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05.07.2016

The Brains of a Map: Google Maps APIs

Snap to Roads returns the best-fit road geometry for a given set of GPS coordinates (Source: Screenshot Google Maps) The Geocoding API is the most widely used by our customers. It converts an address into geographic coordinates (Source: Screenshot Google Developer) Turning jittery GPS tracks into smooth paths that follow the road around curves and corner (Source: Google Maps Roads API)

Our last article looked at how companies can use interactive maps. This time, we would like to talk about the “synapses” of these maps – their APIs. Our Google Maps experts David Fricke, Linda Schaumburg, and Philipp Lauser explain which APIs are used most often and why the autocomplete feature can save money for mail-order companies. 

First of all, you are Google Maps API specialists. But just what is an API?

LS: An API is an application programming interface, and interfaces connect applications to a software system. Google Maps APIs offer a wealth of options for making interactive maps tangible and usable. For example, the Google Maps Directions API answers the question of how long a trip from Hamburg to Munich would take by car, and what the best route would be.

How are APIs and maps connected? 

DF: Maps and APIs are closely linked. If you want to show something on a map, APIs are used to make that happen. To put it figuratively, the map is a pizza base and APIs are the various toppings. The map provides a basis on which the APIs can supply answers. They bring the map to life; they are the map’s brain.  

What are the most common APIs?

DF: The Geocoding API is the most widely used by our customers. This API converts an address into geographic coordinates which can be placed on the map as a marker. And of course, it all works in reverse, too. Geocoding is often used to display business locations, employees or work sites on a map. This allows for better calculation and optimization of routes to work, and so on.

LS: The Directions API is another of the most frequently used interfaces, making it possible to obtain directions between two locations, plan routes with up to 100 waypoints and calculate the estimated journey time. As such, this API is used when companies need to plan or optimize routes. To expand on the example of the Geocoding API, if an employee’s location is shown, the Directions API can be used to calculate the shortest or fastest route to the next customer. 

Are there any particularly exciting APIs?

DF: One of my favorites is the Roads API. It determines the road on which a vehicle is driving and provides additional metadata about that road, such as speed limits. It also has the feature Snap to Roads which is used when tracking vehicles. The Roads API allows the route to be compared with the road, which makes it possible to work out what road the vehicle is most likely to have taken. This is significantly more convenient for companies involved in fleet management, as routes are displayed directly with GPS sensor data. Journeys can also be analyzed better and more precisely.

LS: With a database of more than 100 million companies, businesses and other points of interest, I think the Places API is incredibly impressive. Its “search nearby” feature and automatic address completion are helpful too. Everyone knows the benefits of autocomplete when Googling and companies are able to exploit it in B2B and B2C operations. But autocomplete is not just user-friendly because it saves work. It also helps shipping companies to minimize errors in address validation and work more efficiently.  

How are APIs linked together? 

PL: Often, information from one API is supplemented by further APIs and augmented by additional information. A good example of multiple APIs being used is www.wo.de. The website shows relevant information on the current location or a particular destination. There are three APIs working in the background for this – Places, Geocoding and Directions. Another good example is Sun Surveyor, an app which calculates when and where perfect sunlight can be found. This application helps in finding locations for solar panels, for example. Photographers use the app for their work too. The elements integrated here were the Elevation API, Time Zone API, Google Maps SDK for iOS and Google Maps Android API

What is Google currently working on – and what can we look forward to in the future? 

LS: Google is constantly working to improve and update their APIs, so the options available in the Directions and Distance Matrix APIs should increase in future. The Directions API recently had historical traffic data integrated, which gives information about how heavy the traffic is likely to be at a particular time on a given day of the week. This enhancement to the API has been well received. I am curious to see what innovations Google will introduce in the next few years. They are clearly working tirelessly to ensure that they continue to cover customer needs as broadly in the future. 

Learn more about the (free) usage of Google Maps for Work