Tokyo Olympics Apple Maps: Death by Point of Interest

Apple tells Engadget Japan reporter Masaichi Honda that Apple Maps Japan will be ready for the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2020. Apple Maps will have robust indoor maps for tall buildings and underground station malls in Tokyo, and Real-time transit for better transit route searching and transit updates. That is exactly one year from now, far into the iOS 13 life cycle. Honda san also reports that Apple is not ready to show Japanese reporters a demo yet, not an encouraging sign.

In addition to the Apple Maps image collection vans combing Japan right now, WWDC19 unveiled the Indoor Maps Program for registered developers and building owners to map indoor areas and encode the data using (Apple’s ?) Indoor Mapping Data Format (IMDF). Once the data is encoded in IMDF, surveyed and validated, developers and building owners can use the data in their apps and designate indoor areas to share on Apple Maps.

That’s great for building owners to indoor map their own building. What about shared public places like Shinjuku Station which is spread out and shared by 8 different owners? There is also the localization problem. It’s one thing to indoor map for Japanese users, but who’s going to localize all those Point of Interest (POI) icons and information sheets in English, Chinese, Spanish, etc. That costs serious time and money.

Let’s take a comparison look at indoor maps of the primary entrance gate for inbound visitors coming to the Tokyo Olympics next year: Tokyo Station, and compare Yahoo Japan Maps, Apple Maps and Google Maps.

Yahoo Japan Maps
Yahoo Japan Maps only offers Japanese language but it has best cartography and attention to small details that matter, like yellow station exit signage colors that match what you find on the ground. Apple and Google don’t.

Yahoo Japan Maps Tokyo Station Indoor mapping

Apple Maps Japan
Apple Maps does not offer indoor station mapping in Japan. It does offer multilingual support but judging from the English Point of Interest information, it’s not robust. As usual Apple Maps Japan overwhelms users with Point of Interest icons. It’s map death by Point of Interest. There’s a lot of fixing Apple needs to do if they want to present a good map product in time for the Olympics.

Apple Maps Japan Tokyo Station (as yet no indoor station mapping)

Google Maps Japan
Google Maps offers indoor mapping for Tokyo Station in multiple languages. For all the detail Google offers here, it’s much less helpful than Yahoo Japan Maps. For high density areas like Tokyo, good cartography and smart editing makes all the difference between a good map and lousy one.

Google Maps Japan Tokyo Station
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WWDC19 iOS 13 Apple Maps Wish List

There were very few Apple Maps rumors for WWDC this year, only one little paragraph from Mark Gurman <with comments>:

An updated Maps app will make it easier to set frequent locations, like home or work addresses, and then navigate there. Users will also be able to create groups of frequent places and add a photo to them. The current interface for navigating to suggested or past destinations can sometimes be confusing. <duh> This will increase competition with Google Maps and Waze apps <really? are you serious?>

Apple Maps didn’t get much love at WWDC18. It was only after WWDC was over that Eddy Cue offered a sneak peak to Matthew Panzarino to let everybody know Apple Maps 2.0 was in the works and well on its way. Panzarino’s fantastic piece is the logical starting point for any WWDC19 Apple Maps 2.0 discussion. The best approach is to discuss things using the 3 groups outlined in my previous post: Collection, Processing, Presentation. As usual I’ll discuss things from the Japanese perspective.

Collection
Eddy Cue outlined Apple Maps 2.0 as a dual approach of using anonymous iOS device data and Apple Maps vans to collect high quality map data while getting faster updates from devices vs. the next scheduled drive:

“The truth is that Maps needs to be [updated more], and even are today,” says Cue. “We’ll be doing this even more with our new maps, [with] the ability to change the map in real time and often… In the new map infrastructure, we can change that relatively quickly. If a new road opens up, immediately we can see that and make that change very, very quickly around it…”

In short: Traffic, real-time road conditions, road systems, new construction and changes in pedestrian walkways are about to get a lot better in Apple Maps.

