Apple Maps – Cultural Curation or Cultural Imperialism?

Curated. I hate the word. It was hijacked by PR hacks then foisted on readers by tech bloggers who should know better, to delude people into thinking that database information is tasty and posh, like fine wine and cheese.

It’s a stupid way of saying, ‘this raw information was read by a human being who might actually comprehend it enough to edit and, perhaps, even make it useful.’ The basic job of a database has, and always will be to provide useful, accurate information. In this day and age is that too much to ask? This curation nonsense sounds like a con job.

When Apple talked about “Curated Cultural Details” that promised to “respect culture by reflecting it back at our customers” at the WWDC 16 maps session, what were they really saying?

WWDC Process

Process, Rinse, Repeat
The process Apple described for creating their public transit map service consists of four steps (blocks) built on top of one another:

1) Get data from the provider (gather)
2) Conduct original research and on-site surveys (vet)
3) Curate the data for the local culture (edit)
4) Deliver curated data through the UI

This stuff is so basic it can be applied to any part of the maps operation, or any database operation for that matter. It’s so basic what can go wrong? Many things, but since each step depends on the success of the previous one, the potential problems are obvious and easy to avoid with four simple questions:

1) How reliable is your source data?
2) How good is your vetting system at finding and correcting mistakes?
3) How knowledgeable is your editing team with local culture and conventions?
4) How good is your UI?

Let’s look at the results of the process and examine some Tokyo places in Apple Maps, then compare them with Google Maps. Religion is a good place to start, the only place to start actually, and finish: if local religious culture and conventions are not being respected, the entire local culture is not being respected.

Japanese culture has a long, deep passion for recording and classifying things in detail. The voluminous and detailed business records of the Edo era stand as a testament. They are works of art not only to the eye, but also the brain. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has very specific legal religious classifications, the main ones are:

1) Buddhist Temples 「寺院」
2) Shinto Shrines 「神社」
3) Christian Churches 「キリスト教会」or 「教会」
4) Religious Organizations 「宗教団体」

The first three apply to traditional religions that have priests. The religion organization category is broad and covers more modern, i.e. lay religious organizations that either do not have priests, or have self appointed ones. Let’s look at Ikegami Honmonji, a large Buddhist temple compound in south Tokyo and see how Apple Maps and Google Maps classify it.

ikegami 1 v2
Apple and Google views of Ikegami Honmoji temple.
ikegami sidexside 2
(L~R) Both Apple and Google label Ikegami Honmonji temple as a temple. Note that the Apple source data is from Yelp.

ikegami sidexside 3
Apple Maps (left) lists another temple, Nishi-no-in, as a religious organization. Apple lists most Buddhist temples this way.
Google is consistent and labels all temples in the compound as a ‘Buddhist Temple’ but Apple Maps displays a mix of ‘Buddhist Temple’ and ‘Religious Organization’ depending on the source data. The oldest data set uses the latter while recently added data from Yelp and Trip Advisor use the former. Three problems: 1) Apple isn’t getting reliable high quality source data,  2) they are not vetting it because: 3) nobody knows what the problem is. No cultural curated data here.

Apple makes a worse mixup with Shinto Shrines. Google always gets the category right. The scattershot Yelp and Trip Advisor data sources also label Shinto Shrines correctly as Shinto  Shrines (Jinja)  but Apple labels the majority as ‘landmark’. Who in their right mind would call a Shinto Shrine a landmark instead of a Shinto Shrine?  It’s incomprehensible but again illustrates the broken Apple Maps process.

shinto zoom
Apple Maps labels Shinto Shrines as ‘Landmark’.
What about Christian Churches? Apple categorizes and labels them correctly. That is the point: Apple Maps always labels Christian churches correctly but usually labels Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines incorrectly.

church 3
Apple correctly labels churches as churches.
Curation, Cultural Imperialism, or Incompetence?
The worst problem is what I call the ‘Apple Maps religious institution display ranking problem’. Map details are ranked according to size and importance relative to the surrounding area. Large and important points such as Shinjuku station or expressways are the first to display as you zoom in. The lower the rank, the further you have to zoom in before the digital map displays it. History is a ranking factor too. A shrine or temple that has a few hundred years behind it is always an important local feature and key navigation point.

Apple has a passion for Japanese Christian Churches. No matter how small or how new, Apple Maps displays them in a very high ‘zoom rank’ reserved for traffic lights and basic road information, and completely ignores far larger temples and shrines in the immediate surrounding area.

(The following videos compare Apple Maps and Google Maps zooming behavior with churches, shrines and temples. In the first video Apple Maps immediately dislays churches even though they are very small. Much larger local shrines and temples are ‘zoom ranked’ much lower. Google Maps behaves normally and zoom ranks map points according to their actual size.)

This display problem is far worse than the category problem because it tells Japanese customers that Apple thinks Christian Churches are more important than Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines regardless of size or area importance. It smacks of good old western style cultural imperialism. The fact that these problems have been with Apple Maps since the 2012 launch without being fixed just makes it worse. The message Apple is sending to Japanese customers is: we don’t care enough about your culture to fix anything.

At WWDC Apple concluded their maps presentation saying the entire data gathering process is “all wrapped in the Apple Maps UI to delight our customers.” The reality explained above is this: Apple’s absolute inability to gather accurate map information or to vet anything, combined with astounding cultural ignorance, is all stuffed down a data pipeline, a virtual alimentary canal of incompetence. When Apple Maps UI spews this shit on Japanese customers, I don’t think they are delighted.

As I said in my review of iOS 9 Apple Maps in Japan:

In the 3 years since its debut, Apple Maps in Japan has made no progress where it really matters: map data remains incomplete and inaccurate…there is hope things can improve, but it is a daunting task and will remain an impossible one until Apple signs up the best Japanese data suppliers.

And again with the launch of Nearby search:

Apple Maps is almost four years old. In Japan, even with the addition of Nearby, it remains the broken product released in September 2012.

After all this time Apple still has no interest in obtaining high quality Japanese source data, and no interest in vetting or correcting it. Perhaps they don’t know how, but I doubt that.

The Apple Maps process is so broken the only conclusion is this: the Japanese public transit service coming with iOS 10 is doomed to the same fate of Apple’s efforts in Japan so far. It will be one incomplete, inaccurate, incoherent and uncultured mess.

The stakes are much bigger this time however, because nothing pisses people off more when bad information causes them to miss a train connection, or arrive at a wrong destination.

The Japanese launch of iOS 10 might be a memorable one, just not in a good way.