Friday, June 29, 2018 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Rebuilding Apple Maps Using Apple’s Own Data

Mark Gurman (in 2015, tweet):

The current plan is to revamp the foundation of the Maps application, shifting to the in-house base map database by 2017; this would lead to the cutting of ties with partners such as TomTom, which currently have multi-year Maps contracts. While Apple hopes to achieve the 2017 shift, a source says that Apple is not completely on track to meet this goal, so a 2018 launch may be more likely.

Matthew Panzarino (tweet, Hacker News, MacRumors, iMore):

It’s doing this by using first-party data gathered by iPhones with a privacy-first methodology and its own fleet of cars packed with sensors and cameras. The new product will launch in San Francisco and the Bay Area with the next iOS 12 Beta and will cover Northern California by fall.

[…]

This is nothing less than a full re-set of Maps and it’s been 4 years in the making, which is when Apple began to develop its new data gathering systems. Eventually, Apple will no longer rely on third-party data to provide the basis for its maps, which has been one of its major pitfalls from the beginning.

[…]

The consistent message is that the team feels it can deliver a high quality navigation, location and mapping product without the directly personal data used by other platforms.

“We specifically don’t collect data, even from point A to point B,” notes Cue. “We collect data — when we do it — in an anonymous fashion, in subsections of the whole, so we couldn’t even say that there is a person that went from point A to point B.

[…]

All of this, of course, is governed by whether you opted into location services and can be toggled off using the maps location toggle in the Privacy section of settings.

Apple says that this will have a near zero effect on battery life or data usage, because you’re already using the ‘maps’ features when any probe data is shared and it’s a fraction of what power is being drawn by those activities.

This sounds good, but I’m skeptical that Apple’s focus on privacy is not putting it at a disadvantage. It does not seem possible that the end points of a trip are not useful data. It’s also not clear to me how this benefits the user who is already having their location tracked by Apple (Find My iPhone) and the carriers, anyway. And if Apple Maps is not good enough for people to choose it, they’ll use Google Maps and give Google their data, so Apple’s principled stance would be for naught.

Mark Gurman:

Should be noted that it’s been 6 years since the bungled launch of Apple Maps and they’re launching the new version in half of one state.

Matthew Panzarino:

Maps is not getting a visual “overhaul” yet (it was implied that it will eventually) but you’ll notice differences immediately.

[…]

Can I opt out?

Yes. It will not happen if you do not turn on location services, and it can be toggled off in the Privacy settings for Maps. It’s not a new setting, it’s just the existing maps setting.

From what I can see, the existing Maps setting only lets you control the sending of probe data by turning off Location Services entirely, rendering the app mostly useless. So, practically speaking, you can’t opt out, and you can’t measure how much of your cellular data is being consumed to update Apple’s maps. [Update (2018-06-29): This is incorrect; see below.]

Update (2018-06-29): John Gruber:

The new maps sound great, but the big question how long will it take to roll them out everywhere.

See also: @agilethumbs.

Update (2018-07-02): See also: The Talk Show.

15 Comments

I imagine the setting is "Help Improve Apple Maps" in Location -> System Services.

@Eric Thanks. That makes a lot more sense than what Panzarino wrote.

Whenever I hear Apple embarking upon a ‘ground-up rewrite’ of something, I think of discoveryd. Perhaps it’s unfair, but that’s my default reaction to ambitious stuff from Apple nowadays.

World is very big, there are hundreds of cities with 1M+ population, and thousands other very big cities, capitals and urban areas.
Google is pretty good at covering most of it already. The speed shown by Apple seems pathetic.

And there is a real world reference to see how much will be done in several years - Apple's own flyovers. It was a very hyped up feature, but how many place it covers?

The map data rebuilding is good, it's a must, but the way they present it just does not leave much hope.
Sure it will make reporters and bloggers from few key areas happy, but will be just as bad for the rest of the world.

I was hopping that at some point they just turn to local crowdsourcing and pay active local enthusiast some bonuses of give some treats.
Obfuscated bits of collected data is not good enough, because Apple Maps are so bad in so many areas that most advanced users just do not use them there.

"If, like me, you’re wondering whether Apple thought of building its own maps from scratch before it launched Maps, the answer is yes. At the time, there was a choice to be made about whether or not it wanted to be in the business of maps at all. Given that the future of mobile devices was becoming very clear, it knew that mapping would be at the core of nearly every aspect of its devices, from photos to directions to location services provided to apps. Decision made, Apple plowed ahead, building a product that relied on a patchwork of data from partners like TomTom, OpenStreetMap and other geo data brokers. The result was underwhelming."

This just look like revisiting history and forgetting that Apple was previously using data from Google. And it's Apple who decided to stop working with Google AFAIK.

Doesn't sound to me like revisiting history. The rumors at the time that Apple Maps was released were that Apple wasn't happy with the access to user data that Google wanted. So they had to decide between a) making privacy concessions to Google to continue using their maps, b) licensing other map data, and c) creating their own map data. They had already decided (a) wasn't an option, so they had two remaining choices about how to offer their own map service.

> I was hopping that at some point they just turn to local crowdsourcing and pay active local enthusiast some bonuses of give some treats.

That does not sound like a solid strategy. Not to mention that they've been using OpenStreetMap as a data source already.

It sounds like Apple has been investing in exactly the type of program they needed to be working on. (And maybe that also explains why Apple Maps has stagnated for a couple years in the face of impressive advances from Google.) I just hope the results show that they've executed well. And I really hope their coverage expands quickly. Until then, Google Maps will remain a necessity.

In addition to the controls mentioned by Eric, you can see how much cellular data has been used by Time & Location and Mapping Services in Settings > Cellular > System Services.

@Anon I don’t think that report is just showing the probe data. I have “Help Improve Apple Maps” disabled, and do not use the Apple Maps app, yet Mapping Services has used 6 MB of data in the last month or so.

I thought it said in the article that the probe data would be stored and sent only when connected to Wi-Fi?

@Ben I don’t see that mentioned in either article, but it would be cool if they can do that.

That's so weird, I thought the nugget about Wi-Fi was in one of the articles that Panzarino wrote, or maybe a Twitter reply... but now I can't find it. I guess I was confusing it with something else...

"Mapping Services has used 6 MB of data in the last month or so."

Aren't location services and maps joined at the hip?

@Nigel Version 1.0 of Maps was not the version Apple had to apologize for. So, yes, it's revisiting history as the article says:

"If, like me, you’re wondering whether Apple thought of building its own maps from scratch before it launched Maps, the answer is yes. […] Decision made, Apple plowed ahead, building a product that relied on a patchwork of data from partners like TomTom, OpenStreetMap and other geo data brokers."

Of course, it looks better from Apple's perspective if they had just screwed up version 1.0. But the truth is that they screwed up version 2.

I have a feeling that the strategic importance of maps will only increase going forward. Certainly with autonomous vehicles, and likely with AR glasses, deeply understanding the surrounding physical environment will be essential. Apple controlling its own mapping data directly will be hugely important.

>And if Apple Maps is not good enough for people to choose it, they’ll use Google Maps and give Google their data, so Apple’s principled stance would be for naught.

I'm not a fan of this type of argument. It proves too much. It could be used to justify almost any unethical business practice.

@Jonathan Yes, I think the maps project as a whole makes sense for Apple because of the strategic importance. The issues are more about their execution and rollout.

I don’t think Apple collecting more extensive probe data would be unethical. Especially since you can opt out.

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