Android’s latest update will let you schedule texts, secure your passwords and more

Google today announced the next set of features coming to Android, including a new password checkup tool, a way to schedule your texts, along with other improvements to products like its screen reader TalkBack, Maps, Assistant and Android Auto. This spring 2021 release is latest in a series of smaller update bundles, similar to iOS “point releases,” that add new functionality and features to Android outside of the larger update cycle.

One the security front, this update will integrate a feature called Password Checkup into devices running Android 9 and above to alert you to passwords you’re using that have been previously exposed.

The feature works with Autofill with Google, which lets you quickly sign in to apps and other services on Android. Now, when you use Autofill, Password Checkup will check your credentials against a list of known compromised passwords, then notify you if your credentials appear on that list and what to do about it.

Image Credits: Google

The prompt can also direct you to your Password Manager page on Google, where you can review all your other saved Autofill passwords for similar issues.

To use this feature, you’ll need to have Autofill enabled. (Settings > System > Languages & Input > Advanced, the tap Autofill. Tap Google to ensure the setting is enabled.)

The new Messages feature rolling out this update could see prolific texters considering a switch to Android, as it’s one of the most in-demand features since SMS was invented: the ability to schedule your texts.

Image Credits: Google

Android’s new scheduled send feature will allow you to compose a message ahead of time, whenever it’s convenient for you, then schedule it to be sent later when it’s a more appropriate time. This can be particularly helpful if you have friends, family or coworkers and colleagues in other timezones, and are hesitant to bother them when they could be sleeping or enjoying family time after work. It can also help those who often remember something they meant to text when it’s late at night and too late to send the message.

To use this feature, you’ll just write the text as usual, then press and hold the send button to select a date and time to deliver the message. You’ll need the latest version of the Android Messages app for this feature to work.

Another flagship feature arriving in this Android release is aimed at making Android’s screen reader, known as TalkBack, easier to use for those users who are blind or have low vision. TalkBack today allows users to navigate their device with their voice and gestures in order to read, write, send emails, share social media, order delivery and more.

Image Credits: Google

The updated version (TalkBack 9.1) will now include a dozen new multifinger gestures to interact with apps and perform common actions, like selecting and editing text, controlling media or getting help. This will work on Pixel and Samsung Galaxy devices from One UI 3 onwards, Google says.

Google is also responding to user feedback over TalkBack’s confusing multiple menu system and has returned to the single menu system users wanted. This single menu will adapt to context while also providing consistent access to the most common functions.

Other TalkBack improvements includes new gestures — like an up and right swipe to access over 25 voice commands — and new reading controls that let users either skim a page, read only headlines, listen word-by-word or even character-by-character.

Users can also now add or remove options from the TalkBack menu or the reading controls to further customize the interface to their needs. Plus, TalkBack’s braille keyboard added support for Arabic and Spanish.

The spring update also adds more minor improvements to Maps, Assistant and Android Auto.

Maps is getting a dark mode that you can enable as the default under Settings > Theme and then selecting “Always in Dark Theme.”

 

Image Credits: Google

Google Assistant’s update will let you use the feature when the phone is locked or further away from you, by turning on Lock Screen Personal Results in Assistant’s Settings then saying “Hey Google,” as needed.

The new cards that appear when the phone is locked are meant to be easier to read with just a glance, Google says.

And finally, Android Auto will now include custom wallpapers and voice-activated games like trivia and “Jeopardy!” that you can ask for via the “Hey Google” command.

Image Credits: Google

There are also now shortcuts on the launch screen for accessing your contacts, or using Assistant to complete tasks like checking the weather or adjusting the thermostat, for example. Cars with wider screens will gain access to a split screen view with Google Maps on one side and media controls on the other.

Android Auto’s features will roll out in the “coming days” on phones running Android 6.0 and higher and work with compatible cars, Google notes.

Google now lets anyone contribute to Street View using AR and an app

An update to Google’s Street View app on Android will now let anyone contribute their photos to help enhance Google Maps, the company announced this morning. Using a “connected photos” tool in the new version of the Street View app, users are able to record a series of images as they move down the street or a path. The feature requires an ARCore-compatible Android device, and for the time being, will only support image capture and upload in select geographic regions.

