In the olden days (the 1990’s) when we first started this website about Costa Rica there were no modern GPS enabled online maps for anywhere.
We wanted to be able to show locations on Costa Rica Guide.com. We also wanted to automatically access information and photos for nearby hotels, restaurants, national parks, waterfalls, zip-lines and other tours from our database. Of course we also wanted to be able to search for those points of interest plus cities, rivers, mountains, etc.
Our solution had to take into account that most people used dial-up internet connections. For anyone under 30 years old that meant hooking this machine called a modem to a landline (that’s sort of like a cell phone with a bad battery…it had to be plugged in all the time) and then waiting about 12 minutes for a single photo to appear on your computer screen.
The Grid Based Location Search Map
We made a huge digital map of Costa Rica and sliced it up into 400 tiles with grid coordinates. 1 to 20 across the top and A to T down the side. We assigned a few thousand cities, towns, lodges, waterfalls, volcanoes and other points of interest to grid coordinates and wrote php code to search the database and pull up the appropriate tiles to create a map.
We only had three zoom levels (a thumbnail, the whole country, or a nine tile section like the one shown above) and mouseover pop-up info windows weren’t reliable so we had to show the regional points of interest in the right hand column.
You could pan by clicking on the edge of the map you wanted to move towards and there was always a little map in the upper right corner showing which part of Costa Rica you were viewing in detail. The search included all of the points of interest, geographical features and cities and towns and whenever you moved to a new region (either pan or search) the list of regional points of interest (all linked to information and picture pages) would update.
Modern Digital Maps
A few years later when Apple and Google started copying our technique their data for Costa Rica lagged far behind (okay so they probably didn’t really copy us but what I described above is basically what they still do today). Even as recently as a few years ago Costa Rica was shown as little more than a rough outline with one road (the pan American Highway) down the middle on Google maps.
By that time we had a few million GPS datapoints and were getting ready to publish the first Waterproof Travel Map of Costa Rica so we decided to fix Google’s map while we were at it.
We used a CAD program intended for architecture and house design (we told it one millimeter was a kilometer and that Costa Rica was an apartment building) to create nine vector images with different levels of detail
I wrote a custom program to slice them into 148,000* .gif tiles encoded with their position and zoom level. The program also corrected them so a kilometer was no longer a millimeter and distorted them so they fit the map datum – the way a flat map wraps around a round globe.
It took my poor little 500MHz processor almost two weeks to run the code and it took me another two weeks to FTP the basemap tiles to the web server but we had the first modern online geocoded map of Costa Rica. For five or six years it was the only real map of Costa Rica and we provided it for free to our website visitors while charging corporations in Costa Rica a licensing fee to use the detailed base map in their mapping applications.
Google Caught Up
Google and other mega-corporations eventually finished the more profitable U.S. and Europe maps at a resolution down to the location of the toilet in your guest bathroom and turned their attention to Costa Rica.
Not only did they get the data in a big hurry, but they replaced the map API (the programming interface used to serve our custom data) so our online maps no longer worked.
You might think that spelled disaster for the little mapping company from Colorado but we couldn’t have been happier. It’s a huge amount of work to be responsible for a whole country and we’re delighted that someone else is doing it now.
Sure we’ve lost the licensing income but it was never commensurate with the effort anyway and our printed map is selling better than ever. Seems even with turn by turn directions at their fingertips people still want the big picture and something they can fold up and stuff in a backpack or glove compartment. In fact one of the most common comments we hear is “thank god we had the map, if we’d followed the GPS directions we’d have ended up in the Ocean.”
My only real regret was never grabbing a screenshot of one of the maps where the little notice in the bottom right corner said “Map data ©2007 Toucan Maps Inc. Costa Rica Guide” instead of “Map data ©2015 Google” like it does now ;-)
*anyone who does math on the fly as a hobby might notice that 148,000 tiles is only about half as many as needed to get to zoom level nine for a map of an area the size of Costa Rica. This is true but all of the open ocean tiles were assigned to a single blue square and in some of the more remote road-less wilderness areas we only supplied data down to zoom level seven or eight.