Map project unlocks Europes landscape
Cracking open the vast store of geographical data locked inside Europes mapping agencies, is a research project that allows real time access to a wide range of mobile users.
This is a big deal. The project, called GiMoDig and funded by the European Commission’s IST programme, could ultimately put terabytes of geographical data within reach of ordinary users, business and emergency services. The potential list of users is endless.
The potential list of applications is endless, too. GiMoDigs work will let a hiker view, via the Web, their route through the wilderness on PDA (personal digital assistant), a courier could find the location of the next drop off, a taxi-driver could find the passengers destination. Security guards could indicate the location of a fire or break in, and emergency services could go directly to the scene. All in real-time, all on a scale appropriate to both the situation and the accessing device.
"Commercial applications are currently 3 to 5 years away," says Professor Tapani Sarjakoski from the Finnish Geodetic Institute and coordinator of the GiMoDig project. "But the GiMoDig software is now a working prototype and it can reveal the applicability of the approach, based on the data available in the four partner National Mapping Agencies [NMAs] involved in the project." Now that the system works for four of Europes NMAs, it can be adapted to other countries.
The history of the NMAs is an exciting drama in itself. Currently Europes NMAs, like the National Land Survey of Finland, or the Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy in Germany, two partners in the GiMoDig project, are vast storehouses of incredibly detailed information about the topography of their respective countries.
For over a hundred years they have meticulously surveyed their countries, noting everything that affected the landscape, from pre-historic glaciers and volcanic activity to castles and forts, right through to hospitals and government buildings. Most European NMAs have topographical databases on the scale of 1:10,000, or 1cm on the map to every 100m on the ground. Thats an incredible level of detail.
In the 80s and 90s these mapping agencies set about digitising their vast stores of data. But that information remains in national silos, only accessible through NMAs and their partners using highly diverse technologies. This is a problem if users want to access data with different devices, in different countries. GiMoDig essentially tackles this problem.
GiMoDig stands for Geospatial Info-Mobility Service by Real-Time Data-Integration and Generalisation. Integration means harmonising data sets from different countries, often using different data formats. Generalisation is the ability to render a map with only the level of detail required by the user.
"We need generalisation because you cannot present all of the information available. The screens are too small on a PDA or mobile phone, so you have to summarise the important features, the ones that are relevant to the user depending on what he or she wants to do," says Prof Sarjakoski.
For example, a cyclist does not need to see every bend in the road. Generalising the data allows it to remain relevant but to minimise the amount of data required on a mobile device, which makes it easier to download and easier to use. The GiMoDig protocol uses open technologies like XML to render the maps in a vector format.
GiMoDig at work
It works like this. A user requests a map based on his or her location, which is available through an integrated GPS receiver in his mobile device. The map downloads to the screen and relevant features are presented according to the user preferences.
Whats more, the data is fetched from the databases in real time. "It means you can look for any type of features, like roads for a cyclist, and the map will render that data based on what information you need," says Prof Sarjakoski.
Currently there are two ways data can be selected. Either users sets specific parameters, or they may choose specific scenarios – mountain navigation, town navigation – from a list. These include a variety of settings appropriate for the given scenario.
"Were not sure which is the best way to do with user preferences yet, thats something that will be decided through the validation process," says Prof Sarjakoski.
The software then renders the map in real-time, combining data from national databases, or excluding certain information, so that only whats relevant is presented to the user.
A cyclist needs roads, a hiker wants to know where there are cliffs, and a fire officer wants to know the location of a fire. For this, the system has a Mark-Your-Place function. If a security guard discovers a fire, he or she can mark the location using this function.
Because the data will appear on different screens, map information must be able to scale up and down. When the user zooms in, the device presents more detail, when it zooms out it presents less detail.
"Not all countries have the same level of detail in their NMA, but our software could be adapted to those scales, too," says Prof Sarjakoski.
Now, partners within the GiMoDig project will continue the development work, and the knowledge gained from the GiMoDig project will be applied to other cartographic purposes.
"This work is continuing among some of the partners in the EUs INSPIRE, the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe initiative," he says. The initiative intends to trigger the creation of a European spatial information infrastructure that delivers to the users integrated spatial information services.
The drafts about INSPIRE initiative indicate that distributed Web services will be used in its implementation, which has also been the approach in the GiMoDig project. Eventually INSPIRE will be adopted by EU’s member countries and has a great impact on all Europes mapping agencies.
There is a big potential market for electronic maps for mobile users. According to research firm Navinova, there will be over 1 million map requests per day made with cellular phones in Europe these days and that revenues from these services will increase rapidly in the years to come.
Tara Morris | alfa