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Comparing Tools for Mapping Postcode Data

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Business decisions often require the mapping of postcode data. For instance, businesses might want to analyze sales trends like purchasing patterns and the geographical distribution of customers, target marketing campaigns in different regions, or know where a new store or warehouse will be opened.

Whatever the use case, you need two things to do a good job of mapping postcode data: high-quality, up-to-date, geolocalized postcode data and a tool that lets you visualize that data on a map interface.

This article discusses the pros and cons of six tools and libraries that are frequently used for mapping postcode data. It discusses each by considering its licensing options, popularity, customizability, user and developer experiences, user interface (UI), integration capabilities, and API services.

The article concludes by comparing the tools and what they are best used for and provides some tips to ensure you work with the highest quality postcode data, which is something that cannot be guaranteed by built-in geocoding services offered by these tools.

ArcGIS

ArcGIS is a popular mapping and geographic information system (GIS) software developed by Esri. The software boasts a powerful and user-friendly UI to meet the needs of different users and organizations. It includes a map viewer, editing tools, management tools, and a 3-D viewer and analysis tool.

Screenshot of ArcMap

Furthermore, it offers extensive customizability through various add-ons that let you manipulate and analyze maps, automate workflows, and create custom scripts using Python or other programming languages. It also supports integration with other data stores, cloud services, and business applications such as SAP, Microsoft, Adobe, and Autodesk.

Esri offers a variety of licenses for each of its products. For example, the ArcGIS Desktop license provides access to the full suite of ArcGIS Desktop products, which include ArcMap, ArcCatalog, and ArcGIS Pro. Other license options include ArcGIS Online, for their cloud-based online platform, and ArcGIS Enterprise, which includes components intended for organizations that require a self-hosted solution for scalability, security, and control. Esri also offers ArcGIS developer licenses that allow developers to build custom ArcGIS applications. ArcGIS provides users with a 21-day free trial or a free public account for limited access to ArcGIS Online. Access to advanced services and platforms starts at $100/year for online viewer subscriptions and reaches $90,000/year with ArcGIS Enterprise on Kubernetes. It takes time to discover and master the ArcGIS solutions. There are however great resources to learn about Esri’s product. ArcGIS and its API are well-documented, with extensive community support and a wide range of functionalities.

ArcGIS is a robust and feature-rich GIS software with extensive customization and integration options, as well as an excellent UI and developer services. Used by millions of users across a range of industries and organizations, it is widely considered to be one of the leading GIS tools. However, its pricing may make it a poor fit for smaller organizations or budget-conscious teams, especially for simple mapping tasks.

QGIS

QGIS is free, open-source software that offers mapping and GIS services with high levels of flexibility and customization. Its various plugins let you tailor the software to your needs and create custom scripts in Python or other programming languages. You can also customize the layout of your project by creating your own styles and symbols.

Screenshot of QGIS

QGIS can integrate with other GIS software such as GRASS GIS, MapInfo, and ArcGIS.

The QGIS UI is friendly and intuitive. It provides easy access to a variety of tools and plugins to manipulate, analyze, and visualize geodata. Also, QGIS features well-documented APIs and an active developer community that supports users and contributes to the development of the software through free access to the source code.

However, QGIS has a steep learning curve for inexperienced users and limited mobile support. In addition, QGIS 3D analysis tool is not as advanced as the one provided by other tools like the ArcGIS Pro license. Remote sensing capabilities, such as image classification, are available through plugins such as Orfeo Toolbox and GRASS.

QGIS is licensed under the GNU General Public License, which allows users free, full access.

QGIS is powerful and customizable GIS software that provides rich integration options and a user-friendly interface. Its free license and active developer community make it a popular choice. However, for applications requiring advanced analysis tools and highly specialized functionalities such as 3D analysis, other GIS software options provide more advanced solutions.

Mapbox

Unlike ArcGIS and QGIS, which are primarily end-user tools for detailed mapping and analysis, Mapbox is a cloud-based mapping platform that offers a range of solutions for creating and customizing maps, integrating them into websites and mobile applications, and providing APIs for developers to access its tools and services. It also provides a dedicated software development kit (SDK) that empowers developers to build customized applications.

Screenshot of Mapbox

Mapbox is characterized by its visually appealing style and UI. It provides a range of APIs and SDKs for developers, including the Maps Service APIs, the Geocoding API, the Directions API, and the Optimization API. Developers can use Mapbox to access a variety of tools and services, including location-based services for web, mobile, and AR/VR applications. It supports several programming languages, including R and Python, but it requires an Internet connection to have full access to its features and services.

