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Hey, Apple: Mapping Takes More Work than You Think

Apple’s apology suggests it may underestimate how much effort is needed to build a great map app.
October 1, 2012

In response to scathing criticism over its new Maps app for mobile devices, Apple CEO Tim Cook last week apologized and admitted that the company “fell short,” but his statement did not hint at the true scale of the job Apple now faces to fix things.

Cook did say user feedback would play a role. “The more our customers use our Maps the better it will get and we greatly appreciate all of the feedback we have received from you,” Cook wrote in a letter to customers.

But Apple is going to need far more than user feedback. The scale of the problem—particularly, the millions of errant labels on points of interest like businesses—requires new data sources and easier ways to contribute fixes, as well as enough willing map-fixers in geographically dispersed regions. Little of this is evident now, experts say.

There are some ways the process can be helped along automatically. Apple will benefit from analyzing what people are searching for. For example, if a search does not result in a “hit,” “Apple can flag this search as a possible error in their database—perhaps an address error, a point-of-interest error, or network geometry error,” says Michael Dobson, president of TeleMapics, a mapping consultancy.

In addition, by noting where people are using the maps, Apple can set priorities on what to fix, he says. And when people use Apple’s Maps, they automatically provide a GPS trace that can potentially help correct road location information. But that does nothing to address the job of fixing points of interest.

Apple provides users with an interface for reporting problems, yet the company has nothing as good as Google’s Map Maker—a browser-based tool that allows people to edit map features on Google Maps.

“Google has found a way to integrate active crowdsourcing on a level that Apple has not yet attempted,” says Dobson, who estimates that Google has 5,000 to 7,000 people ironing out mapping problems, counting stringers and part-timers. “I don’t believe Apple has more than a couple of hundred people working on this at this point,” he says. “Apple may attempt it, but they certainly don’t have any system that allows this kind of wholesale crowdsourcing.”

Apple also lacks a fleet of cars like the ones Google has used to log five million miles worldwide so far, capturing GPS traces of streets and images of buildings—in many cases recording street-direction signs and names and addresses of businesses, which are automatically converted into information on Google Maps.

Beyond Cook’s statement, Apple has not commented on its Maps (see “Is Apple Losing Its Way?”). Google is thought to be developing a stand-alone version of Google Maps for the iPhone and iPad, but it has not commented other than to say it wants to keep ensuring that Google Maps is available to all.

Of the several problems with Apple’s Maps, some are easier to fix than others. Widely publicized screen grabs of apparently melting bridges and highways are the least of it: these stem from math errors that distorted projections of satellite images, Dobson says. Similarly, satellite images obscured by clouds can be fixed with better data sets.

The most serious problem—and no doubt an ongoing one—has to do with the points of interest. Beyond businesses, these include labels on places including schools, hospitals, parks, and police and fire stations.

Reports of missing or misplaced labels on Apple Maps have cropped up around the world. And this is particularly problematic, because people often want to search for a point of interest by name, not address. If the point is on the wrong spot, then the directions—and the maps themselves—become useless.

There are at least 100 million businesses around the world, and possibly as many as 300 million, says Schuyler Erle, a digital mapping expert who is a coauthor of mapping books including Google Maps Hacks and a contributor to OpenStreetMap, an open-source project to build a worldwide street-level database. “That is a ton of data to collect—address, telephone number, business classification, hours of operation.”

Even in the best of times, keeping all this accurate is a tall order. He said one study found that in a single year in San Francisco, 10 percent of businesses changed location, closed, or opened. “You really have to run just to stay in place,” Erle says.

Apple’s correction interface doesn’t allow actual editing. It gives you choices: “Information is incorrect,” “Pin is at incorrect location,” “Place does not exist,” “My problem isn’t listed,” and a form to suggest corrections. Google Map Maker allows far more detailed hands-on editing with a Wikipedia-like editing interface.

“Crowdsourcing can be very powerful, but it’s hard to manage an effective system,” Dobson says. The mapmaker needs to trust and verify the data, and to have enough volunteers—which implies people are actually using the maps, and haven’t given up on them.

In his letter, Cook was magnanimous, saying: “While we’re improving Maps, you can try alternatives by downloading map apps from the App Store like Bing, MapQuest, and Waze, or use Google or Nokia maps by going to their websites and creating an icon on your home screen to their web app.”

Google had some similar problems when it launched its maps in 2005. It licensed underlying data from companies like Navteq, now owned by Nokia, and Teleatlas, now owned by TomTom. After suffering from their errors, however, Google launched its famous effort to create its own base maps with sensor-equipped cars.

Lacking a fleet of vehicles or a team of in-house cartographers, Apple created an entirely new set of maps by licensing data from partners including TomTom. Merging all that data is a complex task, Dobson says, and one prone to errors.

Erle says that Apple’s strength has always been in making things simple—and what’s called for now is a super-simple editing interface. “That’s what Apple does—their premise is making rock-solid, reliable technology and making it easy to use,” he says. “Your phone already knows where you are, so your phone should be able make it utterly trivial to contribute.”

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