TechCrunch Apple is rebuilding Maps from the ground up June 29, 2018

High quality in-house map data collection is a vital step, but there are limitations. The Google Maps Japan meltdown proved that even Google can’t do it all. When Google dropped premier Japanese map data supplier Zenrin, Google Maps Japan quality instantly crashed. Japan has very high density urban areas and very remote rural areas that cannot be effectively mapped from a van no matter how much fancy recording equipment it has. Zenrin has a 1,000 person ‘ground truth’ team just for mapping and updating those kind of places, inside and out, on site and on foot.

Apple Maps Japan data collection has kicked into high gear, but Apple Maps quality in Japan has suffered from poor locally supplied map data all along. Apple’s Japanese map supplier Increment P (IPC) bundles sub-supplier map data but doesn’t have a ground team to match Zenrin quality for hard to map areas.

Processing
Panzarino explained at length how the high-resolution image data collection effort fits with Apple’s in-house data qualification toolkit to identify problem areas with machine learning, so that the human team can quickly vet problems and update corrected map data for the trouble area:

The coupling of high-resolution image data from car and satellite, plus a 3D point cloud, results in Apple now being able to produce full orthogonal reconstructions of city streets with textures in place. This is massively higher-resolution and easier to see, visually…This is hugely important when it comes to the next step in Apple’s battle for supremely accurate and useful Maps: human editors.

Apple has had a team of tool builders working specifically on a toolkit that can be used by human editors to vet and parse data, street by street.

Many hundreds of editors will be using these tools, in addition to the thousands of employees Apple already has working on maps, but the tools had to be built first, now that Apple is no longer relying on third parties to vet and correct issues.

And the team also had to build computer vision and machine learning tools that allow it (Apple) to determine whether there are issues to be found at all.

There we have it: Apple is using in-house machine learning and no longer relies on 3rd party vetting or correction. How is this working out? Answer: not so great. At least in Japan. Let’s take a quick look around the Ikegami Honmonji Temple area.

Example #1: Ikegami Hall is completely missing in the map view even though it is in the satellite view.

Example #2: Duplicate Five-story Pagoda pin locations. The Manji character marked pagoda is correct while the grey one from Foursquare is the wrong location and duplicate information that needs to be removed or merged. <Kudos to Apple here for respecting local culture and using the traditional Buddhist temple Manji character, while Google Maps does not>

The conclusion here is that Apple Maps 2.0 isn’t living up to Eddy Cue’s stated goals, at least in Japan:

  • In example #1 machine learning is supposed to identify problem areas when the satellite and map views don’t match up, but fails. The human team is not alerted to the problem and cannot fix it.
  • In example #2 the system cannot distinguish between incorrect 3rd party supplied duplicate data and the real thing. In my experience Foursquare Japan and Yelp Japan have no human location vetting, most of their product is worthless. Apple faces a choice: is it better to show nothing, or is it better to show unvetted 3rd party data that has a high risk of being incorrect leading users to the wrong place? My suggestion: don’t use any 3rd party data that has not been vetted by Apple Maps van collected in-house map data.

Presentation
Cartography and the Maps UI is where it all comes together.

Apple has a team of cartographers on staff that work on more cultural, regional and artistic levels to ensure that its Maps are readable, recognizable and useful.

For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

Panzarino got it wrong here. Users in Japan don’t want a map view packed with details. The difference is not cultural, it’s simply that high density metropolitan areas like Tokyo have much more information packed into a given area than American cities. Presenting high density information in clean easy to read cartography is challenging.

Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps have both evolved their cartography away from detail packed, point of interest cluttered views to cleaner cartography. Yahoo Japan Maps cartography is the best because they deploy good design with smartly edited zoom level assignment: this information is important at default zoom level, this other information belongs at zoom-in level 2, etc. This clean approach shows only the important details for the given zoom level for quick navigation. The differences in readability comparing Tokyo area views of Yahoo Japan Maps, Apple Maps and Google Maps are immediately noticeable. Here is Gotanda Station:

Apple Maps 2.0 fails here too. The cartography is less readable, recognizable and useful than the competition. The easiest fix would be for the Apple Maps cartography team to stop stuffing so many Point of Interest (POI) icons at the same zoom level and intelligently rank information to display at different zoom levels.

