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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Urban Navigators Chart the Courses You Drive
By Bridget Carey

Next time you get high-tech driving directions around South Florida, you can thank Debra Bonde and Brad Estrada for not getting lost.

They are geographic analysts with NAVTEQ, the company that provides mapping data to just about every major driving direction company.

More than 100 companies and government agencies use NAVTEQ, including MapQuest, Google, Yahoo!, Garmin, Tom Tom, Magellan, Motorola and Verizon. Chances are if you've ever needed a map online, in the car, or on your cellphone, you've used NAVTEQ's data.

The company is so large it's practically the Microsoft of navigation data, and it's still growing. Its second-quarter revenue was up 30 percent to $159.9 million, and profit nearly doubled, to $30.2 million.

Bonde and Estrada recently finished reviewing the addresses around the homes on the Venetian Islands, but their work to update and review the streets of South Florida never ends.

Estrada drives and Bonde sits in the passenger seat recording information on a touch-screen pad on her lap. The laptop along with the other equipment is locked up in the back of the SUV while the screen shows where they are on the road and where they've been. Using a stylus, Bonde scribbles on the map of things to change, such as a street sign with a slightly different name, and if a road curves and changes directions. She'll also mark the numbered addresses of every corner.

Her screen is full of icons that note different road traits, such as how many lanes a road has and which direction it travels.

Aside from avoiding the occasional dump truck or trencher blocking the road, navigating around the homes and making notes about signs went pretty smoothly for the duo. Miami-Dade County is usually pretty easy to update, they said. What makes their job difficult are gated communities.

''Collier County is particularly difficult in getting into gated communities without permission,'' Bonde said. ``Down in the Keys, getting into Ocean Club or some of the other exclusive private communities are sometimes difficult to get in.''

But as driving direction services become more common, Bonde said most places are more willing to give them access to update the data for the neighborhood.

And when they can't get in, there are other ways to update, such as using aerial photography.

Jobs like theirs are in high demand now as the industry is growing fast, said Bob Samborski, executive director of the nonprofit Geospatial Information & Technology Association.

''Every kid knows what GPS is and definitely every kid knowns what Google Earth is, it's a pretty fun thing to do,'' Samborski said. ``Very few people outside the geospacial industry would know that it is part of an industry.''

The organization has started a government-funded project to raise more awareness of this field, called GIWIS (Geospatial Industry Workforce Information System).

''The jobs in this field are lacking people, and there's a huge concern,'' he said. ``Our employers can not find enough people to do this stuff.''

Bonde has been working with NAVTEQ for 12 years and although it might be hard to believe, there was a time when this work had to be done without GPS.

''I've seen the technology come from paper plots and just following along on the paper plots from link to link writing down information without any of the tools that we have,'' Bonde said.

Before laptops and satellite images, geographic analysts had to rely on what they called cartooning in geometry based on photos taken from above.

''I actually have a degree in cartography from Wisconsin and when I graduated there wasn't even a computer-generated cartography course,'' Bonde said.

The industry is so fresh that last year there was no definition of ''the geospacial industry.'' Is Google Earth part of the industry? Some would say yes, some wouldn't. And without definition, organizations like GITA are just begining to find ways to measure itself.

''It's evolved so quickly and so massively, everyone was just trying to keep up with the technology,'' Samborski said.

And because the technology is advancing so fast, there is growing potential for misuse, Samborski said. The recent unveiling of Google Maps' Street View shows images of people on the street, some in unfavorable poses, which brought up discussions of privacy rights.

''Our court system and our laws are not keeping pace with the evolution of the technology,'' Samborski said.

Within a few years, he said, maps will be updated in real time with more and more detail.

''Pick a house in San Diego and watch the mail being delivered,'' he said.

Some are already updating traffic conditions in real time, such as Microsoft and Google.

As of now, most of the attention is on expanding in cellphone navigating services and doing more than just getting from point A to point B, but rather showing where the closest shoe store is between point A and B.

But the potential of how fast the industry grows is only limited by a programmer's imagination, Samborski said. ``You could literally save the world with this stuff.''

The Miami Herald
Copyright 2007 Miami Herald Media Co.