Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

A New Look at Apple Maps

July 24th, 2018 by admin

Recently I was pleased to read a review in TechCrunch detailing how Apple Maps is attempting to change directions, by owning its mapping data and developing complex data compilation, handling, procedures and processes. The Company, reportedly, believes that doing so will help it to create an accurate and up-to-date spatial database for use in Apple Maps and, potentially, other products.

As many of you know, in June of 2012 I wrote a blog titled “Apple and Mapping?” in which I detailed the many practical reasons that the, then, imminent rollout of Apple Maps might be a disappointment. Subsequently, in September, 2012, I wrote a blog acerbically titled by me – “Google Maps announces a 400 year advantage over Apple Maps,” in which I dissected why the rollout of Apple Maps was a massive failure. Although many factors were detailed in the blog, the most significant issue was that Apple Maps exhibited major shortcomings in terms of understanding and managing spatial data quality. The blog attracted a lot of attention and when I was asked by the press how long I thought that Apple Maps would take to catch Google Maps, I replied that it would likely take more than 5 years, with 7 to 10 years being a reasonable estimate.

The good news from the TechCrunch article is that the Apple Maps Team appears to have used the last six years to reassess its approach to mapping by addressing the many problems that plagued the initial release of the Maps product. Based on the Panzarino article Apple claims to have to spent a considerable sum in “righting the ship.” Sources of improvement focused on, in the article, included, hiring staff, developing new data compilation/analyses methods and adopting various advanced technologies aimed improving the spatial data quality of its Maps product. Note that according to the article this development began two years after the initial release of the Maps product, or about four years ago.

The gist of the Panzarino article is that he was informed by the management of Apple Maps that the company has been busily developing processes and procedures that will completely and upwardly revise the quality of Apple Maps!

I hope so, but my experience tells me that changes of this type are evolutionary and, rarely, revolutionary. Taking four years to get to the point where you are confident enough about your methods that you can tell a naive outsider what you are attempting to accomplish in terms of spatial database building may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of Apple Maps regarding the path they have chosen. Further, in today’s technical environment four years can be multiple product lifetimes in respect to the development of spatial data handling technology. Spatial data decay is, also, a recurring and formidable problem for long-term development efforts such as that being attempted at Apple Maps.

One of the more interesting changes reported in the Apple article is that the Company is moving is rid itself of data suppliers. I think they can successfully move in this direction in respect to road and street data, but find myself wondering how they will compile data elements such business listings without the advantage of being a major search engine or being a volume player in online advertising. However, compiling, controlling and owning your own spatial database can provide huge benefits in terms of data accuracy and consistency. For example, analyzing reliable, accurate and controlled metadata describing the spatial data you have collected and own can be used to build robust data gathering procedures, as well as potentially revealing steps that could/should be taken to enhance that data.

Unfortunately, many of the benefits of owning the information in your database are true only if you have an organization that has cultivated an understanding of the nature of spatial data handling and how to build and manage an extremely large spatial database designed to meet known requirements for deployment in mapping and other corporate applications. We will not know for quite some time how well Apple has been able to do this on a regional basis, and will have to wait even longer to evaluate the success of Apple Maps improvement program in terms of the global market it serves.

I am concerned that Apple Maps is rolling out its “new and enhanced” data in the Bay area, followed by Northern California before moving on the rest of the United States. I suspect that the Bay area is at the top of the list because this is the area whose geography is most familiar to them and where they have the best ability to field check their data, due to a large number of feet and vehicles on the street.

One would think that, in terms of data quality, the San Francisco area is the least likely geography to embarass them and the second least likely area is Northern California. So those are probably the safest areas for a release, but these “local” geographies are not an honest test of the data quality of the “new” Apple Maps product. The comprehensiveness and homogeneity of spatial data quality needs to be equivalent throughout the geographical extent of a spatial database. The controlled rollout procedure that Apple is using to release its new data suggests to me that they may not quite be sure how well their new production system will work across large spatial extents – such as the United States, and eventually the world (or at least as much of it as is shown by the projections most frequently used for online mapping).

As a side note, it is apparent that Apple Maps is relying heavily on path segments snipped from the travels of owners of iPhones who have enabled location services (passive crowdsourcing). The notion of spatial auto-correlation raises its head here. iPhone distribution obviously auto-correlates with population distribution and density, at least in the developed world. But does their ownership distribution, also, reflect local spatial patterns of wealth and poverty leading to uneven coverage across larger areas? Does this mean that Apple Maps will be of good quality only where they have dense enough phone coverage (and movement of the phones) to adequately reflect the pattern of transportation modes in a local geographic area? Do they they have other enough additional data and sources (for example from their instrumented vans) that can be used to compensate for this potential unevenness?

While there are an enormous number of iPhones deployed, not all of them are in areas where the GPS traces are of much use due to a variety of environmental issues. Other users may not have location services enabled. In addition, depending on the length of the segments that Apples says it will discard at the start and end of journeys (to enhance user privacy) it may be that wormholes will exist in their data. Undoubtedly its large user base will be of benefit, but I think we will have to wait to see if the distribution of “probe” data is of universal benefit to Apple Maps data quality.

