BERLIN -- The former Soviet republic of Belarus, which lies along the main transit corridor connecting Moscow and Western Europe, is one of the Continent's few remaining black holes for motorists, a landlocked country where reliable, current map information is closely held by the authoritarian government.
But in May, a group of 600 volunteers in Belarus, mostly geography students, teachers and local mapping aficionados, began carefully canvassing the flat, marshy country, logging the names of streets and highways, along with the exact locations of important stops like gas stations, hotels and restaurants.
The catalyst for Belarus's geographic coming out, so to speak, was not a change of heart by the longtime president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, but the pursuit of a pressing market opportunity by Nokia, the Finnish maker of mobile phones, whose own digital mapping business, HERE, has become one of the world's most active cartographers.
In just three months, Nokia's volunteers in Belarus added 22,000 kilometers, or 14,000 miles, of streets and roadways and 11,000 places of interest to the global database at HERE, formerly Nokia Maps. Besides rendering the maps for the millions of users of Nokia's line of cellphones and Lumia smartphones, HERE's information powers the maps of Microsoft Bing, Yahoo and AOL, along with the in-dash navigation systems of automobiles made by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Toyota.
Nokia is in a race with Google and TomTom, the Dutch maker of auto navigation devices, mapping and traffic data, to create a detailed digital representation of the physical world as a foundation for profitable location-based services, said Martin Garner, an analyst in London who covers mobile services at CCS Insight, a research firm.
So far, the promise of context-based services -- suggesting restaurants, traffic routes or other personal endeavors based on location -- has been greater than the reality. Nokia is losing money on its HERE division; Google and TomTom do not break out details on location-based sales and profits, Mr. Garner said in an interview.
"We're in the early stages of mobile context services, which represent a large future opportunity," he said.
Nokia took the time to fill in the topographic blanks in Belarus, a market with 10 million consumers, after map enthusiasts there organized on VK, a Russian social network that competes with Facebook, and approached Nokia with a request to map their country digitally. The request coincided with demand from phone users in Russia, who are increasingly making the 20-hour drive through Belarus and Poland to Western Europe for business or vacations.
"One of the biggest requests we received for map data in Belarus was from Russia," said Andreas Herger, a senior manager for location content at HERE, which is based in Berlin and oversees Nokia's location-based services and mapping business.
After spending $8.1 billion in 2007 to buy Navteq, a Chicago-based producer of geographic data and mapping software, Nokia has expanded its commercial sale of mobile geographic data, producing a series of ever-more-exact and detailed global maps.
In the three months that ended June 30, Nokia increased HERE's sales of mapping data and services to automakers and other external customers by 8.3 percent to €195 million, or $261 million, from €180 million a year earlier. Research and development expenses of €207 million pulled HERE to a quarterly operating loss of €89 million.
Unlike paper maps, digital maps are not static. They are updated constantly to ensure relevance. The 6,000 employees of HERE in 56 countries, in addition to their volunteers, generate 2.7 million changes each day to HERE's global map database. Nokia, like Google, also operates a fleet of mapmaking cars to compile data.
The goal, said Stephen Elop, Nokia's president and chief executive, is to provide a detailed, up-to-date cartographic archive to drive Nokia's location-based services.
"We're creating maps that are fresh and accurate down to real-time traffic information and the curvature of the roadway," Mr. Elop said in response to a written question. "So, no matter where you are -- Boston or Belarus -- you can make informed decisions about navigating your daily life."
Although legwork and staffing are essential, creating maps is often a political negotiation, especially in countries where governments consider geographic data to be state secrets. When Nokia first began compiling digital mapping data in 1997, Russia had a law that prevented unauthorized mapmaking at a level of detail greater than 30 meters, or 100 feet, but it no longer enforces this restriction.
In countries where geographic borders are in dispute -- like India and Pakistan, which are at odds over demarcation of the Kashmir region -- Nokia has produced separate digital maps for each country, with each version displaying that country's preferred border.
Often, important geographic data changes at a moment's notice, requiring Nokia to respond. Several years ago, city administrators changed the one-way street patterns in the center of Moscow with little notice, affecting traffic on many main thoroughfares. In Albania, after an election in 2006 that led to a change in political leadership, the new government changed the names of many major streets to honor its own heroes.
In Belarus, it is still difficult for foreign entities to produce maps unless they license official maps from a state-owned cartographic institute, said Torsten Krenz, director of regional map and content at HERE in Berlin. Nokia is negotiating with the authorities in Belarus to obtain a licensing agreement to market the maps it compiles, he said.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where civil war was followed by a national federation that is divided into three distinct governing areas, Nokia has also pushed ahead. In April, Semir Ahmetbegovic, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Tuzla there, organized 30 students and academic colleagues to update the street grid in and around Tuzla. The existing Nokia maps for Bosnia and Herzegovina were very poor, with little detail, Mr. Ahmetbegovic said.
Along with students at the University of East Sarajevo, the group has so far added 5,400 kilometers of new roads and 3,100 points of interest in the country.
"Citizens of our country, as well as foreigners, will now be able to find lots of information, which was not the case before," Mr. Ahmetbegovic said in an e-mail. "We believe that this will promote Bosnia and Herzegovina and its tourism potential, as well as other sectors."
Branislav Drakovic, head of the geography department at the University of East Sarajevo in Pale, Bosnia, said the process of helping Nokia update its maps -- by entering geographic data, names and points of interest through the HERE Map Creator, an Internet-based mapping program devised by Nokia -- was invaluable for his students.
"Many students have found the work with online maps to be very interesting, not just for personal development and for credits at the university, but also for the development of their local community," Mr. Drakovic said. Putting Bosnia and Herzegovina on the map, in this case a Nokia map, is a good start, he added.interact
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.