Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved maps. Maybe I’m a little travel deprived, or maybe it’s from reading too much National Geographic, but I could spend hours pouring over them. Google Maps now lets us all take our map fascination to the next level: over the past few years they’ve given us multiple views, fantastic (and sometimes astonishing) detail, driving directions, and even the ability to create custom content. This last feature let us build a cool mashup for the National Parks Conservation Association, resulting in a visualization of places where development threatens our national parks.

There are two ways to create custom Google maps. The first and most common is using the API, a code library released by Google that allows anyone who knows a little code to build their own map, with a high degree of customization. The catch is the code; if you don’t know Javascript, the API is pretty much off limits. But don’t despair! Google also offers a user-friendly My Maps interface. All you need is a free Google account, and you can create maps with placemarks, paths, and text bubbles. You add content through the click-and-drag interface. You can even insert pictures, if you upload them to a web photo service. My Maps is the interface we chose for creating maps for NPCA, due to the speed and ease of adding elements.

Available tools in My Maps

My Maps has some nice features: The markers and shapes are customizable to a degree, with a number of color and image options for markers, and variable colors and transparency for the shapes. You place markers right on the map with a click-and-drag interface, which makes it easy to mark any place you can see on the map, without needing to know its coordinates. (This functionality is ideal for making a map of your favorite restaurants, but less so for a larger scale GIS application.) You can name your markers and add text or html descriptions, just like in the API, and the interface shows a list of all your markers next to your map.

List of custom map elements in My Maps

One feature with great (and thus far, I think, untapped) potential is the ability to share maps between people. You can choose not only whether to make your map public, but whether to allow others to collaborate on it. You can specify users with editing privileges (by sending email invitations), allow them to invite others, or even open it up for anyone to edit. I can imagine some very cool applications for this sharing. It could be used on a personal scale – imagine planning a trip with friends and having a map where you can each add your own suggested destinations, hotels, and restaurants, all with links and notes. Or, because it is so non-technical, and because it’s hosted for free by Google, it could be a perfect tool for organizations to encourage user interaction, especially small non-profits that lack the budget to build more involved tools.

The main benefit of My Maps is still its ease of use. Most of its functionality can easily be duplicated using the API. The API gives more options for customizing the appearance of map elements, especially markers and text bubbles. One irritating feature of My Maps is that it adds a “get directions” link at the bottom of each text bubble, and also lists the username and time stamp associated with the last edit. These additions could be useful, but where space is at a premium, it would be nice to have the option to disable them (they do not appear when using the API). And, of course, My Maps lacks the flexibility of the API; some very neat and involved mashups have been created with the Google Maps API, but if you want My Maps to, say, pull information from a database, you’re basically out of luck. There are other benefits to hand-coding your maps, such as reusable content; if a piece of information changes on your My Map, you need to click on each affected marker and manually change the text. If you’re using the API, all it takes is a quick search-replace. So, while it could be faster to do the initial map creation in My Maps, using the API will ultimately save time if there are many edits further down the line.

For large applications, the API is still the way to go. However, for quick-and-dirty maps to create a visual reaction, or for the DIY non-programmer, My Maps lets you get at a lot of the Google Maps functionality, without needing to know any code.