Unfortunately, that effort requires a group of humans with expert local area knowledge. An Apple Maps engineer explained the dilemma to me once, “Yahoo Japan Maps has the luxury of focusing all of their product development on just the Japan market.” It’s a luxury that neither Apple nor Google have.


WWDC19 Wish List

Here is my wish list for Apple Maps Japan 2.0 using the same categories, including transit which is a separate app and service layer within Maps.

Collection

  • Traffic and Real Time Road Conditions: these important features are missing in Japan and absolutely must be added. Car navigation with Apple Maps in Japan is worthless without them.
  • Sign a deal with Zenrin: because Apple Maps can never re-invent the digital map wheel for their Japanese product. Don’t make the same mistake Google Maps did.
  • Offline turn by turn navigation: Apple Maps turn by turn navigation completely dies in underground roads or in rural areas without a network connection. It’s like flying blind. Dedicated Japanese turn by turn navigation systems handle this without a problem. Apple Maps 2.0 needs to match the same level of performance to be a reliable car navigation service.

Processing

  • Fix stuff: Improve machine learning to identify problem areas for humans to fix, or hire humans who can identify and fix problems in Japan maps.
  • Vet Stuff or Don’t Use It: If Apple Maps cannot internally vet 3rd party social networked geo trash from notoriously unreliable Yelp, Foursquare and TripAdvisor, don’t use it.

Presentation (Cartography and Maps UI)
This is where most of the action is covering how the map looks and how users interact with it.

Cartography

  • Apple Maps Cartography 2.0
    Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps constantly tweak and evolve their map design, changing contrast, colors, text sizes, and more while pushing map information updates. Meanwhile Apple Maps cartography is fossilized in 2012 debut era design garb. I can only assume 2 things. Either Apple thinks so highly of the current Apple Maps cartography design language that it will never change it. Or Apple is creating a whole new cartography design. Let’s hope for the latter.
  • Fix the Point of Interest overload: with smarter zoom level editing
  • Eliminate Separate Map View/Transit View Modes
    Toggling back and forth between 2 basic view modes in Apple Maps is passé. It desperately needs a revamp. Yahoo Japan Maps leads the way here by collapsing separate road map and transit maps into a single comprehensive map view that covers 99% of what users need, while offering a real rail map for the 1% who need a real rail map. It’s a time saver and smart way to eliminate toggling map views. More on this in the transit section.

Maps UI

  • Recents 2.0
    The current version of Recents is an old shoebox filled with crap: tapped places, liked places, Siri searches, suggestions, liked train stations to receive train delay notices, home, work, and stuff I have no idea why it’s even there. There are so many improvement suggestions I don’t know where to start. I’ll keep it simple and say, Apple please figure out what Recents is supposed to do, so that we don’t have to.
  • Nearby 2.0:
    Nearby suffers the same problems as basic processing, Apple Maps 2.0 needs to do a better job of filtering out the junk. Anybody can list 10 nearby cafes, but only smart editors can give me 10 that are worth visiting. Also follow Yahoo Japan Maps nearby approach of keeping everything on one screen, with minimal pinch and zoom. Avoid Google Maps approach of turning Nearby into stealth advertising.
  • Live Weather Layer: this is Yahoo Japan Maps insanely great secret weapon. I always use it to find when its raining and where, with a time slider to predict if I need an umbrella at my destination. It’s a life saver and must have Apple Maps 2.0 feature. Once you use it, you can never use another map that doesn’t have it.
Yahoo Japan Maps: once you use a map service with live weather layer, you can’t use anything else

