The missing streets of Germany and the man who finds them

Ian Delaney
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E

Wilfried Ness is a map detective. From his office at the HERE Campus in Berlin, it’s his team’s job to track down missing roads in Germany, find out where they’ve gone and assign them to their correct place on the HERE map again.

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Roads go missing or fall out-of-date more often than you’d think. The most obvious cause for this is building work, the construction of new roads, or destruction of old ones.

But that’s not actually the most common cause. Wilfried explains:

“The most common thing to happen is that administrative borders change. A town grows – or shrinks – and changes its status, perhaps becoming part of another county, or becoming a more major town in its own right.”

This has a big knock-on effect. “Under German law, each municipality can only have one road with a particular name. Unfortunately, we seem to have a very limited supply of street names. So when the borders change, it means that there are duplicates and one of the roads has to change its name.

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For example, every town seems to have its own ‘Dorfstrasse,’ which translates to 'village street'. So when borders change and a duplicate occurs, one of them has to come up with a new name.

Wilfried estimates that between 3 per-cent and 5 per-cent of German roads are changed in some way, every year. That’s out of 1,200,000 streets across the country or around 1,062,000 kilometres of mapped road in total.

Buried in Bureaucracy

It gets more complicated still. With every detail Wilfried tells us, the more daunting his job sounds.

There’s no single government repository where changes to street names are recorded. The records might be kept at a local, county level, or at a federal level, depending on whether it’s a major or minor road, or a highway. The record might be in any of dozens of possible locations across the country. When Wilfried either discovers or is told of an inaccuracy, he has to work out who might have the records, obtain them for verification and then input the changes to the map by hand.

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Because HERE is adding extremely fine detail to its maps, the recorded data on our maps of Germany includes road signs. There is a government form that is used to record the precise location of every road sign on every road in the country. But once again, they aren’t kept in a database. They aren’t kept electronically at all. Instead, there are separate paper forms that might be held at local, federal or national offices, and Wilfried has to track down copies manually, have them faxed over and again, input changes painstakingly by hand.

Another major resource in tracking changes is the Deutsche Post (post office) database. Thankfully, this does exist online in a single location. But there’s a catch – the database doesn’t include precise mapping information – why would it? Instead, it acts as a trigger to identify changes which then need to be followed up by the HERE team.

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While Wilfried’s job is mainly office-based, he has to get out with a HERE mapping vehicle and investigate the changes himself at least once a quarter. Sometimes, he’s got a hunch something has moved and has to see it with his own eyes. He shows us the long, circular route through Berlin he took most recently, with hot spots marked where he was sure there had to be changes because of construction work.

“I could tell there was something going on here,” he points at the satellite map of the city on his screen. “Using the car, I’m able to verify the changes and get them back into the database.”

Mapmaking never finishes. While our maps of Germany are ‘complete’ in some senses – they’re officially designated as being in ‘maintenance mode’ – that maintenance is a full-time, full-on, frustrating, painstaking, but ultimately extremely rewarding job for Wilfried and his team.

Next time you find the right place, remember the mapmakers.

Topics: Cartography, Fun Maps, Insights

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