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The future of CalTopo || Interview with founder Matt Jacobs

For several years my go-to platform for topographical maps and imagery has been CalTopo. It has fully replaced — and far surpassed — National Geographic’s TOPO! desktop software, which was discontinued in 2012 and is no longer supported by NG; and, overall, its trip-planning features are unmatched by other online platforms and apps. I use CalTopo most often to:

CalTopo had been a free service. But to help cover costs and provide compensation for development time, CalTopo founder Matt Jacobs introduced a 3-tier membership model several weeks ago. I took the opportunity to interview Matt about this change and about the future of CalTopo.

A screenshot from CalTopo, of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route displayed on the USGS 7.5-minute layer

A screenshot from CalTopo, of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route displayed on the USGS 7.5-minute layer


Q | When you launched Caltopo in 2011, what was your vision for it?

I wish I could say that I had a clear vision such as “I want to be to TOPO! what Google Docs is to Word”. I started out trying to build something that was both specific to Search & Rescue and meant to be run within a command post. Then at the end of 2010, some members of the Bay Area SAR community were asked to assist with a missing persons search in the midwest. Using my software, members in several locations were able to analyze the search area, create a plan, and prepare a full set of maps for use the following morning. It was the first time any of us had heard of a search being remotely planned by a distributed team, and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. Forget most of what I’d been doing, I needed to focus on building an online map editor.

Even then, I wouldn’t say I had a coherent vision. There was a lot of trial and error, and it took a while to find the right feature set. The two foundations were good terrain visualization and collaborative map editing, and the rest grew organically from there.

Q | I did not realize there was a precursor to CalTopo. What were the differences between the two programs?

I originally tried to focus too much on structured data management. Mapping was still a huge part, but you couldn’t just draw arbitrary lines and points. For example, instead of putting a dot on the map and labeling it “command post”, you had to create a command post object. You could create a search assignment, a range ring or a track, but not a free-form line. It might sound odd given where CalTopo is now, but it took me a while to realize I should scrap all those domain specific data structures and just focusing on letting people draw on the map.

Q | Now four years after launch, what is your vision for it? Given that you recently switched to a subscription model (from free) and that it’s much more widely used, I assume you have more clarity.

The short version is that I want CalTopo to be the best backcountry route planning tool around. The long version is that I see three areas I’d really like to improve.

The first is data sharing. There are already plenty of sites that let users share a GPS track or find a nearby trail, and they’re fine if you just want a quick grab-and-go trip. But they don’t let you say “here’s a map of the entire trail network”. I’d love to see more people create maps like Hikin’ Jims San Gorgonio Map, although not necessarily at that scale — maybe just a backcountry travel route with key waypoints marked. So I want to build out more features that help people find shared maps, and do more to encourage people to share their data.

Screenshot of Hikin' Jim's San Gorgonio map, which he has publicly shared

Screenshot of Hikin’ Jim’s San Gorgonio map, which he has publicly shared

The second is usability. I regularly get emails from people asking for a feature that’s already supported — for example, at one point you asked me about joining two lines together. Visual design isn’t my strong suit, and adding polish to a hobby project is a hard sell. So one of the reasons I’m excited to be moving to a paid model is that it will let me focus more on usability. I have the top two Google search results for “print topo”, and yet people who land on my site regularly struggle to do just that. From a business perspective, that’s a disaster.

Third, I need to create my own maps. In many places the USGS 7.5′ topos are still great, but in others they’re horribly outdated. They’re also hard to read when printing at 1:50k scale and up, which is why you recommend buying small-scale overview maps elsewhere. I’ve thought about doing this in the past but always backed off because it’s hard to find the right visual balance. Do you stop showing trails when the user zooms out far enough? How strongly do you emphasize public/private land boundaries? Does vegetation shading or aerial imagery make for a better background? Then I realized I shouldn’t be making these decisions, but should leave it up to the user. One of my big goals for the next year is to let users to create custom-styled topo maps.

Note: The maps in the gallery above were created with a beta update to CalTopo.

Q | For what reasons (e.g. functionality, useability, end-use application) will someone be drawn more to CalTopo than to other online mapping platforms and apps like Hillmap, GaiaGPS, Backcountry Navigator Pro GPS, AllTrails, and even DeLorme’s Explore platform and Earthmate app?