Transit

  • Nearby Transit Time Widget
    Google and Apple both use the same transit data supplier, but Google Maps uses it much better than Apple Maps. Most people already know where they are going and how to get there. What they really want to know is: when is the next train? Google Maps does this via a handy widget that offers location based nearby station train times and bus times without having to open the map or tap on a station. This is incredibly simple and convenient. Apple Maps 2.0 needs to offer it.
Google Maps Nearby Transit Time widget is extremely convenient
  • Siri Transit Support
    Siri does not support transit requests. Siri can navigate you to the nearest station but after that you are on your own. The ability to ask Siri for transit times is an important Apple Maps 2.0 feature.
Siri does not support transit times
  • Transit Route Search 2.0
    This is another area where Apple Maps has stood still while Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps continually push out improvements: route suggestion sorting by fare, transit time and number of transfers, train car position information for faster transfers and exits. Apple Maps 2.0 Transit needs to catch up with the competition.
  • Location Based Transit Alarms on iPhone
    Apple Maps transit has wonderful integration with Apple Watch but it could be improved with destination and transfer point alarms/alerts that also work on iPhone.
  • Improved Apple Pay Transit Card Integration
    Apple Maps has some basic integration with Apple Pay Suica but it could be improved by incorporating user Suica Commute Plan information for better route searches with more accurate fare information. Apple Maps integration with HOP and Ventra cards in Apple Pay Wallet would be a great feature for those transit regions.
  • Adaptive Transit Times
    The problem with transit route suggestions on Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps is that once the user selects a route suggestion, transit times are locked in and cannot change on the fly. All too often a users selects a route and time but catches an early or later train, and has to input a new search to reset the transit time. But this is often impossible to do on the fly as transit route searches add a ‘time to station’ buffer. Transit times that adapt and automatically update to transit conditions would be a great feature to have in Apple Maps 2.0 transit.

We’ll find out at the WWDC19 keynote on June 3 at 10:00 a.m. PDT.

UPDATE
WWDC19 Apple Maps scorecard and Tokyo Olympics Apple Maps

Why does Google Maps discriminate against Buddhist Temples?

Dear Google Maps Team,

I have noticed recently that Google Maps in Japan has stopped using the traditional Manji 卍 character for marking Buddhist temples and has substituted a plain gray drop pin. All the other religious organizations still get special icons to denote the religious group: Shinto, Christian, Islam and Judaism. Why do Buddhism get the short stick?

Apple Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps both respect local culture and display Buddhist temples the traditional way. Why can’t you? If you study history and culture you will understand that the Manji character has been used in connection with Buddhism throughout Asia for hundreds of years. It has nothing to do with European history or the tragic events of WW II.

As a Buddhist I hope that non-Buddhists strive to respect Buddhist culture as Buddhists strive to respect other cultures and religions. It’s easy to understand why some Westerners might misunderstand this aspect of Japanese culture, but misunderstanding is always an opportunity to learn new things and grow. When you whitewash one religious symbol because somebody who doesn’t come from that culture doesn’t like it or doesn’t understand it, you are promoting cultural discrimination.

I’m sure Google Maps does not want to promote cultural discrimination. Please do the right thing and respect all religions equally.

Love and Kisses,
Ata Distance

UPDATE
Some readers have suggested this a result of the some preliminary map symbol proposals from the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan, however the Manji symbol was retained in a later proposal with the word ‘temple’ included. What’s important to remember is that the map symbol suggestions were merely suggestions intended for non-Japanese language maps at tourist areas and such. It’s also important to note that the Japanese government did not consult with Buddhist organizations. In short what Google has done does not follow Japanese government guideline suggestions or respect local culture. It is censorship.

UPDATE 2
Related coverage on the WWDC19 Apple Maps Wish List

UPDATE 3
Manji temple place of interest icons have returned to Google Maps after a long and curious absence:

Apple Maps Japan Reboot Challenge: Real Progress

Now that Apple Maps image collection white Subaru vans are out and about in force with lots of people tweeting about it, it looks like Apple Maps has finally gotten serious about mapping Japan. We hope. I see 3 basic challenges:

Collect Quality Data
This is obvious and the whole point of Apple Maps image collection vans, but it’s not the whole story. Apple cannot do it all and has to rely on quality map data suppliers. Increment P (IPC) supplies Japanese map data to Apple but they are not the best quality provider and seem to collect and package other data sources rather than getting their own. Case in point, it took IPC 2 years to fix the Great Shinbu Hot Spring Data Cutoff. If Apple wants to go toe to toe with Google Maps in Japan, they should sign Zenrin who are the top map data provider for Japan. Google recently dropped Zenrin and Google Maps Japan has been a disaster ever since.