ARCore is Google’s platform for building augmented reality experiences. It works by allowing the phone to sense its environment, including the size and location of all types of surfaces, the position of the phone in relation to the world around it, and the lighting conditions of the environment. This is supported on a variety of Android devices running Android 7.0 (Nougat) or higher.

Meanwhile, Google’s Street View app has been around for half a decade. Initially, it was designed to allow users to share their own panoramic photos to improve the Google Maps experience. But as phones have evolved, so has the app.

The updated version of the Street View app allows users to capture images using ARCore — the same AR technology Google users for its own Live View orientation experiences in Maps, which helps phones “see” various landmarks to help users get their bearings.

After the images are published in the Street View app, Google will then automatically rotate, position and create a series of connected photos using those images, and put them in the correct place on Google Maps so others can see them.

It will also use the same privacy controls on these contributed photos as are offered on its own Street View images (the ones it captured by driving the Street View car around). This include blurring people’s faces and license plates, and allowing users to report imagery and other content for review, if needed.

Image Credits: Google

The new system of connected photos won’t be as polished as Google’s own Street View images, but it does make the ability to publish to Street View more accessible. Now, the image capturing process no longer requires a 360-degree camera or other equipment mounted to a top of car, for example. And that means users who live in more remote regions will be able to contribute to Street View, without needing anything more than a supported Android phone and internet connection.

Google says it will still default to showing its own Street View imagery when it’s available, which will be indicated with a solid blue line. But in the case where there’s no Street View option, the contributed connected photos will appear in the Street View layer as a dotted blue line instead.

Image Credits: Google

The company will also use the data in the photos to update Google Maps with the names and addresses of businesses that aren’t already in the system, including their posted hours, if that’s visible on a store sign, for instance.

During early tests, users captured photo using this technology in Nigeria, Japan and Brazil.

Today, Google says it’s officially launching the connected photos feature in beta in the Street View app. During this public beta period, users will be able to try the feature in Toronto, Canada, New York, NY and Austin, TX, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Costa Rica. More regions will be supported in the future as the test progresses, Google says.

Google Maps takes on Facebook with launch of its own news feed

People are getting frustrated that Stories are everywhere now, but Google Maps is keeping it old school. Instead of adding tiny circles to the top of the app’s screen, Google Maps is introducing its own news feed. Technically, Google calls its new feature the “Community Feed,” as it includes posts from a local area. However, it’s organized as any other news feed would be — a vertically scrollable feed with posts you can “Like” by tapping on a little thumbs up icon.

The feed, which is found with the Explore tab of the Google Maps app, is designed to make it easier to find the most recent news, updates, and recommendations from trusted local sources. This includes posts business owners create using Google My Business to alert customers to new deals, menu updates, and other offers. At launch, Google says the focus will be on highlighting posts from food and drink businesses.

For years, businesses have been able to make these sorts of posts using Google’s tools. But previously, users would have to specifically tap to follow the business’s profile in order to receive their updates.

Now, these same sort of posts will be surfaced to even those Google Maps users who didn’t take the additional step of following a particular business. This increased exposure has impacted the posts’ views, Google says. In early tests of Community Feed ahead of its public launch, Google found that businesses’ posts saw more than double the number of views than before the feed existed.

Image Credits: Google

In addition to posts from businesses, the new Community Feed will feature content posted by Google users you follow as well as recent reviews from Google’s Local Guides — the volunteer program where users share their knowledge about local places in order to earn perks, such as profile badges, early access to Google features, and more. Select publishers will participate in the Community Feed, too, including The Infatuation and other news sources from Google News, when relevant.

Much of the information found in the Community Feed was available elsewhere in Google Maps before today’s launch.

For example, the Google Maps’ Updates tab offered a similar feed that included businesses’ posts along with news, recommendations, stories, and other features designed to encourage discovery. Meanwhile, the Explore tab grouped businesses into thematic groupings (e.g. outdoor dining venues, cocktail bars, etc.) at the top of the screen, then allowed users to browse other lists and view area photos.