I think CalTopo has the best route planning and terrain visualization tools out there. If you’re just doing a short trip or staying on well marked trails, you’re probably fine with a basic map and might not even bother looking at it beforehand. But once you start logging full days or venturing off trail, preparation pays off big time, and that’s where CalTopo really shines.

I’m also not aware of another site that lets you collaborate with trip partners the way CalTopo does. You can share a map, and everyone involved with the trip can mark it up with places to stay and things to do. It’s also easy to draw a few possible campsites or travel routes, and then post a link up on a forum asking for advice.

My hunting partner Noel and I have been co-developing this shared map of our hunting unit, adding notes from our separate scouting trips. The base map is USGS 7.5-min topos, with a land management boundary layer added.

My hunting partner Noel and I have been co-developing this shared map of our hunting unit, adding notes from our separate scouting trips. The base map is USGS 7.5-min topos, with a land management boundary layer added.

Of course, most of the market is composed of casual users, and most casual users just want to look at a topo and fire off a print or sync it with their phone. That’s one reason why maintaining a viable free site was important to me. I don’t have a competitive advantage there, but if I can eventually turn a casual user into a serious one, I do.

Q | CalTopo had been entirely free, but very recently you changed to a membership model (with limited use and services still free). What drove this decision?

Burnout. I’ve put a lot of time into CalTopo over the past five years, and it’s sort of become this monster lurking over my shoulder. Instead of spending the majority of my time developing cool new features, it gets eaten away by a constant stream of emails, bugfixes and server maintenance. I’ve made significant sacrifices in both my personal and professional lives, and while I don’t regret doing so, it’s time to move on. I can’t spend my next five years like I spent the last five.

At the same time, I care about my creation and want to see it prosper and thrive. I don’t want to just walk away and let it stagnate, and I don’t want to sell it off to someone with a different vision. I don’t think most of my users want to see either of those options happen, either. The best way forward is clearly for CalTopo to become self-sustaining. Not just in terms of covering the operating costs, but also in allowing me continue investing time.

Until recently, CalTopo had been entirely free. Now there are three membership levels: Free, Basic, and Pro.

Until recently, CalTopo had been entirely free. Now there are three membership levels: Free, Basic, and Pro.

Q | That’s an honest answer, and one I can appreciate as someone who also has to navigate overlapping interests and income streams. I’m sure you’re torn about it, but you’re making the right decision: I like free as much as anyone else, but I’d rather pay a nominal amount to get something awesome and to have assurances about its longevity.

Next question: Why did you settle on the 3-tier membership model (Free, Basic, Pro)? Did you consider other tiers, or perhaps an advertising-supported model?

First, there was never any question about having a free tier. Beyond the fact that it helps build mind share, I don’t want to sell a product that I wouldn’t want to buy. As a user, the inability to send a URL to non-customers, or hop onto a friend’s computer and bring up a map without signing in first, would drive me nuts.

As far as having two paid tiers, and their pricing, there’s not a lot of science that went into it. I originally wanted to go with a single tier, in order to keep things simple, but user feedback talked me out of it. Having two tiers helps me appeal to casual users, while still charging an appropriate amount for the people who want advanced features.

With a typical website, there’s a lot of margin space you can sell to advertisers or use for referral links. CalTopo doesn’t have that, and going back to not wanting to offer a product I wouldn’t use myself, I couldn’t find a way to integrate advertising that wouldn’t be hugely detrimental to the user experience.

Q | Do you expect or hope that revenue from CalTopo will support a full-time position, or do you think it will be secondary to a more established career?

That is where I’d like to take it, but I have no expectation that it will happen overnight just because I started asking for money. You asked earlier about why people would be drawn to CalTopo, and the short answer was advanced features. The reality is that there simply aren’t enough people who do that kind of in-depth route research to keep me afloat full time.

The way I see it, the only way to do that is to broaden CalTopo’s appeal. I need to improve the site’s usability and make it more approachable for first time visitors. That process isn’t going to be easy or quick. Then again, I’m a software developer living in a mountain town, so my bar for “established career” is lower than when I lived in the Bay Area.

