Apple Is Rebuilding Maps From the Ground Up

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

Maps needs fixing.

Apple, it turns out, is aware of this, so it’s re-building the maps part of Maps.

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.

Every version of iOS will get the updated maps eventually, and they will be more responsive to changes in roadways and construction, more visually rich depending on the specific context they’re viewed in and feature more detailed ground cover, foliage, pools, pedestrian pathways and more.

This is nothing less than a full re-set of Maps and it’s been four 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.

This is huge news. As Panzarino points out, only one other company owns a data set like this, and that’s Google. Mark Gurman first reported on this project for 9to5Mac in 2015.

It’s also a gigantic undertaking — obviously. It combines truly anonymized and minimized data gathered from iPhones — which can be turned off — with data gathered from those Apple Maps vehicles that have been driving around nearly a dozen countries over the past few years. Those vehicles are gathering more than just images and information about the roads; they’re also helping model cities in 3D.

It really does seem like Apple is committed to radically improving the most painful parts of their mapping data. They trusted that the information they were getting from third-party sources was accurate; but, in my experience, the majority of errors I’ve reported have been for places that were permanently shut long before Apple Maps launched. There simply wasn’t a mechanism in place at launch to verify that this third-party information was correct. Five years ago, they started hiring people as their “ground truth” team, but that doesn’t seem to have had the effect they wanted. So, they’re starting from scratch with the source data and, as Panzarino reports, have made it easier for their staff to keep everything up to date. Whether they actually can do so, at worldwide scale, is another matter; I have my doubts.

Apple says that they will be rolling this out across the United States next year, after launching initially in the Bay Area, of course. They’ve been driving extensively throughout the U.K. for about the same amount of time as in the U.S., so I would imagine that its revised cartography won’t be far behind.

Apple hasn’t even begun to drive Canada yet, though — not even Toronto. However, I’ve been watching their vehicle schedule page for a while and there are some smaller communities in the U.S. that they seem to have driven through over and over. My guess is that they’ve been perfecting the vehicle rig, and will rapidly scale their use of those rigs worldwide. The biggest question now is: when can we expect Maps to be entirely powered by Apple’s own data? It has already been six years since Apple launched their own Maps app with iOS 6, and it seems like there’s still a long way to go before they are no longer dependent on third parties like Tom Tom and Yelp.