Justin O'Beirne

Justin O'Beirne of San Francisco, California. Essays, projects, and contact information.



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At its heart, this series of essays is a comparison of the current state of Google’s and Apple’s cartography. But it’s also something more: an exploration into all of the tradeoffs that go into designing and making maps such as these.

These tradeoffs are the joy of modern cartography – the thousands of tiny, seemingly isolated decisions that coalesce into a larger, greater whole.

Our purpose here is not to crown a winner, but to observe the paths taken – and not taken.

*   *   *

We’ll look at 54 pairs of maps of three different cities: New York, San Francisco, and London.

Each pair shows an identical area, pixel for pixel, on Google Maps and Apple Maps – at the exact same zoom:


To give you a better idea of what these map pairs look like, here’s a few higher-resolution versions:



The three pairs above are all from our New York set:

*   *   *

Speaking of New York, we’ll center all of the New York map pairs on the Empire State Building:

📷 The Empire State Building | Photo by Faisal Yaqub

*   *   *

For San Francisco, we’ll center the map pairs on Patricia’s Green, a park in the center of the Hayes Valley neighborhood:

📷 Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley, San Francisco | Photo by Justin O’Beirne

*   *   *

And for London, we’ll center the map pairs on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square:

📷 Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London | Photo by David Castor

*   *   *


Why are we looking at New York, San Francisco, and London – and not some other cities or areas?

  • First, we want to look at areas where the maps are most likely to be finished (i.e., areas where the maps are most likely to be complete and up-to-date.) San Francisco is Google’s and Apple’s backyard, so the maps should be really good there. And New York and London are two of the world’s largest, most important cities – so they should’ve also gotten a lot of attention.

  • We also want to look at very dense cities, cities where there’d be an enormous number of candidates for things to label. New York and San Francisco are the U.S.’s two densest major cities. And London is the E.U.’s largest city.

  • Because of this density requirement, rural areas won’t work for our purposes. In a typical rural area, the things that are labeled are the area’s only things – and Google and Apple are likely to label the same things. For this study, we want to see what Google and Apple label when they have thousands of things to choose from.

  • We’ll choose the Empire State Building, Patricia’s Green, and Nelson’s Column because they are all close to the centers of their respective cities, and they’re all likely to have a variety of different things around them.

  • Finally (and not coincidentally), San Francisco, New York, and London were the three cities where my recent essay, What Happened to Google Maps?, received the most views. (Thank you to everyone who enjoyed and shared that essay! 😀)

A few other notes before we begin:

  • We’re only looking at the maps themselves. (Search results, Turn-by-Turn navigation, Street View, Aerial / Satellite imagery, and Traffic displays are all out-of-scope.)

  • We want to see what a map designed for a billion people looks like, so we’re only looking at the default maps. (We’ll look at map personalization in a later essay. Google offers it; Apple doesn’t.) The map screenshots reflect the default, out-of-the-box experience that someone would have upon using them for the very first time. (The screenshots were taken on fresh installs, with clear browser caches – and no accounts were signed into, nor were any searches performed.)

  • Unless otherwise noted, all maps, data, and screenshots for Parts 1 and 2 reflect Google Maps and Apple Maps as they appeared on Saturday, May 14th, 2016.



📍 · Part 1 · Part 2 · Interlude · Part 3


Thank you to Faisal Yaqub and David Castor for contributing original photography.