Google Maps Introduces Data-Driven Styling, the Cumbersome and Inaccurate Way to Make a Map

The Google Maps API was never an obvious choice for building advanced cartographic data products. It was always something local businesses use to put a map on their website showing where their shops are located.

Google Maps has now introduced data-driven styling, addressing a new audience outside local businesses. Data-driven styling of Google-maintained administrative boundaries that is. Google maintains and provides a data set of boundaries at varying administrative levels and allows developers to join their thematic data to create choropleth maps.

Looking at the documentation, linking your own data to Google’s boundaries dataset isn’t straightforward. To match the records from your dataset to the features from Google’s boundary dataset, you need to find the corresponding place ID from the Region Lookup API. If you have a hundred records, you need to do a hundred location lookups via the API before your map can be fully rendered. Unless you’re already keeping Google’s place ID in your data, which we all do, don’t we?

What’s the point of this approach is over loading and styling a GeoJSON layer, which has been supported by the Google Maps API before? Sure, you don’t have to maintain an administrative-boundaries dataset. But if the geometry and thematic data come from different sources, can we be sure that both represent the same underlying geographic area. Does this number of Covid cases aggregated by council assume precisely the same boundaries Google provides? We can’t know for sure, and the resulting maps might be unintentional lies.

And obvious use cases for maps based on administrative boundaries include election data, demographic information, or the number of COVID cases within a council. The people producing such data sets will likely maintain or have access to official and accurate boundary data sets. They have no reason to use Google Maps.

Google Maps data-driven styling isn’t a well-designed API of a product that solves a real problem. It’s a marketing stunt.