Mapping paradise: How TomTom maps are made

When someone says TomTom to you, you probably think about that little black box you stick to your windscreen. But TomTom isn't about hardware, no matter how successful and widespread the company's devices are.

The "diamond in the crown is the content", says Peter-Frans Pauwels. "We are building our business based on our content," says the TomTom co-founder and chief technical officer.

A self-confessed geek and a co-founder of TomTom, Pauwels stands before hand-picked media in an air conditioned suite at the Cap Est Resort in Martinique, a small island in the Lesser Antilles. Pauwels's charisma is infectious, a man obviously impassioned by TomTom's achievements and future goals. He's relaxed, confident, and not opposed to dropping in the odd joke as he addresses us. 

Martinique is known for its banana exports as well as its rum; it's a country packed with plantations and an abundance of fruit trees, providing rich pickings parched journalists marauding the island.

But we're not here to relax. We're here to assist TomTom with the arduous task of mapping Martinique, to incorporate the country's roads into TomTom's navigation maps. We're going to see what TomTom puts into it's maps, how the process unfolds, how that data is collected and collated and how each part of the puzzle fits together.

It's a task that lies at the very core of what TomTom is about: "We are about getting people from A to B in a car, in the best possible manner," says Pauwels. 

What makes a TomTom map?

TomTom bought Tele Atlas in 2008 and in doing so, obtained its "mother database", a digital map of the world. From this base map TomTom has a foundation on which the final product maps can be built. 

But the base map is only the first step and, for example in Martinique, the base map is often incomplete. In Europe and North America, the maps are "mature", meaning they are detailed and good quality, but for more remote locations, like those in the Map Paradise project, TomTom have to head out and develop the maps.

Starting with the base map, you build up layers of information, adding data to the map, improving the accuracy of the information it contains and bringing in all the detail that drivers need.

For starters, some maps have the roads in the wrong location geographically, something that needs to be corrected, so your vehicle isn't always shown as driving on the verge, or along the beach. This was certainly the case for the Martinique maps, as seen below. Here you can see the flow of traffic doesn't match the roads, and the roundabout isn't marked.

Then you have things like one-way systems, speed limits, height and weight restrictions, street names and building numbers, all of which TomTom maps provide. You also have things like points of interest, 3D buildings, lanes, junctions and signage, all of which have to be layered on the top. 

It's a long way from simply taking an existing map and stuffing it into a navigation device. 

Where does this information come from?

Some of that information can be applied from an office, with TomTom using more than 50,000 data sources to add to its maps. Some are large databases, like government bodies, others are tiny organisations, but all are authoritative.

This might mean that you use a satellite image or an aerial photograph to verify a new road layout, but much of what TomTom does to develop maps relies on human beings driving cars, using mobile phones and TomTom devices.

One of the features of a TomTom PND is the ability to anonymously supply your route data. TomTom doesn't care where you are going, who you are or what you are doing. It is interested in the data of the journey on the road. It is interested in getting a vector driving report, known internally as a "probe".

Probes provide a means by which TomTom can look at master maps and see what happens on those roads. If the probe doesn't match the map, it might be that the road has changed or the given location of the road on the master map is wrong, all things that need changing. The above map shows the Kingston upon Thames one-way system, with probes showing as coloured overlays. 

But probe data can also give you information on traffic flow or how drivers behave when they approach a junction, for example. All this information feeds into IQ Routes, an intelligent part of the TomTom routing system which will pick out the best route for you based on trends on a particular set of roads for a particular time of the day. 

As with many things TomTom does to build its maps, there is often a direct consumer benefit besides accurate mapping: IQ Routes is one example, HD Traffic is another, with the tracking of mobile devices again adding to the picture of the roads and road users.

Using a range of sources, TomTom layers up its maps into the rich and accurate navigation product that we almost take for granted. Peeking behind the curtain reveals a huge amount of input and processing to achieve that final result. 

Human mapping

For a number of years, TomTom has had the MapShare system in place, meaning that drivers could report errors in the roads they drive on. We partly used the system in Martinique to add corrections to the existing maps, although this isn't how TomTom makes its correction in the field.

There are over 250,000 MapShare reports a month adding a huge amount of information for TomTom to work with. When we asked whether there was a problem submitting stupid suggestions the response was surprising. In fact the opposite is true, in that there are some individuals providing a constant stream of good quality feedback, known internally as "MapShare heroes".

MapShare is only one method of drawing attention to a problem in a particular area of a map, but it's effective. Typically, MapShare reports can be dealt with within 14 days, sometimes as quickly as two days. Of course, there will be some that take longer as they need to be verified.

To take a look at the map we were building, we sat down with Cartopia, the window to TomTom's core database. Cartopia is a web-based interface that allows real-time editing of the master maps and gives you access to all the data that feeds into them. It's an incredibly powerful tool. Above you can see the blue "probes" don't all align with the roads on the map, ie, the roads aren't all in the correct places.

