Making Maps Is Easy Using These Free Tools

Jeff Reichman on in Maps

Making maps is a great way to visualize data. Building them is easier than ever. In the past, you had to have enterprise software licenses and a lot of GIS knowledge.

But if you’re just getting started with making maps, you probably don’t want to shell out thousands of dollars for software. Maybe you’re at a hackathon and you just want to build something cool.

Good news: there are a lot of really powerful tools available for free. You’ll face some limitations, but at least you’ll be able to get data onto a map without much trouble.

There are a lot of choices. The right tool for you depends on what you want to show, how you want to show it, and the type of user interface you prefer.

What follows is a long list of free tools designed to cover a lot of ground, whether you have a carefully planned dataset, you just want to drop some pins on a map, and everything in between. We checked to make sure all of these links are available for free, or they offer a substantial free trial.

Prepping & Hosting Your Data

After deciding to make a map, the first thing you need to do is get your data together.

You’ll encounter a whole new set of data formats. In order to edit those files, you’ll need a GIS editor. If you don’t want to get an ESRI license, consider qGIS as an alternative. This free, open source software gives you the ability to create features on a map and save it in a standard format.

But what about serving this data? After you create a dataset, it needs to live somewhere. If you need to host your map data, consider using ESRI’s free ArcGIS Online map service. You’ll be able to create a hosted feature service for your mapping application.

Here’s a rundown of free tools you can use to prep your data for making maps:

  • qGIS. Create and edit files containing spatial data.
  • ArcGIS Online. Turn spatial files into published services to feed into your map software.
  • Sublime Text. Edit json and csv files with proper syntax alerts.
  • Google Sheets. Edit csv files with proper cell alignment.
  • Tools for Google Maps. Quickly find lat/long coordinates (Chrome plugin).
Making maps with Mapfig

Mapfig provides a clean and simple UI for drawing polygons and adding metadata.

Draw Your Own Map

Maybe you don’t have any data. You just want to play around, draw some polygons, and drop some points. Beware: this functionality usually comes at a cost. But if you’re at a hackathon and just need to get a map online, here are the WYSIWYGs of the map world:

Turnkey Solutions for Making Maps

Sometimes all you want to do is upload an Excel spreadsheet and have a piece of software automagically make a map. If you don’t want to dig into the details about how maps get made, these are the tools for you. With these packages, there are definitely limitations, so proceed with caution.

Template-driven solutions:

  • ArcGIS Online templates. With ESRI’s ArcGIS Online service, you can upload data, create feature services, and feed them into one of dozens of map templates. For simpler maps, this is about as turnkey as it gets.
  • CartoDB. Elegant end-to-end software for making maps. Free version provides advanced functionality, but no privacy.
  • Google Fusion Tables. If you love Google Maps but hate APIs, Google Fusion Tables allows you to create a map from a Google Sheet.
  • Mapbox.js. Stunning templates for professional looking maps.
  • StoryMap JS. A Knight Labs project, this mapping platform allows you to associate points with pictures.

Upload a spreadsheet, create a map:

  • Zeemaps. Create maps by uploading lists.
  • Batchgeo. Drag-and-drop tool for uploading spreadsheets and turning them into maps.
  • Map a List. A wizard for creating Google maps of address lists.

Advanced Map Making

Maybe you need something a little more powerful? Here’s a list of more advanced

  • Mapstraction. A single, common interface for a variety of javascript mapping APIs.
  • CMV (Common Map Viewer). Actively developed open source tool with great spatial search features.
  • Leaflet.js. Javascript library for making beautiful desktop and mobile apps.
  • Map glyphs. CSS map font.
  • jVectorMap. Javascript library for interactive maps.
  • Polymaps. Javascript library for image and vector maps using SVG.
  • DataMaps. SVG map visualizations.
  • Kartograph. Creative interactive vector maps.

map making overlay from maptiler

Maptiler overlay on Google Maps.

Thinking Beyond Traditional Maps

Maptiler is a Google Maps overlay allows you to scan and upload your custom map, providing a customized experience inside of Google Maps. This is perfect for schools, corporate campuses, events, and festivals where traditional maps are limited.

Are we missing something?

If you know of a modern, free, awesome mapping resource, let us know!

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About the Author

Jeff Reichman

Jeff is passionate about using data to make better decisions and reveal new insights. He founded January Advisors and Sketch City, and serves on the board of the League of Women Voters of the Houston Area. Read his full bio on LinkedIn.