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An Inside Look at GPS Technology

© TomTom
Without human intervention, GPS technology wouldn't get you from here to there.

Sometimes, of course, the maps we have at our disposal most easily are often not up-to-date, which can prove incredibly frustrating for those whose offices or homes don’t show up on in-vehicle navigation units or Internet mapping sites. At NavTeq, Sitko says, the databases get full-scale updates every quarter, but not all users download all updates. . is may mean that a particular subdivision simply doesn’t exist, according to mapping services—but even in this case, humans can intervene.

That’s exactly what Irish computer expert Ken Guest did when he became exasperated that his home in a new subdivision in County Tipperary did not show up in commercial maps. He borrowed a GPS rig from a friend and drove around his neighborhood, then uploaded the log to OpenStreetMap. "When I invite people over, I send them a link to the OpenStreetMap.org map of the Irish midlands, and that gets them here," says Guest, who has become something of an evangelist for open-source mapping in his native country.

It’s also a key factor that nowadays, most of us interact much, much more with the maps in our lives, says NavTeq’s Rossio. Cars and smartphones come with navigation systems, and many of us routinely print out online maps before we head out the door, even to go to a restaurant or a shopping mall nearby. When we’re lost on the road, who pulls into a filling station and asks for directions anymore? That is so 1980—now we pull out our smartphones to get reoriented, usually quickly and accurately.

Rossio’s job is to help create maps and navigation aides that are more user friendly. Who hasn’t grumbled when the in-car system loudly intones, "At 100 feet, make a U-turn." And the "Hey, dummy, you missed the U-turn" may go unsaid, but it is well understood by drivers who may fi nd themselves cussing the on-board navigation guru. "We are working on what we call natural guidance systems: next-generation tools that will deliver directions to users in the ways they want to hear them," says Rossio, who adds that a signifi cant percentage of us eschew turn-by-turn directions just because we don’t like how the machine seems to be nagging us. Can that change? Absolutely, Rossio says: "We want to create directions that users welcome hearing."

The best map, she implies, does nobody any good if it goes unused—and the push among mapmakers nowadays is to create maps that we are eager to use, which you can bet will take lots more human involvement. Therein lies the paradox: The better machines get at mapping our world, the more we humans need to stay involved to make sure they’re doing it right.

ROBERT MCGARVEY, a veteran writer, was persuaded about the power of mobile mapping after being hopelessly lost on his way to see an opera at Bard College in upstate New York. He remembered his Android phone had a navigation app and made the curtain with two minutes to spare.

OpenStreetMap and more DIY options

Want to map your environment? OpenStreetMap always has an open door for volunteers, many of whom start by mapping their own streets and noting neighborhood points of interest. Free tools now make this mapping comparatively easy to submit, says Richard Weait, a community volunteer who points wannabe cartographers to OpenStreetMap.org.

TomTom users are invited to submit corrections and updates via the company’s aggressive communitymapping initiative, says company VP Patrick McDevitt. He reports that users have submitted 11 million reports in the past two years, and that this flow of updates helps produce maps that are sharply more accurate than before.

Thanks to these new avenues for reporting information, amateur mapping has become a hobby for many. In Fort Worth, Texas, Thea Aldrich, an OpenStreetMap volunteer, busies herself filing updates of strip malls in her neighborhood. "So many stores are opening, and they close before anyone knows they are there," she says. "I want to get them officially mapped, so customers can find them." Adds Aldrich, "You can map your world, too. It really is a lot of fun."

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