Clicking a box will add in layers of information, so you can choose to view exactly what you want to see. You can view the map, overlay satellite imagery to verify route alignment or look for changes, you can bring up probes, filter it for speed information, look at traffic heat maps, etc. 

You can also call up MapShare queries and click individual points to read the details. In one examination, we found a report of a new house having been built. In fact, there was an entire new estate built on a new plot and in this situation, TomTom would head out to map the new roads and collect all the other information needed.

While TomTom staff and can access and edit in Cartopia, much of the processing comes out of a centre in India. With between 600 and 900 staff in place (the number changes with project demands) TomTom staff in India can process data, stripping information from captured video, making substantial changes to the maps. 

The Tools: Mobile mapping

As we've mentioned, getting feet on the ground is an important part of TomTom mapping. External sources are important, but at times you need the information first hand. Heading out on to the streets of Martinique, we got to see this process in action. 

If there is a lot of mapping to be done, then TomTom can roll out its vans to do the job. These mobile mapping vehicles are equipped with a wide array of sensors to gather data, with a laptop and TomTom device, odometer, 3D gyroscope, Ladybug 360-degree camera, differential GPS and a laser scanner.

These vehicles collect a huge amount of data, stored internally on hard drives. There is so much data gathered that rather than transmit it over the internet, TomTom extracts the HDD and sends it by courier to its data-processing centre in India.

Some of the information isn't yet being used, for example the laser scanning. This acts like a 3D radar, building a 3D image of the road and surrounding area, including roadside features, and could be put to use in the future, with new products. It does a good job of highlighting road markings too, so can help to clarify some aspects of lane guidance.

But there are times when sending a fully-decked out van isn't appropriate. We sat down for breakfast with Yves Muyssen, global product manager of the map unit at TomTom, who explained that sometimes the overheads involved with getting a van to a location such as Martinique simply didn't make sense. 

"If we were mapping somewhere large, like Cuba, then yes, we'd transport a van there," Muyssen told us, but otherwise it can come down to a TomTom field operative, a hire car, a laptop and an iPhone. 

One man in the field is Tom Howze (above), who guided us through the process out on the streets of Martinique. Equipped with the tools of the trade, and a TomTom device loaded with unfinished maps, we got the chance to see exactly how incomplete the maps of Martinique are. 

"What have you noticed about the device map?" Howze challenged us. As we headed up the road it became instantly obvious. The device map was trying to send us on the wrong side of a split carriage road, into the path of oncoming traffic. 

Looking at the raw maps offline with a laptop, we could see that the road's attributions weren't correct, hence the mistake and something that's relatively easy to rectify, but typical of the sort of details that need to be corrected before final product release.  

One of the tools of the job is the iPhone. TomTom have an app, simply known as Field Editor, that lets TomTom's field operatives capture and verify new data points. That might be photographing a street name to add to the database, or capturing the location of a speed limit sign. Each capture contains the photo and all other data, including various types of classification and of course the location details.

In Martinique the speed limits seem to change frequently, and as Howze talks us through the process, he's constantly snapping signs out of the window (above) to feed into the data mix. 

"Not all maps are equal"

Once the data is processed, overnight by the team in India, we're able to see those captured data points on the map, integrated into TomTom's system, ready to play their part in making the map of Martinique better for drivers.

It's here that you see just how powerful the tools at TomTom's disposal are. With Cartopia we can now see all the information we've gathered feeding into the developing map. The shot below shows Howze's photo (as pictured two above) now in the TomTom database.

It's somewhere in this mix that Pauwels's opening point rings true. All this work is nothing to do with the personal navigation device: the box is immaterial, it's the content that's key. TomTom isn't just regurgitating someone else's maps in a convenient box, they're doing a huge amount of work to refine maps, to make them better for drivers. 

Whether you are coming at TomTom's maps through a PND, mobile app or in-car navigation system, it's the maps that are important. As Muyssen says, it's a "100 per cent focus on the driver", not pedestrians, not cyclists, just drivers. 

We've seen first hand a world that we didn't know existed. It's a world centred around people trying to make navigation maps the best they can possibly be, whilst gathering a huge amount of information on traffic, routing and road infrastructure in the process.

We're impressed not only the thoroughness of TomTom's efforts, but also with the realistic eye on the future, capturing information that might be useful at some, as yet undetermined, point.

"Not all maps are equal," concludes Pauwels in rather Orwellian fashion. As we reflect on the time it takes to make just a few small changes to a few minor roads on a small Caribbean island, we have to agree. The devil is in the detail and there's more detail than we'd ever given TomTom credit for.

Martinique is a beautiful little island and well worth a visit; pretty soon there will be decent driving maps too.

If you want the chance to map paradise, then head over to TomTom's website: http://map-paradise.tomtom.com/