With the update, those groups of businesses by category will still sit at the top of the screen, but the rest of the tab is dedicated to the scrollable feed. This gives the tab a more distinct feel than it had before. It could even position Google to venture into video posts in the future, given the current popularity of TikTok-style  short-form video feeds that have now cloned by Instagram and Snapchat.

Image Credits: Google

Today, it’s a more standard feed, however. As you scroll down, you can tap “Like” on those posts you find interesting to help better inform your future recommendations. You can also tap “Follow” on businesses you want to hear more from, which will send their alerts to your Updates tab, as well. Thankfully, there aren’t comments.

Google hopes the change will encourage users to visit the app more often in order to find out what’s happening in their area — whether that’s a new post from a business or a review from another user detailing some fun local activity, like a day trip or new hiking spot, for example.

The feature can be used when traveling or researching other areas, too, as the “Community Feed” you see is designated not based on where you live or your current location, but rather where you’re looking on the map.

The feed is the latest in what’s been a series of updates designed to make Google Maps more of a Facebook rival. Over the past few years, Google Maps has added features that allowed users to follow businesses, much like Facebook does, as well as message those businesses directly in the app, similar to Messenger. Businesses, meanwhile, have been able to set up their own profile in Google Maps, where they could add a logo, cover photo, and pick short name — also a lot like Facebook Pages offer today.

With the launch of a news feed-style feature, Google’s attempt to copy Facebook is even more obvious.

Google says the feature is rolling out globally on Google Maps for iOS and Android.

 

 

Google Maps adds street-level details in select cities, more colorful imagery worldwide

Google Maps is getting a significant update that will bring more detail and granularity to its map, with changes that encompass both natural features and city-level details alike. For the former, Google says it’s leveraged computer vision techniques to analyze natural features from satellite imagery, then color-coded those features for easier visual reference. Meanwhile, select cities (including New York, San Francisco and London) will gain more detailed street information, like the location of sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian islands, for example.

These additions will help people better navigate their cities on foot or via alternative modes of solo transportation, like bikes and scooters, which some have opted for amid the pandemic. The supported cities will also show the accurate shape and width of a road to scale to offer a better sense of how wide or narrow a street is, in relation to its surroundings.

Image Credits: Google (before: left, after: right)

While the added granularity won’t include more accessibility features, like curb cuts for example, Google says that having the crosswalks detailed on the map will help in that area. The company also notes that Google Maps today displays wheelchair-accessible routes in transit and wheelchair attributes on business pages.

The updated city maps won’t show up immediately in the Google Maps app, we understand. Instead, Google says the new maps will roll out to NY, SF and London in the “coming months.” The vague time frame is due to the staged nature of the release — something that’s often necessary for larger apps. Google Maps reaches over a billion users worldwide, so changes can take time to scale.

The company notes that after the first three cities receive the update, it plans to roll out more detailed city maps to additional markets, including those outside the U.S.

Meanwhile, users both inside and outside big cities around the world will benefit from the changes to how natural features are presented in Google Maps.

Image Credits: Google

Google utilized a color-mapping technique to identify natural features from its satellite imagery, looking specifically at arid, icy, forested and mountainous regions. These features were then assigned a range of colors on the HSV color model. For instance, a dense forest will now appear as a dark green while patchier shrubs may appear as a lighter green. You’ll be able to differentiate between beaches and greenery, see where deserts begin and end, see how much land is covered by ice caps, see where snowcapped mountain peaks appear or view national park borders more easily, among other things.

These changes will reach all 220 countries and territories that Google Maps supports — over 100 million square kilometers of land, from bigger metros to rural areas and small towns.

