From magnetic tape to the cloud: Data technology in transition

Axel Gußmann (l.) and Erich Hirsch talk about how PTV data technology has changed over the last 40 years.

In today’s digital age, it is hard to imagine that routes were once planned using Excel spreadsheets and maps pinned to the wall. In 1982, PTV was one of the first companies to digitise maps. The same year, it launched the world’s first PC-based route planning software – a true innovation. Together with Axel Gußmann, Director Data, and Erich Hirsch, Chief GIS Data Engineer, we took a glimpse of the past 40 years of PTV data technology.

Compass: Let’s take a short trip back into the 80’s. How were routes planned and calculated back then at PTV?

Erich Hirsch: Back then, we used location points. By applying an air-line distance factor of 1.3, route distances were already calculated pretty accurately. And then there was the so-called digitisation board that allowed you to digitally record the location points. The board was DIN A0 size and you could place cards on it to set the points. We then used it to enter the coordinates into the software.

Digitisation boards were used to enter coordinates into the software

Axel Gußmann: I still remember the first digitised road network covered by PTV, the famous “crumpled network”. It looked a bit like a piece of paper that had been crumpled up and unfolded again.

Erich Hirsch: It was an edge and node network, without a neat road courses. It wouldn’t have been possible to map intermediate points with the computing power available back then. We worked closely with Mairs Geografischer Verlag and had permission to adopt the geometry from atlases and from the General Map for Germany and Austria at a scale of 1:200 000.

Compass: That’s hard to imagine these days. Using our technology, Mairs launched the first consumer route planner onto the market as a CD.

Axel Gußmann: And there were different versions of it for the brands Falk and Marco Polo, for example the Caravan or Motorcycle Planner.

Erich Hirsch: I still get asked today about updates for the Motorcycle Planner (laughs).

The route planners of Falk and Marco Polo were based on PTV technology.

Axel Gußmann: The ADAC has also been among our customers since early on. Using PTV software, you could determine the best route to a holiday destination – which was a unique selling point of the ADAC planner for a long time.

Compass: When did we stop recording the location points and begin to use the network data offered by providers?

Erich Hirsch: That was in the late 1990s. We were working on an EU project together with other data providers and defined a uniform standard format that could be used to save and exchange network data. Previously, everyone had been using their own format.

Axel Gußmann: Once this so-called GDF format had been defined, we obtained road network data from AND, Teleatlas and Navteq. We then processed the data and used it in our products. We never committed ourselves to a single data provider and have always remained open for new companies and independent from the start. And that’s still how we operate today.

Compass: When you look back, is there an anecdote you would like to share with us?

Erich Hirsch: Oh sure! One of my favourite stories took place shortly after the reunification of Germany. That’s when we received the first topographic maps of the eastern part of Germany. We were supposed to connect the networks of the former GDR to ours. But somehow, they just couldn’t be matched. There were deviations of one to two kilometres. A few days later, the media reported that the former GDR had deliberately distorted the maps near the border. But we knew it before the news broke.

Compass: How does the providers’ data ultimately get into our products?

Erich Hirsch: Well, we need a binary data format that is small and handy and delivers the best possible performance for our software.

Axel Gußmann:  We have developed our own PTV binary format and have continued to modify it to balanceout provider differences and display additional content. The AGF, the Advanced Geographic Format, has been in use since 2000.

Harmonizing the input of providers like Here or Tomtom is an essential part of what our converters do. In our data department, we then enrich the networks with premium content, such as toll data, environmental zones or special restrictions. The fact that we integrate this content is an essential unique selling point and ensures that we meet all the requirements of complex route planning.

Compass: Why do we lay our hands on the data again to enrich it? 

Axel Gußmann: It all started with our customer ADAC. They really wanted everything included in their route planning and reported missing routes to us, for example. We then added this information into the data for our products.

Erich Hirsch: We’ve always been driven by the products and functionality we want to offer our customers. If we couldn’t find something on the market, we made it ourselves.

Axel Gußmann: Obtaining, recording and evaluating this type of value-added data, such as truck time series, speed profiles or special priority networks for long trucks, is still one of our greatest challenges today.

PTV Museum: Floppy Disks & Co.

Compass: How was the data delivered over time?

Erich Hirsch: At the beginning, the networks were on magnetic tapes. Later they were delivered on floppy disks.

Axel Gußmann: When I started at PTV in 1998, we were still using floppy disks. But soon afterwards, CDs and DVDs were introduced. And with increasing storage capacity, we could gradually reduce the up to 15 data carriers needed beforehand. Today we provide a world map in the cloud which can be updated online.

Compass: And where will the journey take us in the future?

Axel Gußmann: One of the biggest challenges is certainly that maps and data have to be provided faster, more regularly and constantly need to be updated.

Erich Hirsch: Big data is also playing an increasingly important role. Thanks to today’s large amounts of data, a comparison with other data sources has become easier. This leads to improved results. At the same time, quality assurance requirements are becoming more and more demanding. And because we are dealing with millions of individual segments, they need to be checked extremely carefully. A map used to be checked before it was released. Now, the most important factors of the map are checked every night while it’s in the process of being created.

Axel Gußmann: Aggregating and interpreting data is becoming increasingly important, as it opens up new possibilities for our products. Self-learning maps, for example, or real-time delivery that allow for automatic updates of construction sites, disruptions, etc. in real time. I am certain that artificial intelligence and pattern recognition will further accelerate the development of data processing in the coming years. And PTV plans to be at the forefront of innovation again!