Executive Q&A: Making maps in the digital age [The Wisconsin State Journal]By Judy Newman, The Wisconsin State JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 08--It used to be that before people embarked on a trip to an unfamiliar place -- whether it was across the country or just across town -- they would haul out maps and chart their course.
Today, a traveler is more likely to depend on a favorite website or a GPS device for directions.
But Mapping Specialists, 3000 Cahill Main, Fitchburg, whose business is making maps, has survived the changes.
"All of the technology that we have is a wonderful thing," said Dave Knipfer, president and owner. "But what happens if that doesn't work someday?"
Mapping Specialists has created its own niches, focusing on maps used for travel and recreation. It is known for its topographical, "three-dimensional" lake maps, with information on water depths, and fish and plant life.
One of its latest products is a series of state recreation atlases, made for National Geographic.
Wisconsin's recreation atlas, for instance, shows boat launches, fishing piers, ski hills, golf courses, lighthouses and camping sites in popular vacation sites such as Apostle Islands and Wisconsin's North Woods. It lists the best places for fishing and hunting, as well as state and national trails.
Founded in 1984 by Onno Brouwer, then director of the UW-Madison Cartography Lab, Mapping Specialists has about 20 employees and annual revenues of $1.7 million to $2 million.
Knipfer, a Madison area native, was one of the first employees. He joined the company in 1986, fresh out of UW-Platteville with a degree in geography and emphasis on cartography, and worked his way up. He became president about 10 years ago and, with his wife, Brenda, bought the company in 2009.
Q: What do you see as Mapping Specialists' mission?
A: The main thing we do is provide mapping services. Most is contract work for companies like National Geographic and educational publishers such as Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, John Wiley & Sons and Bedford-St. Martin's. We develop new products for them, and provide maps and charts to go along with their books.
Q: How have your offerings changed over the years?
A: Twenty years ago, we made a lot of printed maps. That is still part of what we do, but today, a lot of our efforts also go into digital products for use on computers, tablets and other digital devices.
We develop animation for maps, making them interactive. If you put your cursor over an area, for example, a photo pops up, or a map goes in motion. It could be a map of the 50 states and when the cursor goes over Wisconsin, a box pops up with the state flag, population and state bird -- whatever information the client wants to put up there. If it's a product used for testing students, a list of questions could pop up.
We're working with chambers of commerce so that when someone scrolls over a location on their website, store information comes up.
Q: How do you create your lake maps, and what do they show?
A: Traditional maps have shading to designate mountains. We do the reverse, showing features at the bottom of a lake. Our maps tell you the depths of the water and show where the rock piles are. For instance, in Fence Lake, in Vilas County, a rock pile forms in one location in 60 feet of water and tops out 15 feet underwater.
We get a lot of information from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' lake surveys and augment it with our own surveys as well as information from area fishing guides and lake associations.
The lake maps first came out 10 years ago and have become very popular. We are in the process of digitizing them for mobile devices so they will act as handheld GPS systems. You will be able to mark a spot on the lake with information about the time, temperature and fish you caught. It almost acts as a log that attaches to the map.
The first few will be available later this month, and a full complement should be ready by this fall, available for purchase from the Apple store.
Q: Mapping Specialists has been around for nearly 30 years. That means it has survived several recessions in addition to the big change to digital formats. How has the company done it?
A: Has it been easy? No. But I don't think it's easy for any small business.
We don't rely on any one thing to support the company. We also do large-format printing and laminating, making wall maps and banners.
When systems changed from the traditional hand-drawn maps to computers, it was a big boom for our industry. A lot of information needed to be captured and put in there. Now, maintenance and updating have to be done. And even though maps aren't being printed as much, they still need to be created.
With the advent of personal navigation devices, there are still benefits a printed map provides: It gives the overview, the big picture of a geographic area. Your computer screen or iPad only shows you a small fraction of where you are. It's very difficult to do any planning off that.
Maps have kept their market share for travel planning and outdoor recreation. And what happens if there is some sort of interruption in our electronic world -- if cellular phone towers go down or a satellite system goes offline?
When Lake Delton breached its shores and the area was flooded (in 2008), they couldn't keep enough maps in the convenience stores or any place along the highway. Navigation systems wouldn't reroute drivers around the closures. Maps just flew off the shelves then.
(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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