Apple knows it has a Maps issue, but the company is saying, "the more people use it, the better it will get." Unfortunately, as mapping technology explains, that fix won't solve its location data problem very soon. A lot of the anger surrounding the new Maps app has to do with it just not knowing things. And, the theory from Apple is that with more search queries from users it can improve the Maps app, making it as good (if not better!) than the old Google-powered app that used to come with the iPhone. But, the issue, as Mike Dobson, the president of mapping consulting firm TeleMapics, explains it, the app's shortcomings are about "data quality," not quantity.
Maps apps get made from a host of different sources, some technological (like Tom Tom, which Apple has licensed for its app) and others human-made (like Google's Street View project). The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal had a great piece a couple weeks ago explaining just how much goes into Google's mapping project. Dobson says that Apple's effort is currently inferior in both categories. On the tech side, he suspects (in a separate post) that Apple is getting its business listing data from Acxiom, Yelp, and Localeze. Over the last few years, Apple also acquired other map related companies for the building of the app part: Placebase, C3, and Poly 9. And then, TomTom provides it with what he calls the "navigable map database" (the roads part), and in areas of the world where TomTom fails, they get their data from other suppliers with more specialized expertise.
Apple's Maps is failing in part because, as Dobson explains it, these companies are "C-grade suppliers" of map data. (TomTom, for one, would take issue with that assessment. A representative told Reuters, "We don't know what is causing the issues, but from our perspective the quality of our data is great and we stand behind it.") And data is where Apple thinks it can improve most easily, in part by collecting lots and lots of it from its users. But, for now, it only has a fraction of the search data that Google has to draw on.
But, the issues stem from more than just a lack of data: Apple has a people problem. On top of all the technology stuff, there is a team of human beings behind all maps, who iron out the kinks and turn the data into a whole product the works well together. (Right now Apple's human are "under lockdown ... working to fix it," says Apple.) Compared to Google, Apple's team is a joke in Dobson's book. Not only does Google have 7,000 people already working on mapping, but, the smaller contigent at Apple was not as involved in the map-making process. As Alexis Madrigal's piece made clear, people make a huge difference when it comes to map quality. "The sheer amount of human effort that goes into Google's maps is just mind-boggling. Every road that you see slightly askew in the top image has been hand-massaged by a human," he wrote.
Apple just doesn't have enough humans on hand to take that kind of care. For example: "Perhaps the most egregious error is that Apple’s team relied on quality control by algorithm and not a process partially vetted by informed human analysis," writes Dobson. Google, on the other hand, has people driving around Street View cars not just to get Street View data, but to get a feel of how people in real life drive on streets. "Google learned that you cannot take the human out of the equation," adds Dobson. "While the mathematics of mapping appear relatively straight forward, I can assure you that if you take the informed human observer who possesses local and cartographic knowledge out of the equation that you will produce exactly what Apple has produced – A failed system."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.