Image Credits: Google

The update comes at a time when Google’s lead as everyone’s default mapping app is being challenged on iOS and Mac. While Apple Maps started out rough, a 2018 redesign and subsequent updates have made it a more worthy rival. Apple even took on Google’s Street View with its higher-resolution 3D feature, Look Around, which particularly targets big city users. More recently, Apple introduced a clever trick that allows you to raise your phone and scan the skyline to refine your location. And Apple is battling Google Maps’ explore and discovery features through its expanded, curated guides built with the help of partners. These updates have pushed Google to race ahead with improvements of its own in order to maintain its lead in maps.

Google says the new features and updates will roll out across Android, iOS and desktop in the months ahead.

Google Maps rolls out end-to-end directions for bikeshare users

Google Maps is making it easier for bikeshare users to navigate through their city with an update to Maps now rolling out across 10 major markets. Already, Google Maps could point users to bike-sharing locations and it has long since offered cycling directions between any two points. The new update, however, will combine both walking and biking directions in order to provide end-to-end navigation between docked bikeshare locations.

That is, Google Maps will first provide detailed walking directions to your nearest bikeshare location before providing turn-by-turn directions to the bikeshare closest to your destination. It then offers the final leg of the trip between the bikeshare drop-off and your destination as walking directions.

Before, users planning to use a bikeshare would have to create three separate trips — one to the first bikeshare to pick up a bike, the second to the bikeshare drop-off point, and then walking directions to their final destination. Now, you can plan this outing as one single trip in Google Maps in the supported markets.

In addition to the new end-to-end navigation, Google Maps in some cities will also display links that allow you to open the relevant bikeshare mobile app in order to book and unlock the bike.

The feature is rolling out over the weeks ahead in 10 cities, in partnership with transportation information company Ito World and supported bikeshare partners. These include the following markets:

  • Chicago, U.S. (Divvy/Lyft)
  • New York City, U.S. (Citi Bike/Lyft)
  • San Francisco Bay Area, U.S. (Bay Wheels/Lyft)
  • Washington, DC, U.S. (Capital Bikeshare/Lyft)
  • London, England (Santander Cycles/TfL)
  • Mexico City, Mexico (Ecobici)
  • Montreal, Canada (BIXI/Lyft)
  • Rio De Janeiro, Brazil (Bike Itaú)
  • São Paulo, Brazil (Bike Itaú)
  • Taipei and New Taipei City, Taiwan (YouBike)

Google says it’s actively working to add more partners to bring the functionality to more cities in the months ahead.

The launch of the new feature again one-ups Apple Maps, which recently announced it was catching up with Google Maps by adding a dedicated cycling option within Apple Maps that will optimize routes for cyclists. Apple’s new biking directions can even show if a route includes challenging hills or there’s a bike repair shop nearby, if desired.

Ito World also noted in March it had partnered with Apple to integrate bikeshare data into Apple Maps, allowing iPhone owners to find bikeshare locations across 179 cities.

But Google continues to offer more detailed bikeshare information in its Google Maps product, having over the years launched features like dockless bike and scooter integration with Lime in more than 100 cities and real-time docked bikeshare information in select cities to show availability of bikes for rent.

Offering better biking directions has become even more of a competitive product in recent months for mapping providers, due to the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on travel and transportation. Some commuters, for example, have shifted to using bikes for their trips instead of relying on public transportation, like buses and subways. Google notes this impact has also been reflected in growing worldwide search interest for phrases like “bike repair shop near me,” which hit an all-time high in July — more than double what it was last year.

The updated bikeshare navigation is rolling out in the coming weeks, says Google.

BMW wants to sell you subscriptions to your car’s features

BMW today announced a number of updates to its in-car software experience during a VR press event, complete with a virtual drive through Munich to show off some of these features. These new updates will come to most recent BMWs that support the company’s Operating System 7 later this year — and new cars will already have them built-in.

The automaker is now able to not only update the car’s infotainment system but virtually every line of code that’s deployed to the various compute systems that make up a modern vehicle. And because of this, the company is now also able to bring a couple of features to market that it has long talked about.

Perhaps most notable is the update to the program that allows you to subscribe to specific hardware features that may already be built into your car but that you didn’t activate when you bought the car — like heated seats or advanced driver assistance systems.

