Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tele Atlas: new maps using GPS

As reported, Dutch digital map maker Tele Atlas is creating new maps faster than ever by collecting data from motorists using GPS devices as they drive, which provides a rich set of information about roads.

Tele Atlas, which was acquired by the satellite navigation device maker Tom Tom in 2007, has been collecting GPS data points from Tom Tom users, recording information such as what roads they use, how fast they drive and even the road's gradient, said Rik Temmink, vice president of global product management. It's what Tele Atlas calls a "community" approach to map making.

"That's radically changed the way we do maps," Temmink said. "They [users] paint of a picture of what the roads look like."

In the past, Tele Atlas sent out vehicles to physically drive the roads in order to create maps. Now, some of that work can be automated using specialized algorithms to sort through the GPS data and build maps.

Tele Atlas still has to send out teams to verify data, but it has made the process of creating high-quality maps much faster, Temmink said. Tele Atlas has used the community approach for updating maps in about 30 countries.

On Monday Tele Atlas released its latest edition of MultiNet, a mapping database. For the first time, it includes maps for more than 11,000 miles of roads in Romania.

Romania is not a core market for Tom Tom. People driving there often have purchased their devices in countries such as Germany but drive in Romania, allowing Tele Atlas to collect the data when people plug their devices into their PCs, Temmink said. Users are asked if they are willing to provide the data.

Tele Atlas sells its map data to companies such as Google and Microsoft as well as device makers such as NavMan and Garmin. Those companies present the data in their own customized formats.

Also on Monday, Tele Atlas opened up another one of its data products, HD Traffic, for customers outside of Tom Tom. HD Traffic provides real-time updates on traffic flows.

It does that by using a couple of different methods. HD Traffic collects data from sensors that have been placed on highway overpasses used to measure traffic, Temmink said. But the problem with sensors is that only major roads are covered, and as people move off those roads, there's little data.

Prior to acquiring Tele Atlas, Tom Tom made an agreement with mobile provider Vodafone to collect information from phone subscribers. As people travel with their mobile phones, the signal is handed off to different transmission towers, and someone's speed and location can be determined.

That's useful for traffic measurements, as the data can show when someone who is on a major highway slows down, there's likely traffic. The data received from Vodafone is anonymized, and subscribers are not asked whether they want to opt in, Temmink said. Tele Atlas uses algorithms to filter out data from people who are not driving and may be, for example, not on a road at all or are jogging in a park.

HD Traffic also incorporates information that comes from government sources, such as road construction projects, Temmink said.

Previously, HD Traffic was available to Tom Tom users only on a few devices, Temmink said. Tele Atlas is now selling the data feed to anyone, such as developers who want to create their own application incorporating the data, he said.

HD Traffic will initially cover Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, with about 90 percent of the highways and major arterial roads covered.


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