Azure Maps keeps growing
Blog|by Mary Branscombe|5 June 2019
The Azure Maps service continues to mature rapidly, catching up with many of the Bing Maps features and adding new tools through SDKs and cloud APIs for enterprises to build location-aware apps, especially ones for managing IoT devices that take advantage of existing digital twins.
Azure Maps already has advanced features like isochrones, heat maps, overlay images (for showing anything from floor plans to drone imagery on a map), matrix routing to generate routes for multiple drivers to multiple jobs, batch routing and batch geocoding. And now the Spatial Operations service for analysing location information in near real-time and making predictions based on that has moved from preview to GA.
Spatial Operations can calculate distances between points (including for drone flights) and show whether a point is inside a set of polygons. That could be a combination of, say, a school catchment area and an isochrone drive time for picking out properties for home buyers, or planning zones and drive times for choosing delivery depot locations.
You can create custom geofence polygons (stored in the new Azure Maps Data Service) and use Azure Event Grid to create notifications when objects enter, leave or move inside a geofenced area. Geofences can set the limits of where a drone or delivery robot can travel or generate alerts when a delivery is about to arrive – or even warnings that a delivery is likely to be late. You can even set the times they’re relevant; site equipment will be in use during the week but if it’s moving around at the weekend or late at night, that might indicate theft or unauthorised usage.
Buffers around locations are useful for safety management (or for allowing flexibility on routes without letting drivers deviate too far); on a construction site, you can mark out any areas that people or machinery should be in. Cranes shouldn’t be parked underneath overhanging wires, for safety – and if that happens accidentally, the whole site might have to shut down for a safety check, so it’s critical to enforce those rules (and to be able to prove they haven’t been broken in the case of an accident).
Azure Maps has been working with Moovit to integrate their data about public transit into the service, to add to the existing traffic services and route planning (which includes options like using HOV lanes, avoid toll roads or planning routes for motorcyclists). That data is going to be available through Azure Maps Mobility Services; that’s a set of APIs that deliver recommended routes for not just buses, trains and ferries but also scooters and bikes and car share options like carpools. The APIs plan routes that mix different modes of transport to get the shortest travel time and avoid traffic; that might involve driving to a train station and renting a bike at the other end, or using a scooter to get to a bus stop in time to make a connection for the train journey home.
Cities and transit operators can use this data to understand coverage areas and where they might need more transit options (or more commuter parking), or when they will need more staff at a station to assist travellers who might miss connections because of delays and need suggestions for other methods of travel. If you’re running retail stores, understanding the transit patterns can help you plan where to place a new store so it’s easy for people to travel to or even schedule staff shifts better. And developers can build apps that show travellers a wider range of options than just taking the train or bus; that’s useful for ‘gig economy’ organisations who may have field staff or contract employees who don’t travel in their own vehicle.
The APIs include real-time data and predictions about bike and scooter docking stations and availability of car share vehicles so they won’t plan you a route if there won’t be a bike or car for you to use when you get to that stage of the journey.
If real-time information is available for buses, trains and other timetabled methods of transit, the APIs can do real-time arrivals for each stop. They can also warn about delays and send alerts about services by line or by stop – so you can find out about upcoming problems for a whole tube line or a specific station.
Drawing on the map
There are more map styles available in Azure Maps; as well as satellite images, with or without roads and labels, Azure Maps already has a dark grey map style to make data and images you overlay on the map stand out more, and a night mode that’s similar but with colourful roads and icons for contrast if you’re viewing the map while driving in the dark. The new light grey style (initially for the Android and iOS SDKs) makes floor plans and other overlays more visible. There’s also a new shaded relief style, showing contours for when you want a traditional atlas style view. The Azure Maps webview also includes drawing tools.
The new image compositor can render raster images with points, lines and polygons – to show areas of impact or fixed routes, for example – from data either passed with the request or stored in the Azure Maps Data Service. The Azure Maps Web SDK 2.0 also has a native control for shapes, borders and fills – which can now include patterns. That’s useful to make one area stand out if you have a number of colour-shaded polygons on the map. For a drone map, it’s critical to clearly highlight no-fly zones and where you need a permit to fly, but you might also want to mark areas that stand out as good opportunities financially or problem areas because of high occupancy. It’s not yet up to full business intelligence visualisations, but you can start to paint a much richer mapping picture.
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Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things in between.
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