After suffering considerable backlash for the mapping technology it included in iOS 6, Apple has now brought in some expert help. Specifically, it has acquired Locationary, a startup that takes a crowdsourcing approach to map data.
Locationary’s Saturn technology uses Big Data to fill in the blanks in maps. In this case, the Big Data in question is provided by users, who update locations with information such as store hours, company descriptions and other details.
Locationary then sorts through user entries to consolidate data for each business or location into one profile and weed out duplicates.
The acquisition was first reported by AllThingsD, but details of the deal were not disclosed. Neither Apple nor Locationary responded to our request to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, reports emerged late on Friday that Apple may also be acquiring HopStop, an online transit-navigation service also relevant for Apple Maps.
Issues to Be Solved
Few would deny that Apple needs extra resources to strengthen its map program. With the launch of iOS 6, the company introduced its own mapping app and pulled Google Maps, upon which it had relied previously.
The results were not good.
Apple Maps had widely publicized problems — including numerous tales of users who got misdirected — that will take some time to recover from. Locationary founder and CEO Grant Ritchie may have even made his company an acquisition target, in fact, by speaking out last fall with suggestions for how Apple could solve them.
While Ritchie reportedly went to Apple with his recommendations, he also outlined five mapping issues for Apple to solve in an article on TechCrunch last September.
‘So Much Diverse Data’
“The biggest challenge, and what makes it very important, is the fact that there’s so much diverse data distributed everywhere,” Professor Kirk Borne from George Mason University’s School of Physics, Astronomy & Computational Sciences told MacNewsWorld.
Indeed, the addition of Locationary will likely include a cleanup of the existing mapping program.
“I think there is room for cleaning up the business data, and that is one thing that Locationary is good at,” suggested Betsy Sigman, a teaching professor at Georgetown University. “I think they’re going to clean up the business data and match it with the mapping data. I think it is a way for Apple to get back into the mapping game.”
‘The Homogenization Apple Needs’
The database will have to consolidate submissions from multiple users. Say, for instance, one user updates store hours for a local boutique while another adds a different update for the same boutique. Those two records must then be reconciled.
One of Locationary’s key abilities is combining information like that while weeding out duplication.
“What Locationary provides is an API that provides the standardization of information,” said Borne. “The API provides the homogenization that the Apple Maps needs.”
‘Google Is Not Perfect’
Of course, even once the technological issues are solved, Apple will still need to regain users’ trust.
“I see it as an opportunity for Apple to get back on the screen as far as maps, and I think it’s interesting because they suffered in comparison with Google,” Sigman told MacNewsWorld. “We all know that Google is not perfect and there is space to have more mapping — particularly with businesses — and have it be easier for people to look up.”
The technology may also have wider applicability.
“One of the major sources of Big Data in the world now is through social media,” Borne pointed out. “So this massive stream of comments and content about things and places makes it really hard to filter what the right information is, and define that information to the right thing you’re talking about.”
A Question of Context
So, while Apple may have mapping front of mind with the Locationary acquisition, there is potential for the company’s API to be put to use across other platforms. Namely, the biggest issue for mapping and other uses of Big Data is context; Locationary may be able to provide just that.
“Location is a very major part of the Big Data problem,” said Borne. “When you talk about consumer data or any kind of information, human experience takes place at a place and a time. So whether you’re updating social media, reporting an event, or whatever, it’s at a location.
“The next big advancement in Big Data is when we can integrate the context of Big Data,” he concluded — “where it was collected, when it was collected and for what purpose.”