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Google Maps Restricts Its API, Government Collectively Shrugs

The changes will make it more difficult for people to make custom maps using Google's software, but it doesn't appear likely to mean much to state and local government.

On July 16, Google Maps is going to make it more difficult and expensive to use its API, which could make custom maps that rely on the service less sustainable or even unfeasible for the people who made them.

But it doesn’t appear to be likely to have much of an impact on state and local government.

There are two big changes, which will apply to any project that makes calls to the various Google Maps APIs. First, Google Maps is requiring all projects to have an official API key in order to work. If a user doesn’t have a key, the quality of the map will likely be reduced, or it could simply stop working.

Second, API keys will only work if they are attached to somebody’s credit card. Google will charge that card if users exceed a certain number of API requests, which is different for different services. Google will provide users a free $200 credit toward those costs each month.

State and local governments do use Google Maps sometimes, but when it comes to the type of enterprise work they perform, they often spring for paid tools like Esri ArcGIS, Mapbox or Boundless.

A sampling of public-sector officials weighing in on the new Google Maps API terms:

“We use the Google API to provide Street View photos for our myCambridge app, but that's all we really use it for,” wrote Sean Sweeney, a GIS programmer analyst for the city of Cambridge, Mass., in an email. “We don't expect to be anywhere near the $200/month free tier limit, so the only question for us (assuming I'm understanding the issue correctly) is who will volunteer their credit card number to keep our app running.”

“They don't seem to be too restrictive,” Louisville, Ky., Chief Data Officer Michael Schnuerle wrote in an email. “We don't use Google Maps API much in our government so it won't affect us much.”

A spokesperson for the California Department of Technology said the agency wasn't able to comment on the impact.

There are a couple places where the changes might have more of an impact. One is in the civic hacking space, where people often work with government data to create niche projects that aim for low costs, or are free so that as many people as possible can use them.

Another is government workers who aren’t particularly tech-savvy, but have a need to make maps quickly.

"I think that the typical kind of user in government is the same kind of user that generally you'll come across using it, which is somebody who has a need for a map, doesn't really know how to program, doesn't have a budget to pay somebody to make a fancy customized solution, so they just want to make one themselves,” said Derek Eder, founder of the civic tech company DataMade. “So people with titles like ‘policy director.’"

For Eder’s part, the changes mean that a free project he’s run for a long time is suddenly going to be harder for people to use. He describes it as a lightweight, HTML-based template that helps users make customized, searchable maps that are good for laying out local government data. It’s been downloaded tens of thousands of times, and been used for work such as mapping projects in Chicago that have received tax increment financing subsidies.

Eder has offered users an API key for a while, but he’s not going to put a card on the account with no idea of how many people are going to use it and how much he’s going to be charged. So people will have to do that themselves.

"I think that's what scares people a little bit, it certainly scares me, this thought of having this API out there and not knowing how many people are going to use it,” Eder said. “I don't want to suddenly get a bill for $1,000."

Not that everyone with an API key is suddenly going to start getting gigantic bills from Google starting July 16 — it all depends on usage, and in particular which services a project uses. A person can make more API calls if they’re only offering basic data about places in their maps, but they’ll get fewer free calls if they offer contact information or other data for those places.

That makes it a tad complicated to anticipate how much Google Maps users will be paying, or if they’ll be paying anything.

But every new step adds complexity, and Eder thinks even requiring an official API key will dissuade some users who would have otherwise used Google Maps for whatever they were working on.

"It's a step I'm sure will make a lot of people go elsewhere," he said. "A lot of people use Maps for hobby projects."

Eder sees the changes as part of a larger trend away from easy access to free mapping tools. Companies that used to offer free accounts have stopped doing so, and there aren’t as many alternatives to the big players as there used to be. Mapzen, an open source tool that ran on OpenStreetMap, closed up shop earlier this year.

"It's come to this point with online mapping where it feels unfortunately like the party is kind of over," Eder said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.