By ADAM GIFFORD
Three years ago the Government agreed to forgo copyright on its 1:50,000 scale topographical maps and make the data available for the costs of dissemination.
This led to a surge in digital mapping activity as entrepreneurs looked for new ways to use the data.
"It made a huge difference to what I was able to do," says Roger Smith, of Wellington firm GeographX, which is about to launch a 3D digital map of New Zealand.
"The data was created at taxpayer expense and it was being hoarded.
"Map data ages; it loses currency. We argued that it was not scarce and if it was released, we couldn't destroy it - all we could do was add value."
Smith describes himself as a born geographer who did not find his calling until late in life.
He trained as a geologist, then farmed sheep and cattle in Marlborough for 12 years, as well as doing some part-time flying.
He moved back to Wellington to do analysis and policy work for Tourism New Zealand, before deciding he wanted to work for himself.
"I could see the potential of GIS [Geographic Information Systems] technologies."
Using the freed data, GeographX produced digital elevation models of the country, followed by shaded relief images that can be used by mapmakers and GIS professionals.
The elevation data was rejigged for use in Microsoft Flight Simulator as a free 10MB download.
"That is responsible for about half the hits on the website," says Smith.
Last year, he and Les Molloy used 73 GeographX maps for the book Landforms: The Shaping of New Zealand.
The 3D digital map, which will be released at Te Papa on Wednesday, was a joint venture with K2Vi, which makes the visualisation software.
The two firms also work together on an interactive system for civil defence and emergency management, and one that is being implemented in the Defence Forces.
Along with Wellington web design company Chrometoaster, they supplied mapping data for this week's Southern Traverse endurance race, which includes QuickTime movies of the course through the Otago backblocks.
Smith welcomes the surge of competition as digital mapmakers find market niches and develop innovative software.
"If we all put our heads together we can probably take the world by storm with our technologies."
Like Smith, K2Vi technical director Gert van Maren has a passion for seeing the landscape from above - he moved to Wanaka so he could spend his spare time paragliding.
K2Vi grew out of work being done by forestry management company Asset Forestry.
"When the forestry industry collapsed, we looked for other markets," van Maren says.
Much of his work comes from urban planning and property development, creating virtual views of projects for use in sales or resource consent processes.
Tourism also has potential, with kiosks now being set up in Queenstown and Wanaka to give visitors a 3D view of local attractions.
Similar kiosk technology is being used for a virtual flythrough of the Whanganui River, which will form part of the Whanganui exhibition opening at Te Papa at the end of the month.
"For that we built a specialised viewer with a touchscreen and links to video and sound files, so as you work your way down the river, places of historical interest pop up," says van Maren.
Another company using the Land Information New Zealand topographic map data is Rotorua-based Vision Software, which offers Tumonz: The ultimate map of New Zealand.
Vision, which also came out of the forestry industry, has gone for a static rather than interactive approach to mapping.
Ross Stewart, of Auckland, takes a different approach for his Livingstone Guides, scanning paper maps for use on Pocket PC devices running Microsoft Windows CE.
Most of his sales come from Britain, from hikers wanting ordnance survey maps.
"We can take any map and geo-reference it," say Stewart, meaning users can work out where they are from a GPS (global positioning system) satellite signal.
"We sell a Baghdad map which came out of the CIA."
Long-established mapping company Wises has its maps online in an easily searchable service.
Terralink International, the former state mapping company bought out of receivership by Animation Research and New Zealand Aerial Mapping, offers digital maps and a wide range of other property information and services.
It has revamped its Terranet website to offer a one-stop shop for the data, which is mostly used by property buyers or sellers, including title, survey and valuation information and the aerial views produced by NZ Aerial Mapping.
Chief executive Mike Donald says Terranet was one of the first e-commerce sites in the country when it launched five years ago.
"We redeveloped the site to make it more user-friendly, and recognised the value we can add is bringing all the data to one point," he says.
"We have about 20 different data sources now, and we will be adding more as they become available."