Free online mapping services open up a world of possibilities for your creative, practical and professional projects.
You might not think of mapping as an everyday computing task, but the technology is becoming ubiquitous. Google, Apple and Microsoft each have their own mobile platforms, which draw in geographical data to help us navigate from A to B, geotag our photos and pull in weather reports from the web.
Those basic functions, however, represent only a fraction of the potential on hand. We literally have the world in our pockets – and there are a lot of things we can do with it. The possibilities include creating your own customised maps; navigating and exploring more effectively; and even promoting your business through Street View.
Embed a map in Excel
If you’re putting together a report or presentation that relies on geographical data – such as country populations or vote share in different cities – you can make that data more accessible and visually interesting by plotting it on a map, rather than a boring old graph.
You can do this directly within Excel, but to make it work you have to format your data in precisely the right way. The top row of your data table must contain column headers, to define the data. Below this, the first column must contain only location names, with all other columns being entirely numeric. You can see a sample table above right, showing cities in column A and a statistic of your choice in column B. (We’ve chosen cars, but don’t hold us to the accuracy of the data.)
To plot the data, highlight the table, then switch to the Insert tab on the ribbon and click Maps (if you’re using a Mac this will be labelled “Bing Maps”). The map will be placed on the same sheet as the data, with markers showing how your data sets relate to the map. These markers are dynamically coloured or sized – the behaviour is slightly different depending on whether you’re using Windows or macOS – to represent the data values; clicking them reveals the underlying numbers.
Google Street View is a useful tool for exploring an unfamiliar neighbourhood before you visit. Fascinatingly, you can also use it to track how an area has changed over time. To start, open up Street View in the normal way (we’ll assume you’re using a desktop web browser), by dragging the “peg man” from the toolbar at the bottom of the map onto the location you want to view from street level.
Once the photographic view appears, click the clock icon immediately below the location name at the top of the image. You can then use the slider below the picture to see the same spot at previous points in time, as captured by the Street View car.
Create your own maps
A map is often the best way of conveying information about locations, regions, routes or points of interest. Google makes it easy to add custom elements to its maps, and distribute them across multiple layers so you can easily show or hide specific element groups. Bing isn’t quite so flexible, but also lets you add your own points of interest.
To create a custom Google Map, first log in to your Google account, point your browser at mymaps.google.com and click “Create a New Map”. Centre the map so the region you want to show fills the browser window, then click “Untitled Map” to give your map a name. For clarity, it’s a good idea to do the same with the “Untitled Layer” field, even if you’re not intending to make multiple layers.
Now, use the marker button to add points of interest to the map. When you click to drop a marker you can give it a name and description; by clicking the camera icon, you can also add a photo. Each layer can have up to 2,000 points of interest or shapes, up to a maximum of 10,000 elements across the whole map.
To add a shape, marking out an area, click the line button and select “Add Line or Shape”. Next, click on the map to place the ends of your line, or the corners of your shape. You can also add car, walking or public transport routes from this menu. If you’re adding directions, you can let Google calculate the route for you; this is not only easier, it also means the results may be more accurate and efficient. To do this, click the route button and enter your origin and destination positions.
Custom maps are saved in your Google Drive account. From there, you can grant read-only access to others, or get the code to embed the map on a website by clicking Share in the toolbox in the upper left of the window.
If you’re using Bing Maps, the process is similar. Point your browser at bing.com/maps and log in using your regular Microsoft account credentials. Click My Places in the Maps toolbar, then switch to the Collections toolbar in the My Places box. Click New Collection, and give the collection a name.
Navigate to the location you want to save, and right-click to call up the context menu. Hover over the “Save…” menu and pick the Collection within which you want to save that location from the fly-out list. Picking “Home address” or “Work address” from this list lets you use those definitions when route planning.
Promote your business on Street View
If you work in a beautiful building, or – for example – if you want to promote your picturesque holiday accommodation, you’ll naturally want Google Street View to show off your location to its best advantage. Happily, Google lets you upload your own images: you can capture scenes using a 360-degree camera, such as the Samsung Gear 360 or by taking multiple stills and stitching them together in the Street View app, which is free to download from google.com/streetview/apps. You’ll find more information about uploading images at google.com/streetview/publish.
Professional photographers, travellers and organisations with access to a cultural or notable point of interest can go a step further, thanks to a project called Google Treks. The idea is to combine maps, imagery and interactive displays for a virtual sightseeing experience: you’ll find a small but engaging collection of Treks at google.com/maps/about/treks.
What’s interesting about Treks is that members of the public can apply to borrow one of Google’s professional 360-degree Street View cameras to capture their own content. These are the same backpack-based devices that the company uses to map theme parks and other places where car-based mapping isn’t practical. If you think you might qualify, follow the links from google.com/streetview/trekker for more information. As you’d expect, however, applications are vetted, and Google has final say over who can and can’t contribute.
Tweak suggested routes
A big part of the usefulness of Google and Bing Maps is their ability to plan routes, and guide you to your destination. Sometimes, however, you might want to tweak a route – perhaps you want to visit a particular shop on the way, or avoid a junction that you know has a tendency to back up, even if the traffic was clear at the point when you asked for directions.
One way to achieve this is by adding waypoints – but that’s a pain. A much easier option is to click and hold on the plotted route, and simply drag it to match the path you want to take. Google and Bing are both smart enough to keep your route conforming to the available roads, and will update the predicted travel time to match. (Unfortunately, this feature isn’t available in Apple Maps.)
If your reason for re-routing is to avoid traffic jams that you suspect will appear later, another option is to set a later departure time. In either Google or Bing, click Leave Now below your origin and destination points to select a new time and date; this will recalculate the route to take account of predicted traffic at your specified times. In Google, another option is to pick “Arrive by” and enter your desired time of arrival; Google will then calculate your optimum time of departure, again taking expected road conditions into account.
Several of our tips above are focused on the desktop, but mapping services can be particularly useful when you’re already out and about. The problem is that online maps can’t help if you’re out of coverage, or if you’re using a tablet with no built-in data connection.
The solution, therefore, is to download the appropriate map data ahead of time, so you can use it even if you’re offline. Until quite recently, you’d have needed to buy a third-party mapping app to get this capability, but Google, Bing and Apple all now let you download relevant map sections for browsing offline. Naturally, if you’re using an offline map for navigation, you won’t get live traffic, but GPS doesn’t require a network connection, meaning you can still track your own position.
To install offline data for Google Maps, start by opening the app on Android or iOS and navigate to the area you want to download. Search or pan until you reach the location you want to save for offline viewing, then tap the Download link beneath the search box. You can zoom into and out of the area highlighted within the selection box to define what you want to save, then tap Download.
There’s no Bing Maps app for Android or iOS, but you can download maps to a Windows 10 tablet or laptop. To do this, open Settings, tap System and head to “Offline maps”. Tap the plus sign beside “Download maps”, then select the map part you want to save.
Stay up to date
To keep downloaded maps up to date, scroll down the page and make sure the Map updates switch is set to On. If you have any doubts that it’s working in the future, tap “Check now” to manually compare your downloaded data with the latest upload to the server.
Apple Maps doesn’t have an explicit offline mode, but when you plan a route your directions are cached, in case you lose network coverage along the way. All you need to do, therefore, is plan a route while you have good wireless or mobile data coverage. This does mean that, once you’re in a dead zone, you can’t browse around other map areas, but you can prepare for this eventuality by entering additional waypoints beyond your real destination, so that these areas are cached. You can also save map views as flat PDFs if you’re using Apple Maps on a Mac, and view them in any PDF reader.