BMW has talked about this for a while, but it is now making this a reality. That means if you didn’t buy the heated steering wheel and seats, for example, your new BMW may now offer you a free three-month trial and you can then essentially buy a subscription for this feature for a set amount of time.

Image Credits: BMW

“We offer maximum flexibility and peace of mind to our customers when it comes to choosing and using their optional equipment in their BMWs, whether this BMW is new or used,” a company spokesperson said during today’s press event. “So flexible offers, immediate availability, simpler booking and easy usability for choice, at any time, when it comes to your optional equipment. We already started connectivity over 20 years ago and since 2014, we are online with our Connected Drive Store, where digital services can already be booked.”

Those were very much infotainment features, though. Now, BMW will let you enable vehicle functions and optional equipment on demand and over the air. The company started offering some features like active cruise control with stop and go functionality, a high beam assistant and access to the BMW IconicSounds Sport. The carmaker will add new features to this line-up over time.

Surprisingly, it’s often easier and cheaper for car manufacturers to build some hardware into cars, even if it is not activated, simply because it removes complexity from the production process. A lot of the features that BMW is talking about consist of a combination of software and hardware, though.

What’s new here is the ability to only subscribe to some features for a short time.

“In the near future, we will not only be able to add more functions here, but we will also be able to add even more flexibility for our customers with temporary bookings so booking of options for three years, for one year, or even shorter periods of time, like a few months,” a spokesperson said.

Image Credits: BMW

The company also notes that this will give somebody who buys a used car a lot more flexibility, too. It’s worth noting that Apple CarPlay support was also originally a subscription feature in new BMWs, costing $80 a year. That really felt like nickel-and-diming drivers, though, since none of its competitors charged for this. The company’s customers were not very happy, so the company reversed that decision last December.

It’ll be interesting to see how drivers will react to additional subscription services, but the focus now is more on convenience features that would usually be an option when you buy a new car, so my guess is that this will be less of an issue.

Among the other new and updated digital services the company showcased today is support for Apple’s new ‘Car Keys,’ which BMW brands as the BMW Digital Key, as well as an updated BMW Personal Assistant. Some of these new Assistant features are more cosmetic and about how it is showcased on the in-car display.

One nifty new Assistant feature is a kind of IFTTT for your car, where you can program it to automatically roll down your windows when you enter your company’s parking garage, for example, so that you can easily scan your badge to open the boom gate.

Image Credits: BMW

Other updates include the new BMW Maps, the company’s built-in GPS system, which the company described as a ‘major leap.’

This cloud-based service can now find routes faster, has more granular traffic data and also includes the ability to find parking spaces for you — and that parking feature itself is based on a lot of work the company is doing in aggregating sensor data from across its fleet, which already covers and maps close to 99% of the German highway system once a day in HD.

Image Credits: BMW

Speaking of maps, the company, which is still in the middle of the roll-out of its hybrid-electric vehicles, also announced today that its hybrid fleet will make it easier for drivers to find charging stations and will automatically switch to electric driving when they enter low-emission zones in 80 European cities, with support for additional cities coming over time.

“Digital technologies belong to the core of BMW – because hardware and software are of
equal importance for premium cars,” said Oliver Zipse, the Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW. “Our mission is to integrate advanced digital technologies with highest product excellence to enhance our customers’ experience and driving pleasure even more.”

Waze gets a big visual update with a focus on driver emotions

Crowdsourced navigation platform Waze, which is owned by Google and yet remains a separate, but intertwined product relative to Google Maps, just got one of its biggest UI and design overhauls ever. The new look is much more colourful, and also foregrounds the ability for individual drivers to share their current emotions with Moods, a set of user-selectable icons (with an initial group of 30) that can reflect how you’re feeling as you’re driving.

Moods may seem like a relatively small user personalization option, but it’s actually a very interesting way for Waze to add another data vector to the crowdsourced info it can gather. In a blog post describing the feature, Waze Head of Creative Jake Shaw talks about the added Mood set, which builds upon the Moods feature previously available in Waze and greatly expands the set of expressible emotions.

