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Making an online map, one block at a time

I-275 was in sight, but Juan Tribaldos and Ron Rygwalski couldn't quite get to it. It wasn't an auspicious start to the workday for two guys employed by a mapmaking company.

"We just wanted to let you know what downtown Tampa looks like," Rygwalski said with a laugh as they meandered through city streets in a white Intrepid.

Tribaldos and Rygwalski work for Navigation Technologies Corp. of Chicago, which is king of the road in digital maps.

The men quickly got their bearings and headed for Citrus Park to plot streets in a new subdivision and other roads for Navigation Technologies' NavTech database.

Eventually, the data they gather ends up as maps on Web sites such as MapQuest and Yahoo Maps. The information also powers in-car navigation systems for vehicles from BMW, Daimler Chrysler, Ford and Toyota and maps offered over cell phones by providers such as AT&T.

For many Americans with computers, online mapping has all but replaced the old road atlas when they plan a road trip or want street-by-street directions to find that interesting new restaurant on the other side of town.

For Navigation Technologies, the mapping business has been paved with gold. The privately held company has seen revenues grow from $80-million in 2000 to $165-million last year, according to Kelly Smith, vice president for marketing, communications and public relations.

To make its maps, the company combines high-tech gear such as computers, proprietary software and Global Positioning System tracking, as well as aerial photos and information from the Census Bureau, Postal Service and local governments. But it also requires people on the ground driving.

"It is a paradox that the highest-tech mapper requires a combination of the human touch and technology," Smith said. "Our team of field researchers is really the crown jewel of the company."

The company's goal is to create maps that have complete coverage and navigability, Smith says. So far, she estimates it has 60 percent of the country covered to a specific destination, with the rest at least down to the last turn.

"Does that mean we're going to drive every single road in America?" she said. "Not necessarily. Some places, especially in rural areas, do not have a lot of navigable elements."

But the company's road warriors plot details likely to be missed in an aerial photo. For example, maps show an exit ramp on a Maryland highway, and a driver would assume it's always open. Not so, Smith says. It's open only when the Washington Redskins have a home football game.

About 500 people work in the field, including about 10 in three Florida offices. Rygwalski and Tribaldos drive about 20,000 miles a year collecting data.

Their recent trek to Citrus Park was to verify previously collected information and map construction.

"We can build maps a lot faster than they can build the houses," Rygwalski said. Still, Tribaldos added, "It's a never-ending process."

Navigation Technologies updates its maps quarterly, according to Smith, although some of its clients may compile the information annually.

And don't blame the mapmaker if the driving directions seem to take drivers on longer routes than necessary. MapQuest and other customers determine their own formulas on how to use Navigation Technologies' maps and develop their own systems for directions.

MapQuest was started by RR Donnelley & Sons in the 1960s to produce maps given away at gas stations. It evolved into an electronic publisher in the 1990s and is now a subsidiary of America Online. It makes its money partly through advertising that invites users to check out hotels in an area, for example. It also provides customized versions of its maps for other sites, ranging from retailers to travel.

Rygwalski, 30, a field analyst, has been with Navigation Technologies about 18 months and is based in Tampa. Tribaldos, 24, an associate field analyst, has been on the job about a year and works out of an office near Orlando. They took different paths to the jobs.

Rygwalski was a firefighter in Montana and used GPS mapping in his job. After a rough fire season in 2000, he saw an ad for Navigation Technologies and applied. He hasn't looked back.

"It's a great job," he said. "You get to see new things all the time. You get to see things other people can't see."

Tribaldos spent four years in the Army, working with maps, GPS and mission planning. He is studying for a degree in geography at the University of Central Florida.

"For all the parents who said, "What are you going to do with that (geography) degree?' now there's an answer," company vice president Smith joked.

The job has its hazards: getting stuck in mud, flat tires, the usual traffic headaches in congested areas and construction workers and police who occasionally stop the slow-moving car to ask what they're doing. Some gated communities try to block their entry.

"Downtown areas are very hard to drive," Rygwalski said. "Out in the country, it's really easy to do this."

When they arrive at the designated section of Citrus Park, starting on Millridge Drive, Tribaldos, the driver, follows Rygwalski's instructions. They slowly drive up and down every street.

Rygwalski has a notebook computer on his lap. An electronic writing tablet is connected to it, and he uses a stylus to jot notes that appear on the computer screen.

The car has a GPS receiver on the roof that connects to the computer and maps their progress with a reading every second that shows up as a line on the computer screen.

On the computer, Rygwalski clicks icons to note traffic signs (speed limit, schools), as well as landmarks (a planted island on a street). "Anything standing, we collect," he said.

They speak their own language to note other points: NAS for no address seen. NM for name check. FR for further research.

They do not take down every address on every street. The driver calls out the first number on the left and right, updating with numbers midway and at the end of a street. The computer automatically saves the data as it is collected so if it crashes nothing is lost. When information from the field is added to the database, it is complemented by government data the company uses.

Sometimes the mapmakers have to stop and get out of the car to do a little sleuthing. If they see unexpected signs of new home construction, for example, they will stop at a sales office to ask for information and maps.

After a driving expedition such as the one to Citrus Park, Rygwalski says it takes him about 45 minutes at the office to transfer data and translate his notes from the notebook computer to the company's database.

He estimated his work week is split evenly between driving and the office, but not all driving is equal.

"The worst part," he said, "is getting off work and getting stuck in rush hour."

_ Dave Gussow can be reached at gussowsptimes.com or (727) 771-4328.

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