The platform does have a steep learning curve. It can also be expensive compared to other mapping solutions because it charges based on a few factors, such as the number of API calls, the size of the data served, and the level of customization required. Depending on your usage requirements, pricing based on usage might make this a more expensive solution.

Mapbox offers four license types: Developer (free), Essential ($50/month), Business ($500/month), and Custom.

Mapbox is a powerful cloud-based mapping platform with a range of customization options and integration possibilities. It provides a visually appealing and user-friendly UI and a variety of APIs for developers to access its tools and services, but it has a steep learning curve. Depending on your usage requirements, it may also be more expensive than other options.

CARTO

CARTO is a cloud-based mapping platform with various customization options, integration capabilities, and APIs for developers to access its tools and services.

Screenshot of CARTO builder

CARTO’s extensive customization options include the ability to create custom map layers, markers, widgets, and interactivity. It integrates with leading cloud-based data and analytical tools such as Databricks, Snowflake, Google BigQuery, and Amazon Redshift. Users can also load data from various GIS applications and databases such as ArcGIS and QGIS.

CARTO’s user-friendly interface provides extensive mapping capabilities and flexibility, and it offers various UI elements to build CARTO for React applications. The platform provides three types of API keys:

  • A default public key is issued upon account creation and provides read-only access to APIs and datasets. This key is suitable when working with public postcode data that does not require extensive customization or advanced functionality.
  • A master API key grants access to all APIs and datasets, as well as most of the Auth API endpoints. Each user has only one non-revocable Master API Key, which should be kept confidential and used sparingly. The master API key gives users full access to their account, and it can perform any operation, including data manipulation, map creation, and configuration changes.
  • A regular API key can be created using the master API key. It allows developers to interact with the data, perform spatial analysis, and customize map visualizations while maintaining access privileges. It can also be used to embed interactive maps in external applications.

The platform requires technical expertise to fully utilize its features. It may also be pricey compared to other platforms, depending on the amount of storage you need, how many maps and analyses you run, and the level of technical support you require. Additionally, CARTO has limited editing capabilities.

The platform provides a free fourteen-day trial, and paid subscriptions start at $199 per month for an individual license.

CARTO is a powerful cloud-based mapping platform with a range of customization and integration options. It provides a user-friendly interface, extensive mapping capabilities, and APIs for developers to access its tools and services. However, it requires technical expertise to use, and some features might be cost-prohibitive for some businesses.

Tableau

Tableau is a data visualization and business intelligence platform that offers a range of customization and integration options that can be used to create charts, graphs, maps, dashboards, and stories for visualizing and analyzing data.

Screenshot of Tableau workbook

Tableau’s mapping services are highly customizable. They allow users to import or customize base maps and change the appearance of maps by adjusting the color scheme, style, size, and shape of map elements.

The software can integrate with multiple other tools and databases, cloud platforms, and GIS software, such as Hadoop, Spark, Microsoft Azure, AWS, GCP, ArcGIS, and QGIS. It also provides two main APIs—the Tableau REST API and the Tableau JavaScript API—that let developers programmatically access a variety of tools and services.

Tableau offers a user-friendly and intuitive drag-and-drop UI, allowing for easy navigation between data sources, worksheets, and dashboards and providing a wide range of formatting and styling options for visualizations. Its UI lets even non-technical users create data-driven reports and visualizations.

Tableau is easy to use, and users love its ability to support complex data analysis and visualization tasks. However, it lacks advanced mapping applications offered by other GIS mapping software such as 3D mapping, spatial clustering, interpolation, and network analysis.

Unlike GIS mapping software that allows users to customize map appearance, add custom layers, and modify behavior, Tableau offers limited customization options. Moreover, some users have also reported poor after-sales support.

Tableau is available as a web-based platform with a free fourteen-day trial. For individuals, the Tableau Creator license, priced at $70 per user per month, gives you full access to Tableau’s powerful data visualization and exploration tools. There are also cheaper licenses for users who only need to explore or view data.

Tableau is a powerful data visualization and business intelligence platform with a range of customization and integration options. It has a user-friendly UI and APIs for developers, but it lacks the advanced mapping applications offered by other GIS mapping software.

