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How the Apple Maps Fail is a Win for Crowdsourcing
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editorial

How the Apple Maps Fail is a Win for Crowdsourcing

Apple has had a tough run of it since the public finally got its hands on the new iPhone 5 and the new Apple Maps that replace Google's in iOS 6, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system. Apple Maps has been widely panned for providing spotty navigation assistance and other epic fails such as placing an Auckland train station underwater and even getting the location of Sydney's Apple store wrong.

The problem seems to be a failure in smoothing out the kinks that come with utilizing disparate data sources to create a single, unified maps product. I say the solution lies in the crowd.

I'm not talking about the "crowd" of Apple employees that the company is reportedly enlisting to test and fix the botched maps. Enlisting a real crowd -- like say, Apple's millions of global users -- to help do that work would be actually crowdsourcing something and might actually help fix their broken product.

But that's not in Apple's DNA, because it's a company that is closed and top-down in nature and rejects almost any notion of openness. That's been part of the secret to Apple's success, but it's also the reason I recently declared that, even as the company reaches new heights in global domination, Apple -- and the iPhone in particular -- has actually jumped the shark.

That's a much bigger conversation, however. For now I'm interested in how the failure of Apple Maps, which even CEO Tim Cook has acknowledged, is a clear validation of the value of crowdsourcing, especially for products that are really little more than packaging a massive bundle of distributed knowledge up into a single, unified user experience.

Enlisting help from the crowd for something like this should be a no-brainer. Let's take a quick look at two other hugely popular mapping and navigation tools that get that.

First up, Google Maps.

Google Maps launched back in 2005, before Jeff Howe had even coined the term, "crowdsourcing" in Wired Magazine, but Google understood that mapping the entire world would be a massive undertaking and essentially it paid for its own internal crowd to set about completing the task using thousands of workers and cameras strapped to cars, planes, satellites and just about anything else that moves.

In addition to this huge investment in digitizing the totality of our geography, Google has constantly asked for help and feedback from users to improve and update its data. In other words, Google put a huge initial investment into Maps, which it now supplements, maintains, and perhaps one day will completely manage through crowdsourcing.

Pairing a major internal investment with the help of the crowd has created what many see as the best mapping product in history, but a small upstart is hot on its heels.

That geographical youngster is Waze, an almost fully crowdsourced traffic and navigation app that's quickly racked up over 20 million downloads in the past few years.

As we've reported, Waze relies on data from its users to provide and constantly improve all sorts of information for other users, from directions to construction alerts and speed traps. In addition to the data it collects automatically from users, the Israeli company has also worked hard to build a community among those users who also work to improve the data. 

By building for and engaging the crowd from the very beginning, Waze is able to actually compete with a digital giant like Google, with its headstart of several years and many million dollars invested.

But Apple still doesn't get it. It turned its back on the crowd in the name of its own greatest corporate asset and liability -- control. Such an approach might make sense for designing a singular consumer electronic product that consumers expect to work in a certain way, but for embarking on one of the great distributed knowledge projects of our age, it's ok to ask for a little help from the crowd.

 - Eric Mack is Managing Editor for Crowdsourcing.org. He has covered business, technology and politics for more than a decade for major outlets including CNET, CBS, AOL, NPR, Wired, and the New York Times.  You can contact him at eric.mack@crowdsourcing.org. Find him on Twitter and Google+. Also be sure to follow Crowdsourcing.org on Twitter.

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  • Guest Etienne Oct 09, 2012 06:46 pm GMT

    Your are just missing OpenStreetMap which is an open mapping solution that Apple tried in iPhoto.

  • Eric Mack Eric Mack Oct 17, 2012 01:38 am GMT

    I should have mentioned that Waze uses OpenstreetMap.

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