In the year 1999 the use of recreational GPS became a reality to self drive tourists or overlanders as they are often referred to. While a GPS could pin point your location accurately there were no maps available for use on your GPS. Here in Africa there were a real need for navigational aids and the GPS seemed like a good one even without proper maps.
The people who started using GPS devices in those days were mostly people interested in technology, willing to embrace it. So inevitably the engineers started finding ways to improve the situation. Many of us reverted to integrating a GPS with a laptop computer, running mapping software on the laptop computer that would enable you to overlay the position obtained from the GPS onto a raster map. The Russian maps were very popular for this purpose.
The raster maps were great as long as you wanted to look at them at a scale of 1:50 000 and higher. We wanted more accurate maps than this.
The GPS had a very nifty feature; it could record a track or breadcrumb trail of where you travelled. It could also record waypoints. So quickly people started recording their tracks and waypoints and with use of e-mail and internet we could share this data with one another. You would simply upload the track and waypoints of places and follow these on screen as you drive. This was still not a map though.
In the year 2001 we setup the Tracks4Africa website and discussion forum. The website was home to all the tracks and waypoints and you could search for a particular route and download this for your own use. On the discussion forum we talked about travel and especially navigation in Africa using GPS devices. The discussions were technical and some really clever people joined in to develop ways of making the use of GPS more practical for overlanders.
Whilst we were sharing data with one another we still did not have a map. In the year 2001 I showed Wouter how to use a GIS and being a data man himself he quickly took to it and started to build a vault of GPS track data in the form of a line shapefile. He also started to build a map of Africa from this this vault of community data. This became known as the T4A Map. It was still not a map we could use on our GPS devices.
Then in the year 2003 a long time community member, Sarel van der Walt, had a terrible motorcycle accident which chained him to his bed. At that stage we learned about software that allowed you to build a Garmin compatible map. It was cGPSMapper from Stan in Poland and we obtained a copy. Sarel needed something to take his mind off his accident and Wouter gave him the job of building our first Garmin compatible GPS map from T4A Map data.
Three weeks later we had a prototype. I did a Botswana trip shortly after that and was testing the new map in the Makgadikgadi Pans on a Garmin GPS V. This was history in the making; I was traversing the pans with my wife telling me left or right and my friends trailing behind me blindly. They were all very nervous as it looked like we were driving into nowhere and then suddenly we arrived at our intended destination. Beers were opened and everyone had newly found respect for this little device we carried along. The gimmick after all was now a useful navigation aid and even my wife now appreciated this senseless hobby of ours – little did we know that this would become our bread and butter a few years later!
This first prototype was not a routable map, i.e. it could not give you turn by turn directions but it most certainly was a giant step forward. Now all of a sudden the community was capable of constructing a map to their own specifications and the use of GPS amongst overlanders became more and more popular.
Shortly after we build the first map, we realised that we are incurring expenses. Wouter was unselfishly burning hours and hours of midnight oil to collect and process data from the community. He was doing this in conjunction to his regular work and did not get any form of remuneration for his efforts.
He realised that he should start selling the maps to the public in order to get some income for buying equipment and paying someone to assist him. So in 2005 Wouter started selling T4A GPS Maps online. The publics could access our website, select a map and pay by credit card. The map would then be downloaded to your computer and you would install it on Mapsource and then transfer it to your GPS device. I was a bit sceptical of the whole thing but Wouter persevered and in the first month he sold more than R30 000 of maps – we were amazed at the interest.
It should be mentioned that the move to become commercial was widely debated on the forum, as is the case with all other things T4A. The consensus was reached that Tracks4Africa, the company, would process all raw data from the community. It would also then construct the maps from this data and add in other features such as water bodies, boundaries etc. These were traced from ZuluSat images. In return for this work Tracks4Africa would own the copyright of the map derived from the community data and it would have the right toi sell it.
The community argued that the value of the compiled map versus having to upload individual tracks and waypoints far outweighed the cost of it. Community members could also request the maps in order to test it, make corrections etc.
In the year 2006 we decided to sell our complete set of maps on a CD for the first time. We produced a whopping 150 CDs and sold most of them through AfricanStuff. At that stage Renzo Blasa joined us to promote the CD’s and he made sure that all outdoor shops and GPS dealers in South Africa stocks T4A GPS Maps. The market responded very well to the product on CD and we grew our sales rapidly to produce between 3000 and 5000 SD cards per version in 2010.
Also during the year 2006 we were lucky enough to be spotted by Michael Jones from Google. At that stage Google was taking part in the Geography Week for which the 2006 theme was Africa. They were looking for something uniquely African and we fit the bill. In November 2006 a Tracks4Africa layer featured on Google Earth.
Our maps were not routable up to 2007 when Wouter began to make our maps routable. After some research and getting a consultant in for a day he was ready to start converting our data. This was no small task and it took three years to convert most of our data to be able to build routable maps from it.
During May 2007 I resigned from my day job and became a fulltime Tracks4Africa employee. It took me a year to make this decision but three years down the line I can say that I have never looked back. The company was doing financially not too bad at that stage but we knew that we would have to grow the revenue tremendously to make it sustainable.
There were some big commercial map makers who claimed that they would have Cape to Cairo covered as routable maps but the small company with the big community beat them to it. In the year 2008 the T4A GPS Maps became the first GPS map to have routable coverage all the way from Cape Town to Cairo. Today we can also say we have Cape to Timbuktu routable.
The T4A map captured the community’s travel experience in the form of their GPS tracks and waypoints, but what about their stories and photos? We realised that our methodology probably only captured 10% of the experience derived from a particular trip. So in the year 2008 we launched a new initiative called Padkos. Padkos was in essence a web page containing a landing page for each point of interest on our maps. In other word for every point on the map you now had a landing page on which we allow the community to upload photos, provide descriptions and comments about this place.
Padkos was hosted on a separate web page to start off as an experiment but is now integrated with our Tracks4Africa website acting as a source of tourist information.
Knowing that we had a great map of Africa we were looking for ways to get this map published on more platforms that just the Garmin compatible maps we produced. Navteq opened local offices in South Africa during 2006 and they were looking to expand their data coverage. We entered into negotiations for a data license and in the year 2009 we finally signed an agreement allowing Navteq to use Tracks4Africa data and to sell it as a premium product to their customers. Here is a copy of their press release. (link na PDF press release)
Our old website was becoming outdated, we realised that Padkos had to be integrated into our Tracks4Africa site and we needed our own map server. This called for a bold investment in a brand new website, with new look and feel, the Padkos functionality built into it as well as a brand new web map integrated with the web site.
So here you have it, our story to date. We would like to thank everyone who has been supporting Tracks4Africa over the last ten years. Some numbers:
Special thanks to the Tracks4Africa Community who has been contributing tracks, points, photos, ideas and support!