Leaflet

Leaflet is a free and open-source JavaScript library for creating web-based maps. Developers can use its variety of plugins to easily customize maps, edit markers, create pop-ups, and control a map’s interactivity. Unlike other SDK applications like Mapbox, Leaflet does not have a graphical user interface and instead relies on coding. 

Display the Leaflet map through R code

Leaflet integrates with various software (such as ArcGIS and QGIS), databases (such as PostgreSQL, MySQL, and MongoDB), web frameworks (such as Django, Ruby, and Flask), programming languages (such as Python and R), and third-party APIs (such as Google Maps, Bing Maps, and OSM). In the context of mapping postcode data, you’d likely use Leaflet’s wide range of integration options to enrich your postcode mapping application with additional functionalities and data sets.

Leaflet is licensed under the BSD 2-Clause License, which allows free use. The library comes with a well-documented API that has an extensive community of developers contributing to its plugins and resources. This licensing condition is particularly advantageous for working on postcode projects, as it provides you with the flexibility to incorporate Leaflet into your applications without any significant legal or financial hurdles.

There are, however, some drawbacks to Leaflet, including the fact that it does not offer a GUI, meaning that it requires coding, which can be challenging for those with little or no technical knowledge. Leaflet renders maps using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript without relying on hardware acceleration. This method offers a higher degree of control over the map’s behavior and styling, but when it comes to large data sets or complex animations, it can be slower and less performant.

Leaflet is a popular, versatile, and open-source JavaScript library for creating web-based maps, with a wide range of integration options, making it a great choice for developers working on postcode mapping applications. Leaflet’s lack of a GUI can be challenging for non-technical users, and it may not be the preferred choice for handling large data sets or complex animations. However, many developers of all skill levels consider it a powerful library for creating interactive web maps.

Comparison of Tools

In summary, let’s consider how these six tools compare and what they’re best suited for. All can:

  • display custom geographical data (e.g., points or polygons representing the centroid or areas covered by postal codes)
  • ingest a wide range of input data formats (e.g., geoJSON, shapefile, PostGIS connection, etc.).
Benefits of the mapping tools

They mainly differ in what you can do with the data afterward, in terms of geographical analysis and map-sharing possibilities. ArcGIS and QGIS are advanced GIS software solutions that offer a wide range of features and customization options. While they are perfectly capable of displaying simple maps, they’re both popular choices among analysts who require more advanced Geo computational tools.

They offer a range of plugins, including some to publish web maps, but their primary map-sharing methods rely on their own projects and platforms (e.g., ArcGIS Enterprise and Cloud servers).

QGIS is free and open source so a relevant choice for simple operations. Tableau and Carto are powerful Business Intelligence tools, which are great for building dashboards. Carto is much more advanced in the geographical aspects and allows the creation of insightful geography-powered reports without GIS expertise needs.

Tableau can be a relevant choice though if your use cases are simple with respect to geography (e.g., mapping your revenue per postal code) or if your organization is already using Tableau. Here again, the most natural ways to share your maps are within the solution’s collaborative platforms, which can then be embedded into websites.

Carto is particularly strong in that aspect, with convenient embedding features. In contrast, Mapbox is a cloud-based mapping platform that is great for displaying multiple geographical layers, styling them, and embedding the resulting map into an interactive website. It also offers some GIS analysis capabilities.

Finally, Leaflet is a versatile open-source JavaScript library that does not provide a graphical user interface but allows the creation of interactive web-based maps. It works great for displaying simple geographical data, and you have full control over everything on your webpage. On the other hand, it needs to be coupled with other tools and skills (e.g., php, PostgreSQL/PostGIS) to perform geographical analyses.

Using Accurate Postcode Data for Your Analysis

No matter which tool best serves your use case, your analysis will only be as good as the quality of your data. Making sure you use accurate geocoded postcode data for your analysis is as important as choosing the right tool.

Since postal data can change frequently, you want to be sure that you use an accurate and current source. You also want to make sure that your data has the coverage needed for your use case. If your business has an international footprint, using data from several sources can result in gaps and inaccuracies.

This is where GeoPostcodes can help. With more than ten years of experience in postal data processing, we offer the most comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date geocoded postcode data. This is something that cannot be guaranteed by built-in geocoding services offered by ArcGIS, QGIS, Carto, and Mapbox.

Screenshot of GeoPostcodes postal map

If you’re not sure about the quality of your data, reach out to us or browse our data for free. If you’d like to learn how to do the geocoding yourself, check out our tutorial.

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