Q | Okay, final question. CalTopo seems to be ever evolving — every time that I log on, it seems that features have been added or the user-interface has been refined. What are the two or three planned changes to CalTopo about which users should be most excited?

That’s a hard one to answer. For small ideas, I’ll often implement and deploy them within a week, so most of the exciting stuff still on my to-do list is big, complicated and hard to estimate a completion date for.

I mentioned custom topo maps earlier. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to match the quality of hand-collected data like Tom Harrison’s, but being able to provide maps that work well at scales other than 1:24k and have up-to-date data should be big.

Auto-routing along trails is something that’s come up over and over again. The database I’ve built up to support custom topos will finally allow me to support auto-routing, instead of requiring you to trace out a path by hand. It won’t be live until after custom topos, but should happen within the next year.

Beyond that, though, over the next year I think that there will be fewer big changes and more of a focus on small improvements.


Disclosure: Because of my past public support of CalTopo, Matt gave me a complimentary Pro membership. This interview is simply part of an on-going effort to provide readers with interesting and useful content. I have no financial stake in the success of the CalTopo.


If you have additional questions for Matt, please leave a comment. He’d be happy to answer them.

16 Responses to The future of CalTopo || Interview with founder Matt Jacobs

  1. Sam H November 1, 2015 at 8:42 am #

    Long time user. Thanks for the future insight.

  2. Jared Campbell November 1, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    Andrew, thanks for the great article. I have come to love CalTopo and it has re-written how I plan out trips. The collaborative aspect of it is incredible and I find the UI fairly intuitive. Matt, do you foresee an app-based version in the future, ala GaiaGPS? My current protocol is to use CalTopo for up-front planning and then load it onto GaiaGPS for the actual adventure works. I’ve often thought about how powerful it would be if the two capabilities were merged or integrated.

    Thanks!

    Jared

    • Andrew Skurka November 1, 2015 at 9:37 am #

      Funny, my system is identical.

    • Matt Jacobs November 1, 2015 at 12:45 pm #

      You’re not the first person to ask, but I don’t have the bandwidth to pursue app development at the moment. While there are some libraries that help you re-use stuff you’ve built for the web inside an app, I’d still be building a lot from the ground up. Many many hours that, at the moment, I think are better invested in improving the website.

      However, there may be things I can do to improve the integration between CalTopo and existing apps. Can you describe what you do currently to move data between CalTopo and Gaia, and how you’d want things to work in an ideal world?

      • Joffrey K Peters June 10, 2016 at 8:42 am #

        I do something similar, but with Backcountry Navigator. I can make a map in Caltopo (or sometimes Google Earth), export the GPS file, load it onto BCN, then in BCN I select an area and it downloads the topo tiles from caltopo for offline use. It’s a great system, but even more streamlined would be… well, even better!

  3. Ric R November 1, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    Andrew – Awesome article and great information provided. I’ve used CalTopo and it’s excellent. I have no desire seeing it fade to the wayside. I’ll support the site with a paid membership that hopefully will allow it to continue to provide the excellent service it does well into the future!

    Thanks.

    Ric

  4. Dave November 1, 2015 at 11:36 am #

    CalTopo is fantastic. The local SAR team uses it here as well.

    I was wondering how long before they switched to pay-to-use model considering there were a few times the server got overloaded with traffic.

  5. John G November 5, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

    Andrew – Have you written an article that describes how to get a Cal Topo map into Gaia?

    • Andrew Skurka November 6, 2015 at 6:52 am #

      No, but it is easy. Normally I just use Gaia for digital maps, so I create a really rough route in Gaia, sync the route to my phone, and instruct rhe app to download the maps along the route.

      If you want, you can also export waypoints and tracks from CalTopo, and import them into Gaia. But I so rarely use a GPS to navigate that I never do this.

  6. Chris November 11, 2015 at 9:26 pm #

    Great article. CalTopo is a valuable resource for my winter trips. I’m now a $20 Basic member. Cheers!

  7. Doug K November 13, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

    Very interesting, and best of luck to Matt..
    I may sign up for basic next year depending on the Boy Scout troop planning..

