Site takes users beyond beaten path

Maps: Topozone.com brings coherence to the U.S. Geological Survey's work.

June 26, 2000|By Stephanie Stoughton | Stephanie Stoughton,BOSTON GLOBE

In his decades-long affair with maps, Ed McNierney has scoured library book sales for yellowed charts, covered walls with maps, and even surveyed the hiking trails near his Groton, Mass., home.

But when the 40-year-old software developer brought thousands of the most detailed maps to the Web, he stumbled on a solution to the woes of outdoor enthusiasts and others who follow the nation's charted territory.

McNierney's brainchild, Topozone.com, has managed to stitch together seamlessly 58,938 oddly sized and mismatched topographic maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Widely used by hikers, surveyors and geologists, the federal agency's maps provide crucial information on elevations, positioning, and landmarks such as old schoolhouses and cemeteries. But here's the catch: As users jump from map to map, they quickly discover that the edges often don't line up.

"If you bought all of the USGS maps, laid them out on a football field and tried to tape them together, they wouldn't fit," said McNierney, executive vice president of Maps a la carte Inc., which owns Topozone.com. "They're curved at the edges. Some come in squares. Some come in rectangles. Some come in different scales."

The tiny company's technology has attracted the attention of Mapquest.com Inc., a top online mapping site that has become a favorite of road warriors. Mapquest.com gives visitors free access to street maps and offers specific directions, including the "fastest" and "shortest" routes between two points. With Topo- zone.com's technology, the big mapper also will be able to lead people into the wilderness.

A few companies, including map giant DeLorme Publishing Co. (www.delorme.com), offer topographic maps on CD-ROMs that cost up to $100. But Topozone.com may be the leader in its niche, according to several USGS and industry experts.

Although Topozone.com isn't the only site that offers topographic maps, the quality of its maps and site search tools appear to be more advanced, they said. At Topo- zone.com, users can search for maps by longitude and latitude or by plugging in the specific names of towns, cemeteries, mountains, even geysers.

"I can't find anything else quite like it," said David Terrell, marketing manager for the USGS data center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Executives at Maps a la carte likely will find a formidable rival in Maptech Inc. (www.map tech.com), which has included topographic maps on its site. But Maptech's online strengths tend to the nautical area, so it may be a better bet for boaters than hikers, said Matt Rosenberg, a geographer who writes for About.com.

McNierney and his chief executive, Bill Everett, are former executives at Eastman Kodak Co.'s software subsidiary. As late as September, the two executives weren't sure whether their love of maps and McNierney's "noodling" on the computer would translate into a viable business. "It wasn't until we got it working that we convinced ourselves," McNierney said.

But since the Topozone.com site opened in November, it has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors, including a few who have surprised the executives. The odd mix has included cemetery associations as well as hobbyists searching for old railroad tracks and radio towers.

Genealogists seeking links to their ancestors also have raced to the site. Don Hickman, a retired computer programmer who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, said he managed to find his great-great grandfather's cemetery while perusing Topozone.com. "I was just surfing the map around where they lived ... and there it was," he said.

Topozone.com's technology also has been embraced by recreational sites such as Trails.com and Alloutdoors.com. They either have incorporated Topozone. com's tools or provided links to the site.

Even the experts at the U.S. Geological Survey, which never managed to make its maps customer-friendly, are tickled. The agency's employees were among the first to rush to the Web site - to see their own maps.

"Whatever they want to do is fine by us," said Terrell. "If the opportunities make some people rich, that's fine."

That hasn't happened to McNierney and Everett. So far, the business has managed to bring only $50,000 in revenue, mainly from advertising and licensing fees.

But the executives hope to expand the company much faster now that they have $500,000 in seed funding and another $1 million investment from Navitrak International Corp., a Canadian mapping company.

Executives say they do not plan on charging consumers to print out screen maps displayed on the Topozone.com site.

Instead, they plan to make money by charging consumers for software that can be used to access better-quality maps from the site (without the annoying banner advertisements that show up on the screen printouts).

Everett believes Topozone's business model gives customers the ability to access the most recent maps available, without having to pay for updates, as they do with maps on CD-ROM.

"Our model is completely different," Everett said. "We give away the data and sell you the software."

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