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In 15 years Kevin Toohill’s job has changed dramatically, going from a purveyor of printed, custom topographical maps in a two-man company to a member of one of the nation’s largest mapping firms that now provides that same paper data on smartphones.

“Users haven’t changed, just the way they use maps,” Toohill said.

From 175 square feet of office space in Red Lodge, Toohill has navigated the business world to where he now manages Trimble Outdoors, overseeing about 30 employees while still living and working in Billings.

It was back in 1999 that Toohill and friend Tom Kohley launched MyTopo, which allowed users to customize a topo map online and then have the company print and ship them the paper map. Paige Darden later joined the company to lead its marketing efforts. Fast forward to today and MyTopo was sold by the partners, bought back by Toohill and Darden, then sold again in 2011 to become a division of Trimble. Trimble has built a reputation on high-precision GPS and has a staff of about 6,000.

“Everybody is doing maps, but doing maps for outdoor pursuits, that’s a whole different ballgame,” Toohill said.

With the release of their smartphone technology last year that allows custom topo maps to be downloaded and used without a cell phone signal, Trimble is competing with GPS makers for a slice of the handheld navigation market. The difference is that Trimble users don’t have to buy a whole separate device, but they do need to pay a monthly subscription fee.

The company is also developing a smartphone case ($170) due out this summer that will almost double the phone’s battery life as well as provide more complete storage of one state’s maps. Also available is a SD card ($100) that provides all of the private land ownership data and boundaries for a state.

“People don’t realize how powerful their smartphone is,” said Darden.

MyTopo has also updated its aerial imagery offering the choice of high-resolution imagery from 2013, or Digital Globe satellite imagery from within the last three years.

Still want a paper map? MyTopo can now print huge maps up to 5 by 8 feet. Those same land ownership maps can also be printed on paper.

“We’re pretty hardware neutral,” Darden said. “Whether you’re using a smartphone or an iPod, we want you to be able to use our technology.”

The technology and tools are changing so fast that Toohill said, “Within 5 years the concept of near real-time satellite imagery will become a reality. There are a whole slew of startups launching micro satellites to stream down imagery. So the idea of seeing custom imagery is coming.”

The quality and availability of maps has skyrocketed with the spread of smartphones and tablet computers. And aerial imagery has gotten so much more detailed that viewers can now pick out mailboxes along a road, Darden noted. Newer to the mix is the availability of private land ownership maps. With counties adopting digital technology, Toohill said about 80 percent of the counties in the United States can now provide ownership data, whereas only a couple of years ago that information was unheard of. That ownership data is updated quarterly.

“Montana is kind of unusual,” he said. “It was one of the first states to publish private parcel data. Now it’s becoming more and more ubiquitous and we can aggregate that.”

So far, Trimble has 38 states with complete land ownership data that is being used by conservationists, oil and gas companies, rural real-estate folks, foresters, landowners interested in the identities of their nearby neighbors are and anyone that deals with land use, Darden said. Hunters were quick to grab on to the information to allow them to see who owns property so they could ask for permission or to see where property boundaries were drawn.

Although the digital world is drawing the most new interest for firms like Trimble, MyTopo is still printing up topographic maps that have become harder and harder to find. But electronic devices have expanded the options and customizing ability of weekend mapmakers.

“I think we’ve made it a lot easier for people to do the things they want to do,” Darden said. “A lot more people love and appreciate maps and are using them in their endeavors.”


Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.