    “I have the top two Google search results for “print topo”, and yet people who land on my site regularly struggle to do just that.”
    Ha. It is a hard problem, have been hacking away at it for years using other websites – Microsoft Terraserver once upon a time, topomaps and topowest etcetera. Google Maps was actually pretty good for a while, until they yanked out the ‘terrain’ option, boo. For longer trips I usually just break down and buy the maps from USGS, though sadly the Denver/Lakewood store is no longer open.

    in CO I tend to use the really excellent Colorado Hunting and Colorado Fishing Atlases, online via colostate.edu. Applause to Co Parks & Wildlife..

  8. Hikin' Jim November 15, 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    Interesting. I hadn’t realized that many people were even aware of my San Gorgonio Map. I hope at least some people are getting good use out of it.

    HJ

  9. Matt April 6, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    Hey Matt,
    I really appreciate all of the work that you are doing on CalTopo. It is an invaluable resource and I tell everyone about it. Good to know that there is a paid version now. My question revolves around the measuring of distance on the map. When I draw a line on the map, point to point, and it gives me a distance between the 2 points, does that take into account the elevation change or is it measuring distance is if you were on flat ground. When you think about the pythagorean theorem, a^2 + b^2 = c^2, if elevation is not taken into account, then the distance could be dramatically longer than what the map says. I am not trying to be critical at all since I have already figured out how to figure it out if I need to, but I simply do not know it I need to think through that part of the distance calculation.

    Thanks- Matt

    • Matt Jacobs April 7, 2016 at 11:13 pm #

      It’s measuring the crow-flies distance without regard to elevation. Occasionally I get requests to incorporate elevation change, and I may add it to the detailed profile at some point, but it I don’t think it will ever be part of the default distance measurement. Why?

      For one, it’s computationally expensive. For a flat-ground distance calculation, the two lat/long coordinates give you all the information you need. Going beyond that requires querying an external service to look up the two points’ elevations. As you draw a line on CalTopo, I’m constantly showing you that line’s distance in the upper right corner – either I’d have to delay this to fetch the elevation data, or it would be inconsistent with the final distance shown.

      Second, I’m not aware of a well-understood standard for incorporating elevation change. Say I draw a straight 1km line connecting two sides of a canyon. The elevation change between the start an end points is minimal, but if you were to actually follow the line on the ground, you’d have to descend the canyon and climb back up the other side. Do I adjust the distance to account for this, which involves looking up hundreds of elevation points, or just use the 2 vertex elevations? The former makes it impossible to measure a flat-ground distances for air travel or radio signal strength; the latter means that two identical-looking lines could have different distances based on the number of vertices a user drops.

      As a side note, I think most people over-estimate the impact that elevation change has on ground distances. Consider the Mt Whitney trail, which gains 6000′ in 11 miles. Although the trail isn’t perfectly consistent, this averages to a 6 degree grade (grades are often reported in percentages, but that makes trigonometry harder). A 6 degree grade increases the distance by 0.55%, which for Whitney is a whopping 320′.

      Even at 6 degrees, any experienced traveller will already be basing their time-to-hike calculations at least as much on the elevation gained as the distance travelled. Consider an incredibly fast 4-hour ascent: a fit hiker wouldn’t blink at 3mph, but sustaining 1500′ an hour is still a serious undertaking for most.

      But what about steeper slopes? At 30 degrees, you’re starting to talk real numbers – a 15% multiplier. So lets examine a theoretical direct route up Whitney that sustains a 30% slope angle. The crow-flies distance would be 1.97 miles, and the real-world mileage would be 2.3 miles. In the face of a 6000′ climb, does the extra third of a mile have any real-world impact? Days like that are measured in vertical feet not miles travelled.

  10. Gary May 28, 2016 at 12:59 am #

    I’ve been visiting caltopo infrequently for years. Last August I really had to learn how to truly use my GPS to navigate a dualsport motorcycle route, the Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route. I had to learn how to create and use tracks for the approach route. I used caltopo for that, and once I figured out how to create, split, join, and edit tracks it was great! Since then I’ve learned to appreciate how powerful the site’s options are, like switching from map to map for different data about a route, etc.
    Also, as an experienced mountaineer with quite a few years under my belt, I find your perception of the additional distance related to altitude very realistic.

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