traditional mapping forms.  These include:

Affordability-  Web server hardware and tools for producing web maps are either relatively inexpensive or free.  Products can be distributed and reproduced either at no cost or at very limited expense.

Collaboration- Web maps enable greater collaboration between users. Google Earth is an example of a collaborative tool, allowing various users to share and disseminate information.

Integration- It is possible to integrate other forms of media, such as photos, into web maps.

Real time information-  Web maps can easily deliver timely information and update as new information is available.


Lesson:  Differentiating between map types

Objective: Be able to find and identify different types of web maps

Group Size: individual

Materials: computer, internet


1.  Go to www.google.com

2.  Search for at least ten mapping sites.

3.  Mark the name, address, and type for each site (collaborative; customizable; distributed; interactive; personalized; real time).  Determine which category of site is the most popular.  Note that some sites may fit into more than one category.

Assessment: Students are to submit a table of information, containing site names, types, and a tally of which type of site is the most popular.


Cartography refers to the practice of making maps.

Dynamic Maps allow users to see multiple forms of data in a single map, enabling them to better understand the interaction between data types.

GIS, short for Geographic Information System, is an electronic system used to store, retrieve, and archive map data.

Static Maps are non-changing, non-interactive images.

More Info / References

Kraak, M.J. (2001) Web maps and atlases. In: Webcartography : developments and prospects / M.J. Kraak and A. Brown (eds.) London etc. : Taylor and Francis, 2001.