At some point you stopped and thought about it. How does your GPS get all that map data? You can’t exactly put the Earth on a gigantic scanner bed. It takes thousands of people actually out there getting that data, translating that into the right format, and testing it.
Once upon a time, I worked for a company that printed maps. Mapmakers were a sketchy lot, putting hidden knowledge into their maps to protect them and then trying their hardest to steal information from others. They relied on the government, they relied on ancient instruments, and they used a variety of obsolete drawing tools like press-on letters and rapidographs for their craft.
Today of course, the tool of choice is the automobile. Using still cameras and live video, mapping cars crawl the planet constantly looking for new roads and new points of interest. The mapmakers of the 21st century also rely on the cloud; the world’s top navigation companies rely on reports from users on what’s wrong with their maps, and crowdsource platforms like Yelp and Foursquare constantly map the business landscape thanks to their millions of users.
There’s a great article at pcpro.co.uk that goes into great detail on these giant mapping companies and how they do what they do. Unfortunately the site is riddled with ads and doesn’t work real well with Chrome, so switch over to Internet Explorer for a better reading experience.
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