Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Mapmakers explore America


Uncharted territory: Navigating the back roads

By John Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ALEXANDRIA - Kuessner Drive is a tight lane off View Point Drive in this Campbell County town. It's a private drive with a few houses but no proper street sign - just a board with stick-on letters someone purchased at a hardware store.

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Carmen Galde and Stephanie Baumgartner in their car on Frank Road, Alexandria, as they travel in Campbell County updating map information.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
With co-worker Stephanie Baumgartner in the passenger seat, Carmen Galde turns the steering wheel left and guides her Dodge Intrepid down the narrow lane, does a slow three-point turn at the end and crawls back to View Point.

That simple act puts Kuessner Drive on the map.

Galde and Baumgartner are field researchers for Navigation Technologies Corp. of Chicago, the company behind NavTech, a system of digital roadmaps used by Web sites such as Yahoo! Maps and MapQuest, and behind the GPS navigation systems in vehicles around the world.

NavTech puts maps and driving directions at the nation's fingertips, but the information has to come from somewhere. Aerial photos can't tell when addresses change, or when the neighborhood Mexican restaurant closes and goes barbecue, so field researchers like Baumgartner and Galde drive the roads.

"The thing that actually distinguishes us is that we actually go and do that field verification," said John MacLeod, the company's executive vice president for global marketing and strategy. "There are just certain things you cannot pick up from photographs and other sources, particularly if you are trying to create a navigable map from a street-driving perspective."

A system that uses computers and orbiting satellites, then, still needs shoe leather to work well. The company has about 400 field researchers in more than 100 offices in 17 countries.

[img]
Stephanie can use a stylus and writing tablet to make notes on a map on her laptop computer.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
"It really is the irony of this high-tech company and this high-tech product that you literally need to have people on the streets looking at what's going on and reading the local situation to get an accurate, safe, efficient route," he said.

Demand for the maps is booming. The growth of the Internet and the rising popularity of GPS systems in cars has sent the company's revenues soaring. Revenues more than doubled in three years, to $165.8 million in 2002 and are sure to top $200 million this year. More important, through the first nine months of 2003, the company is profitable for the first time in its history.

Navigation Technologies starts with government databases and aerial photographs to construct base maps. Roadmaps for the entire nation are available from the company, based on Census Bureau maps. The company, however, is building these maps to what it considers a "detailed city" level, mapping every navigable feature, plus points of interest such as schools, parks and golf courses. Navigation Technologies relies on field researchers like Galde and Baumgartner to make sure the maps are accurate.

So they get in their car and drive, up to 100 miles a day. Baumgartner, 36, is a University of Cincinnati geography graduate. She worked in medical offices until reading an ad in 1997, when Navigation Technologies was looking for a geographer to open a field office in Cincinnati.

Galde, 26, was an archaeology major at the University of North Dakota in Fargo, her hometown. But "Fargo didn't have a lot of opportunities for archaeology, not when the ground's frozen six months out of the year," she said, so she took a job at Navigation Technologies' Fargo production center. She moved to the Indianapolis field office last year.

Their territory covers Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. Baumgartner said the company's maps are most complete in central cities, but less so in rural or fast-growing areas. Hamilton County is "done" to a detailed-city level, she said, "and we just completed Butler County." Warren County, one of the fastest-growing in Ohio, "is never finished." They've spent time mapping other booming areas such as Williamsville County outside Nashville and Greene County next to Dayton.

On this cool and sunny Thursday morning, the researchers are in deepest Campbell County, driving the side streets and country roads of Alexandria and Silver Grove. In 2001, the county initiated its 911 emergency system. Miles of roads and thousands of homes and businesses were given new addresses, to make it easier for firemen to find them.

Many homes simply had mailbox numbers, in no particular order. After they were given new addresses, many mailboxes - like those along Alexandria's Four Mile Road - sport two numbers: the old mailbox number and the new street address. Some have one or the other but not both. Baumgartner and Galde are taking note of the new addresses and checking the streets against post office records.

As they drive, a global positioning system (GPS) receiver on the roof of the car is connected by cable to Baumgartner's laptop computer. Once every second, a GPS reading is taken, creating a trail of green arrows on the laptop screen.

Galde said since she started working for Navigation Technologies, she envisions the roads from an aerial view as she drives. "You can zoom out and see all the roads around you, you can see where you are, almost like I'm flying." Galde talks as she drives, relaying data to her partner. "View Point Drive," she says, turning the car right. "View Point is two words, no E on Point, 130 on the left, 127 on the right.

As Galde talks, Baumgartner takes notes about names and locations, scrawling them on a pen tablet, connected to the computer. Baumgartner played soccer all over town as a girl, so she's always known her way around Cincinnati. Now she knows it at another level, her mental compass always aware of where north is.

"Mount Adams has always been a weird one for me. Now I can actually say I know my way around," she said.

There's more to the maps than just driving the roads. Galde and Baumgartner take note of speed limits; addresses; the number of lanes on a road, whether it's one-way or two-way; and more.

They love the work, they said. It gets them outdoors and gives them something new every day. One occupational hazard is carsickness, from trying to focus on the computer as the car bounds over the roads. Galde said she gets it occasionally. Baumgartner claims to be immune, though a former co-worker had to take drugs to keep from getting woozy.

Galde steers the car up Frank Drive, off Alexandria Pike. "This is a road that was not in our database," Baumgartner said. "If you noticed, when we came down here, it looked like a driveway." It was marked only by a primitive-looking plywood sign.

A short drive reveals a well-kept community of about three dozen mobile homes, most of them rentals. Owner Robert Higdon, 84, said he bought the land in 1957. He spent most of his life working life as a truck driver. He'd see mobile home parks as he drove, "and I never seen one go out of business, so I thought it'd be a good idea."

Higdon named the street after his son, Frank. He opened the park in 1965 after a court battle with Alexandria officials and today figures the less people know about his quiet street, the happier he is. He never advertises, finding his tenants by word of mouth.

But after Baumgartner and Galde drove it, and the satellites mapped it, the secret of Frank Drive is out.

Beware the disclaimers

Online mapping sites typically warn users to do a reality check to make sure the map is accurate. How quickly updates of maps reach users at services like Yahoo! Maps depend on their subscription to Navigation Technologies.

One of the biggest gaps is that NavTech tracks only those road closures scheduled to last longer than one year.

A quick look at three online mapping services - MapQuest, Yahoo!Maps and Mapblast - and three different potential routes showed there are differences in the services, particularly in tracking shorter closures.

One of the tests was to map a route from Dent in Green Township to a site on Muhlhauser Road in Fairfield. But Muhlhauser has been closed since July 7 between Ohio 4 and North Pointe Drive. Both MapQuest and Yahoo!Maps drew a less direct route that avoided the closures and its circuitous detour, by suggesting an exit from Interstate 275 at Ohio 747 instead of Ohio 4.

All three services were tripped by a road closure at Rich and Fallis roads in Symmes Township. There hasn't been any access to Fallis from Rich since June 10. But each service tried to take us through the closed intersection on a trip from downtown.

Finally, the services had slightly different ways to draw a trip from Anderson Township to Rabbit Hash, on the river in Boone County. Mapblast and Yahoo!Maps took U.S. 50 into downtown Cincinnati to jump onto I-71-75. MapQuest took a longer route via I-275 to connect to I-71/75. But the MapQuest route included more expressways, so the travel time was estimated to be just under an hour - four minutes shorter than on the other services.

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E-mail johnb@enquirer.com




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