As another “side note” – it is my opinion that Apple’s relative lack of expertise in active crowdsourcing may hinder its efficiency in correcting map data that are not easily imaged or “recorded” by using sensors of one sort or another. For example, while the head of Apple Maps indicated that the “new” product would shine in areas such as directing people to the entrance of buildings when the building address was on one street but the door was on another. Maybe in some areas, but how about when the business locations cannot be sensed from the street? Consider the case where a small or medium enterprise is one of many businesses located inside a building that has several entrances. While a person could tell you the answer to which door to use quite easily (via crowdsourcing), interrogating sensor data to reach the same level of solution would, likely, be a waste of time. But, let’s wait and see how Apple Maps actually performs.

On the whole, I think that Apple’s apparent attention to improving its maps is good news, as it seems to indicate that the Company now understands the complexity of its undertaking in respect to building a spatial database that can support mapping, navigation and other potential uses for its spatial data.

I am assuming, for now, that Apple has spent enough time to clearly understand quality assurance as it applies to compiling accurate, extremely large spatial databases. As a matter of fact, thinking about that topic in respect to this blog has led me to my next article on what I call the “Eternal Pillars of Map Quality.” It might be a useful primer to those interested in knowing more about how to approach building large spatial databases focused on mapping and various forms of navigation. It will be out in a week or so.

As a final note, I cruised through people on LinkedIn associated with the term “Apple Maps) to see if anyone I knew (or knew of) worked there (a few). While I am sure that many Apple Maps employees do not list on LinkedIn, I was able to find between 250 -300 people who appeared to be currently associated with Apple Maps. Not as many as I hoped I might find, but, of course, this was a completely unscientific sample – so quote it carefully if you repeat it at all. What was more interesting to me was several unusual job titles. The one I liked to most was – (Apple Maps) Engineering Program, Manager Urban Experiences. Cool – Maybe there is hope for Apple Maps after all.


Dr. Mike

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Posted in Apple, Apple Maps, crowdsourced map data, Data Sources, Geospatial, Google maps, map compilation, map updating, Map Use, Mapping, routing and navigation, User Generated Content

2 Responses

  1. Jim LeClair

    Apple Maps needs to streamline it’s business update process to be a player. Here in Maine, seasonal updates to hours of Apple verified places may take weeks. During this time the place is hidden from Apple Maps! Most times we try to leave summer hours up, rather losing complete visibility while waiting for Apple to update their listing.


    Thanks for the comment.

    This sounds like a serious problem for you and Apple. Based on your comment, their procedure and execution are flawed. I hope they can resolve this issue for you soon. Business listings are a tough nut to crack, but if Apple Maps wants to play in the “Bigs” they will need to step-up.

    Dr. Mike

  2. Stephen Guptill

    Welcome back Dr. Mike!

    One aspect of this discussion that is often overlooked is that we cannot make any definitive statement about the quality of Apple’s (or any other supplier’s) spatial database unless you know the specifications of what is supposed to be in it. These include things like feature definitions, instance rules, attributes and attribute values, relationships between features, currentness requirements and on and on. Once the specifications are in place, you can determine the appropriate technologies to use to populate and maintain the database. These specifications are complex documents that ultimately determine the utility of the data. That is, what is it good for? Apple has not told us what is in (or supposed to be in) the database. To be fair, neither has Google, Here, or other commercial provider.

    Thus, we carry on without. For example, Apple says Maps will give us directions on how to get from A to B. So we make our own assumptions about what information is needed to do that task and base our quality assessments on how well Maps meets our expectations.

    Anyway, my point is that you need a cleaver group of people to create this database specification. So I hope Mike that one of the job titles you ran across was “lead architect”.


    Hi, Steve:

    Good to be back. Great comments. Thanks. I added some “ramblings” below, as your comments started me to continue thinking about the issues involved

    Thanks for making a critical distinction between the detailed specifications for and potential uses of spatial databases. Not sure that I saw a lead architect on LinkedIn – will have to go back and look.

    I agree that we will never know the detailed specifications of commercial spatial databases, as these elements of the “secret sauce” are usually designed to give a company a significant and sustainable competitive advantage. Nor, in many cases, will we be able to figure out whether the specifications were adequate for the proposed tasks. A lot of angst would be resolved if these parties sought expert advice before or during their database development, but mapping is often though of, at great peril, as something really simple.

    So, as you mentioned, we will have to carry on without specific information to use as gauges of accuracy. Something, I think, that is not without merit, as doing so often implies potential flaws in database design or an inadequate approach to the compilation of spatial data.

    I think it is here that the significance of the “use case” distinction is important. While it may be difficult to provide specific metrics about the “quality” of the map database, we can make some assumptions about how well it performs the tasks that the data providers allow through their interfaces and applications. For example, while we did not know the specifications for Apple Maps original attempt at building a spatial database, users of the product knew immediately that it failed miserably at representing many of the things included or promised by the product. If you cannot find an address that you know exists, or are unable to locate the business that you operate, you will mark that a fail. If the route that you are driving leads you to a dead end, incorrect destination or … driving into a lake – well another fail.

    In a job description for a “Product Architect at Apple Maps” (on Glassdoor) I found this, “At Apple Maps, our mission is to enable our customers to discover, navigate and experience the world.” Big, bold and hard to measure, but you know we will take a chance to do just that anyway.

    Thanks again for your comment. Talk soon.

    Dr. Mike