All Online Maps Suck

This is something I’ve been meaning to write for a while. I should have written it last December, during the hullaballoo over Apple’s maps, but I’ve never been one to strike when the iron is hot.

You’ll recall that there were a lot of complaints about Apple’s maps app when it launched with iOS 6, replacing the previous app that was powered by Google Maps. The map data didn’t match the user experience: it was a first-rate app that used second-rate data. Apple oversold the experience and failed to meet the high expectations of its customers. It was a problem that no other online map provider had ever had to deal with before, not least because no one had launched a new map service with the same amount of hubris, nor the same amount of scrutiny from day one.

But many of the complaints about Apple’s maps verged into hyperbole. The notion that Apple’s maps were uniquely bad compared to other online maps was frankly unfair. Because when you get right down to it, all online maps suck. They all fail in some way, somewhere, and some more than others—and if the maps you use seem fine to you, it’s because they suck somewhere else.

Apple, after all, didn’t invent map errors. Map errors have a long history; I’ve catalogued dozens of them over the years. Maps got people lost long before iPhones sent people into dangerous regions of Australia; satnavs’ blithe directions have been leading credulous drivers into bridle paths, ditches and railways for as long as there have been satnavs. There is no such thing as an error-free map. And the alternatives have their share of them.

Take Google Maps. By the time Apple booted it off the iPhone, Google Maps had become the gold standard of online maps. Deservedly so: Google had spent considerable resources getting them to that standard (and not inconsiderable resources telling us how much they had worked on those maps). Not for nothing were people demanding its return to iOS.

The thing is, Google’s maps weren’t always good. Google’s maps have a long history of sucking from time to time. But people have short memories, or haven’t been paying attention. Google was fixing its mistakes when most web map users were still using Mapquest, most drivers were using satnavs from Garmin and TomTom, and most people didn’t have smartphones.

Some of Apple’s map errors had a familiar ring to them. The warped 3D images ridiculed in Apple maps—a function of two-dimensional satellite and aerial imagery being applied to three-dimensional terrain—were a long-established feature of Google Earth. And Google ran into all kinds of trouble when it began replacing map data from Navteq and Tele Atlas with its own data in 2009—the same map data it touted so much last year. There were errors all over the place. The change was called premature and “a significant step down in quality.” But even before that, when Google switched from Navteq to Tele Atlas in 2008, I unearthed all kinds of new errors in my neighbourhood; switching to its own data a year and a half later fixed many of those errors but created new ones.

In hindsight, you can see Google’s business logic: switching to its own mapping data, rather than relying on maps provided by companies with competing interests, like Nokia (who owns Navteq) or TomTom (who owns Tele Atlas), carried significant strategic advantages that outweighed the short-term hit to its map quality.

Building your own maps in order to avoid relying on a competitor: now where have I heard that before?

Moving along. What about OpenStreetMap? At its best, OSM can be better than any other online map. At least that’s what its proponents say, citing an example like some zoo in Germany as an example of how good open source mapping can get. And, like Google, they have a point. OSM can be pretty good. I’m a heavy contributor to it, so I have a dog in this hunt: I want it to get really good.

But at its worst, it’s the worst online map there is.

For example, last week I spent a surprising amount of time adding highways, rail lines, towns and even lakes in central Saskatchewan, an area of surprising emptiness in OSM even though there is lots of high-resolution imagery to trace (to say nothing of CanVec data available for importing). I couldn’t do much more than lay down the grid and guess at some of the land uses (churches, schools and retail and commercial areas can usually be figured out from imagery, names can’t), but while I left the map in better shape than I found it, there are still hundreds of person-hours of work left to do in that area.

The problem with OSM is also its strength: it’s entirely dependent on the attention of volunteers. Where there are a lot of volunteers, the map is invariably excellent. But where there aren’t any volunteers, the map is empty. For every Germany there is a Saskatchewan. While OSM is unbeatable in several areas of the world, it’s safe to say that the other online maps have at least acceptable coverage of medium-sized towns in Saskatchewan. Which is to say that OSM is not uniformly good — not yet, not by a long shot.

So couldn’t you use OSM where it’s better than the alternatives? Stitching together map data from disparate sources isn’t exactly easy. Roads and other features might not be perfectly aligned from source to source, and the metadata isn’t necessarily compatible—ask anyone who’s tried to import open government data into OSM how painless a task that is.

A final example. Yesterday I clicked on an address in Facebook for an event in downtown Ottawa. It opened in Microsoft’s Bing Maps, which gave me a location in Greater Sudbury. Why it did so I have no clue, except maybe that Microsoft is being too clever with its IP address detection (my ISP is Sudbury-based). For the record, neither Apple (on my iPhone) nor Google (on the web) had any trouble giving me the right location.

Every map, no matter how good overall, has weaknesses.

This is not new. Paper maps were never free from errors, after all, and with satnavs, even the best onboard maps would become less reliable if you didn’t purchase the updates.

But online maps are different: we’re using them much more often than we ever did paper maps or even satnavs. We haven’t just delegated our navigation skills to them: we’ve integrated them into our maps and websites, we rely on them for transit schedules and business listings. They give us a false sense of security and a false sense of reality: we forget that the map isn’t the territory.

We used to be more tentative with our paper maps or our friends’ directions. We tended to think about it more, rather than blindly follow.

We’ve decided that knowing where to go is no longer our problem, and getting lost is no longer our fault.

This might be a bit premature.