Rich Data, Big Data: A Day at Nokia’s U.S. Headquarters

By Joe Francica

When I first visited what was then Navigation Technologies in 1989 in Sunnyvale, California, portable navigation device (PND) systems were, in a word, “clunky.” At that time, a PND was an approximately five-inch black box with a small “green” screen that displayed “stick maps.” The CDs of geographic data for car navigation were in the trunk and if you planned to travel cross country you were probably changing those discs frequently along the journey. Fast-forward 20 some years, PNDs look a little different and so does NAVTEQ, now, Nokia’s Location and Commerce division.

Nokia acquired NAVTEQ in October 2007 in a deal that former CEO Judson Green negotiated for a cool $8.1 billion. In October, I once again paid a visit to Nokia’s U.S. headquarters and found a Silicon Valley atmosphere, only this time it was in Chicago. I wanted to get a more in-depth picture of how Nokia now operates and what new data products the company plans to offer.

My first stop was to meet with Aaron Dannenbring, the company’s vice president of product management and field operations. He explained the rigors of amassing a worldwide database that is exploding in rich content. His job is not about capturing data solely for car navigation systems. Dannenbring has a team of 1,500 people in 45 countries with over 200 offices. Development teams are found in Fargo, North Dakota; Mumbai, India; and Leon, Mexico. The data they collect run from pavement markings to automotive-grade street centerlines, just as you would expect. But the vehicles they drive collect more than road information; an array of instrumentation and sensors capture a wealth of data that Nokia is still assessing for marketable applications. There are teams at Nokia looking at alternative uses of LiDAR for example, with centimeter accuracy that may show up in applications years down the road. One area of interest is looking at how drivers use common landmarks, place names or familiar stores to pinpoint their destinations. It’s an area Nokia calls “natural guidance.” To do this Nokia is capturing buildings and signage in order to “humanize” navigation and improve the overall user experience for portable navigation devices and mobile handsets. In the future, your car navigation system might tell you to “turn left in 200 feet at the Citibank Building,” for example.

Dannenbring’s biggest challenge is producing maps more quickly. He is looking at cutting the update time to weeks, not months. Some of this challenge will be met by Nokia’s crowdsourcing tool, Map Reporter, relying on an opt-in approach that will still need rigorous quality assurance checks by his staff. Nokia has also recently launched “Here,” a cloud-based location content and app platform. However NAVTEQ Maps will remain the brand users will see when they purchase data for the GIS marketplace.

My next stop was a visit with Sarah Rossio, director of product management. Rossio’s team is working on new pedestrian navigation and public transit products as well as indoor navigation, a key element distinguishing Nokia in the mobile handset market. The task for Rossio involves more complex routing scenarios as users mix their modes of transportation. Some of the process will depend on developing relationships with government agencies to get the most current transit schedules. However the greatest challenge might be that some routes depend on local knowledge of the road and pathway infrastructure, as well as an understanding of when and where people are using public transportation.

These days, Nokia has a friend in Microsoft especially since CEO Stephen Elop is a former Microsoft executive, where he led the “Office” line of products. Windows Phone 8 is the software platform for Nokia’s line of Lumia smartphones and Bing Maps is one key platform for Nokia’s mapping apps, as well as “Here,” mentioned above.

One key area where Nokia is staking a claim for differentiation is better routing and indoor location data for points of interest such as major malls. Rossio showed me how her team has developed data for the location of retail stores at indoor shopping malls, available with Bing Maps today. Unique to this application is the fact that Nokia not only routes you to the mall’s location, but also around the parking lot, since it has also digitized the larger service roads.

Ogi Redzic, the vice president for Nokia’s traffic group, loves traffic or at least the challenge of solving road congestion. Redzic is out to relieve the headaches we all experience when traffic accidents delay our most pressing appointments. But, he has a big data problem. Probe data, sensor networks, live camera feeds, and information from various partners feed a growing demand for the most current traffic information. Scale is critical in a segment of the business that is setting up as a battleground with rival TomTom. Nokia phones now include Nokia Drive (more below), which includes information about the local traffic situation.

My last stop was Nokia’s traffic management center, where approximately 80 operators take shifts to monitor incident data. Operators are assigned geographic territories where they watch for accidents and constantly monitor information coming from local departments of transportation. When an incident occurs, the operator may verify the incident by pulling up live feeds from highway cameras or by calling dispatchers at local public safety authorities. When an incident such as an accident occurs, the operator will register the event, which is then posted immediately to the live traffic service and the maps are updated in real-time.  The incident management software Nokia uses was developed in-house and provides a straightforward interface that operators can quickly complete once an event is verified. It’s an amazing operation that will shortly expand to a new center in downtown Chicago (photos below).

Nokia loaned me a Lumia 900 (see graphics below) so that I could test Nokia Drive, the company’s navigation solution for smartphones. While most features of Nokia Drive are similar to other route guidance solutions, I found the 3D mode to be one of the best I’ve used (image below). The depiction of the route with a horizon provided easier navigation than simple 2D, that is, typical map mode. I think, visually, it will make for easier interpretation than the standard map view. Also included on the Lumia is Nokia City Lens, Nokia’s augmented reality (AR) app (image below). It has an easy, readable layout, typical of other AR apps. So, while there’s nothing unique, I found the implementation to be quite good.

The volume of data that Nokia collects from driving the highways of the world is contributing to a rich dataset of geographically referenced objects, facades, street furniture and probably some very unusual and historical land features, in addition to the streets and points of interest we see in Web portals and PNDs. The challenge for Nokia’s Location and Commerce group is to mine the riches of those data and put the company back on top of the mobile world.  It’s now as much an information technology company as it is a mobile handset manufacturer and perhaps that’s the best possible transformation for the company down the road. The challenge is whether Elop can convince enough people that his delivery platforms, smartphones and tablets, are on par with the extraordinarily rich data he can to deliver to the mobile age.

Nokia Lumia 900


Nokia Drive (click for larger image)


Nokia City Lens (click for larger image)


Nokia's Traffic Management Center in Chicago (click for larger images) [Images below courtesy of Nokia]

Published Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Written by Joe Francica

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