Process Quality Data
This has been the bane of Apple Maps since day one. I see it as Apple’s biggest challenge: if Apple cannot quickly and intelligently process map data from multiple sources, the best quality data collection effort, along with the data, is completely wasted. Let’s take a look at how well Apple processes IPC map data for the Ikegami Hall area and compare it to Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps.

Ikegami Hall

As you can see from the example, Apple isn’t using much of the IPC map detail available to them, including Ikegami Hall. Maybe somebody at the Apple Maps data processing center in India forgot to put it in, or is waiting for an update from an Apple Maps van. Either way, the Apple Maps team has no idea something important is missing and that in itself is a big problem.

Present Quality Data
In short, cartography. Good cartography doesn’t only make maps look good, it directs your attention to what is important to know, filters out extraneous detail so you can find what you are looking for, while showing how to get there quickly. Yahoo Japan Maps has the best cartography by far, Google Maps runs a distant 2nd place. However both of them constantly tweak their cartography and evolve it. Apple Maps has yet to substantially update their Justin O’Beirne 2012 era cartography and they desperately need to. Take a look at the Gotanda station area of Tokyo comparing the default views of Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps. The quality improves going left to right.

Apple Maps cartography overwhelms the screen with information that doesn’t need to be there. Yahoo Japan Maps is super clean, smartly edited and easy to navigate. The captions explain it all, case closed.

The challenges facing the Apple Maps team in Japan are many. Now that Google has stumbled, Apple has a golden opportunity to create a better map service for Japan and change the market perception of it. I wish them good luck and look forward to seeing what progress they make.

UPDATE
Related coverage on the WWDC19 Apple Maps Wish List

Google Maps has a Apple Maps meltdown in Japan

Early this month Google Japan announced new features for Japanese users that would include better map data and easier navigation. Instead of “in 100 meters turn left”, Google Maps now says “turn left at the 7-Eleven.” The rollout however is not going very well and is surprisingly similar to the previous Google Maps meltdown in 2015 when anybody could edit map data directly.

This past week map otaku complained on Twitter that Google had dumped premier Japanese digital map data supplier Zenrin for in-house data and weird things were happening. Japanese Twitter is now full of screenshots of parking lots transformed into roads, mountains into lakes and railroad lines suddenly gone missing. It’s like zooming back to the 2012 Apple Maps launch with underwater subway stations in Yotsuya Tokyo or the infamous Gundam Pachinko JR train station. Things came to a head when Zenrin’s stock price crashed today based on speculation that Google had dumped them, though neither company commented. Bloomberg ran the story in Japanese and English, which is unusual, and local IT press coverage has been brutal.

I have seen the Google mapping van and the Google mapping backpacker in the neighborhood occasionally, but one problem seems to be that Google replaced Zenrin data, which has a large field verification team behind it, with in-house map data automatically extracted from satellite images.

I’m sure Google will fix most things, eventually, but there is a growing consensus that Zenrin quality cannot be replaced with in-house AI created data and Google Maps in Japan is destined to become an also-ran service like Apple Maps. Time will tell, but taken together with the recent claims of a growing reverse vishing problem in Asia, the Google Maps reputation in Japan is taking a big hit.

If Apple were smart they would use the opportunity to sign Zenrin and finally get their hands on top rate Japanese map data instead of the 3rd rate Increment P. Until then stick with Yahoo Japan Maps who not only has the superior Zenrin map data but the best cartography too, which they constantly tweak and improve. Take a quick look of the same Shinjuku area in Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps and see how many train and subway stations you can easily pick out of the stew at a glance. Yahoo Japan Maps wins every time.

UPDATE
Related coverage on the WWDC19 Apple Maps Wish List