ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And now to All Tech Considered. Today the technology that helps us find our way, the business of digital mapping. There's hot competition among companies that put maps on the GPS device in your car or the screen of your smart phone. The industry rakes in tens of billions of dollars a year, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Reporter Christopher Werth tells about some of the players and how they do it.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: When it comes to creating a digital map of the world you may think of Google workers driving around in high-tech cars mounted with cameras snapping photos of everything. But on a warm summer evening Robert Scott walks the streets of London, jotting down address numbers with nothing more than a pen and a piece of paper.
ROBERT SCOTT: Fifteen. And this is number 11.
WERTH: Scott is with OpenStreetMap - a British nonprofit that's built a digital map world over the past decade, with the help of volunteers like himself and thousands of others around the globe. And every month or so a few of them get together for mapping parties to collect data that's later added on a computer back home.
SCOTT: We've sometimes had strange looks when we're doing things like this. Well, that's eight.
WERTH: It hardly sounds like competition for Google. But Scott says, if you're just starting a business or have an idea you'd like to try, using Google's data can feel like straitjacket.
SCOTT: Google maps are licensed to you for very specific purpose - you're not allowed to do this, you're not allowed to do that. If you just want use data there are all kinds of restrictions about what you can do with them.
WERTH: And Google charges customers that use large amounts of mapping data. OpenStreetMap is different. It uses grassroots mapping, so it's open source - meaning it is few licensing restrictions. And it's completely free - even for companies using a lot of data.
SCOTT: So a lot of sites did start moving to OpenStreetMap.
WERTH: Martin Garner, an analyst with CCS Insight, says, companies like Apple and other Google competitors realize maps are becoming key to our digital lives - from choosing a restaurant to finding the nearest dentist. But it's more than that. Tech companies are developing the so-called internet of things. They want your possessions to be able to communicate with each other. So your car could talk directly to your front door lock.
MARTIN GARNER: If we have an internet of things, then it becomes very important to know where those things are.
WERTH: So, maps are going to get more important and more detailed. To boost the level of sophistication, Garner says, you can't simply rely on volunteers. You need professionals.
MARK WILLIAMS: So this is one of our cars.
WERTH: In a town just outside London, Mark Williams climbs out of one of those Google-like camera cars I mentioned earlier.
WILLIAMS: We've got four cameras - 16.2 megapixel cameras.
WERTH: But Williams does not work for Google. Instead, this car belongs to Nokia. Yes, the company that made your clunky old cell phone before the Smartphone was invented. Nokia has sold off it's ailing phone business and is now counting on its mapping service for at least part of its growth. Michael Halbherr heads Nokia's mapping division called Here, spelled H-E-R-E. It is hardly a household name. But Halbherr says, Here's maps are used by many of Google's biggest competitors like Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon and Here has made a big push into the automotive industry.
MICHAEL HALBHERR: Four out of five cars today with an embedded navigation system run on our maps.
WERTH: Inside Nokia's camera car, Mark Williams says, the company uses a laser scanning technology to generate a realistic 3-D image of all the trees, buildings and everything else the car passes.
WILLIAMS: Visually, the renderings of the buildings look like imagery that you would associate in computer games.
WERTH: And Martin Garner of CCS Insight says, that could lead to far more detailed maps than we've ever had before.
GARNER: Not just maps of the streets - but maps of what's on the third floor of this mall or what's on the 10th floor of that building.
WERTH: Garner says, Nokia adopted 3-D mapping before Google. But he says, Google is catching up on the technology.
GARNER: There's a sort of race going on between these guys and so they're pouring a lot of money into this task to build it up as quickly as possible.
WERTH: Of course we would've asked Google about all of this but it did not respond to an interview request. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth in London.