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How Komoot Built The Best Bike-Route Mapping App

Komoot’s new Optimap puts rich, crowdsourced topographical data right in your hand.

How Komoot Built The Best Bike-Route Mapping App
[All Photos: Komoot]

Komoot’s new Optimap is designed for hikers and bikers. It’s the first electronic map that puts rich topographical data on the small screen of your mobile device, tailored for non-car users, while also making it easy to use. The map was developed over a year by the Berlin-based Komoot, and a four-person team from Berlin’s Beuth University.

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Komoot was also one of the first apps to offer routes optimized for cyclists and hikers. This is most useful when you use the app to plan multi-leg tours, but it also works well in cities. You can even tell the app your fitness level, so it can tailor a route for your abilities. This is important in places like Germany, where regular folks, not just sporty types, use bikes as everyday transport.

Komoot started life as a Germany-only app for planning and navigating on biking and hiking tours. It’s unique selling point was the quality of its data. Komoot seemed to find paths and shortcuts not even found on Google Maps. This accuracy and richness comes from Open Street Map, the community-built map platform that lets anybody make edits and add details, like a map version of Wikipedia. “Most other outdoor and fitness apps simply use Google Maps, which really fails in most outdoor cases,” says Komoot CEO Tobias Hallermann.

Then, in the summer of 2013, the app went international, still with the same level of detail. This, too, was thanks to Open Street Map, which covers the entire globe. “Open Street Map is far the best source for outdoor relevant map data. It is mostly standardized and available worldwide,” says Hallermann. “However, we needed to add further data, e.g., for hill shade and elevation lines.”

The design goal for Komoot’s new Optimap was to bring the “standards of high quality outdoor paper maps like the Swiss army maps, UK Ordnance Survey maps, and Austrian Kompass” to the small screen. To do this, Komoot sought the help of four Ph.D. students at the Beuth University, two cartographers and two designers.

They’ve done a great job. The map appears almost too simple at first. Apart from the familiar +/- zoom buttons, a button to toggle different maps, and an icon to center the map on your current position, there are no controls. But everything is there, and appears as you need it. Zoom out, and countries are clearly labeled, their borders marked by thick lines. Major cities are shown, and little red dots denote places of interest (these vary depending on which form of transport you prefer–city bike, mountain bike, road bike, or legs).

As you zoom in, more and more details appears. Roads are color-coded, like any map, but so are beaten paths, single-track, alpine hiking trails, and others. Contour lines are marked, along with elevation, and yet the map stays clean-looking. Coupled with the offline map access, the map really is as good as a paper map. Apart from needing a battery, and not being waterproof, that is.

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The first thing you notice when you actually use the map is how fast it is. Click a start point and a destination on the map and the route is calculated almost instantly. Adding extra waypoints–essential when planning a tour–is just as quick.

Unlike paper maps, and “professional” map apps, Hallermann and his team set out to make the map simple for anyone to use without a map legend. And yet it’s still possible to spot things like landcover–woods, marshland, glaciers, and boulders for example.

This is all the more impressive when you consider the competition. Google’s maps might be the best around, for general use, but they have Google’s resources behind them. Even Apple, with more money in the bank than anybody, is still playing catch up, and Nokia sold its map business this summer for $3.18 billion.

There are unique requirements for a map that serves cyclists and hikers. Drivers don’t care about terrain and elevation, but cyclists plan entire tours based on seeking or avoiding big hills. And even in the city, cyclists have very different needs. In Komoot’s native Germany, for instance, bikes can legally go against the traffic on many one-ways streets. And of course cycleways need to be mapped. Komoot will always route the user onto bike-friendly streets when possible. Even the kind of road surface is taken into account when calculating routes.

“If you ever biked on Berlin’s cobblestones, you know what I’m talking about,” says Hallermann.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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