“The fundamental idea of Moods has always been the same: to reflect how users feel on the road,” he wrote. “We had a lot of fun exploring the range of emotions people feel out there. A dozen drivers could all feel different in the exact same situation, so we set about capturing as many of those feelings as possible. This was critical to us, because the Moods act as a visual reminder of all of us out there, working together.”

Extending Moods to be more varied and personalized definitely has the advantage of being more visually-appealing, and that could serve to boost its engagement among the Waze user community. They don’t mention this explicitly, but you can imagine that combining this as a sort of sentiment measure along with other crowd-reported navigational details including traffic status, weather conditions, construction and more could ultimately help Waze build a much richer dataset and resulting analyses for use in road planning, transportation infrastructure management and more.

This update also includes a full refresh of all the app’s interfaces, using colored shapes based around a grid system, and new icons for reported road hazards. It’s a big, bright changes, and further helps distinguish Waze’s visual identity from that of its sibling Google Maps, too.

Shaw talk repeatedly about the value of the voice of the community in informing this redesign, and it definitely seems interested in fostering further a sense of participation in that community, as distinct from other transportation and navigation apps. Oddly, this serves as a reminder that Google’s most successful social networking product, with the exception maybe of YouTube depending on how you define it, may well be Waze.

Google highlights accessible locations with new Maps feature

Google has announced a new, welcome and no doubt long-asked-for feature to its Maps app: wheelchair accessibility info. Businesses and points of interest featuring accessible entrances, bathrooms and other features will now be prominently marked as such.

Millions, of course, require such accommodations as ramps or automatic doors, from people with limited mobility to people with strollers or other conveyances. Google has been collecting information on locations’ accessibility for a couple years, and this new setting puts it front and center.

The company showed off the feature in a blog post for Global Accessibility Awareness Day. To turn it on, users can go to the “Settings” section of the Maps app, then “Accessibility settings,” then toggle on “Accessible places.”

This will cause any locations searched for or tapped on to display a small wheelchair icon if they have accessible facilities. Drilling down into the details where you find the address and hours will show exactly what’s available. Unfortunately it doesn’t indicate the location of those resources (helpful if someone is trying to figure out where to get dropped off, for instance), but knowing there’s an accessible entrance or restroom at all is a start.

The information isn’t automatically created or sourced from blueprints or anything — like so much on Google, it comes from you, the user. Any registered user can note the presence of accessible facilities the way they’d note things like in-store pickup or quick service. Just go to “About” in a location’s description and hit the “Describe this place” button at the bottom.

Apple’s redesigned Maps app is available across the US, adds real-time transit for Miami

Apple’s updated and more detailed Maps experience has now rolled out across the U.S., the company announced this morning. The redesigned app will include more accurate information overall as well as comprehensive views of roads, buildings, parks, airports, malls and other public places. It will also bring Look Around to more cities and real-time transit to Miami.

The company has now spent years upgrading its Maps experience to better compete with Google Maps, which Apple replaced with its own Maps app in 2012. That launch didn’t go well, to say the least. Apple CEO Tim Cook even had to apologize for how Maps fell short of customers’ expectations and promised Apple would do better going forward.

Over time, Apple has been making good on those promises, by updating Maps with better data and notably, by announcing a ground-up rebuild of the Maps platform back in 2018. Last year, Apple also introduced the new “Look Around” feature in iOS 13 — essentially Apple’s version of Google Street View, but one that uses high-resolution 3D views that offer more detail and smoother transitions. 

iOS 13 also brought more Maps features, like real-time transit schedules, a list-making feature called Collections, Favorites and more.

However, some of these Maps updates have been slow to roll out. Look Around, for example, has only been live in major cities, including New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, LA, Las Vegas, Houston and Oahu. With the nationwide launch, it’s safe to assume you’re about to see it pop up in more major metros, though Apple hasn’t provided names of which ones will get it first. Real-time transit information is offered only in select major cities, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., New York and LA.

Today, Apple is adding Miami to that list of supported cities offering real-time transit, just in time for Super Bowl weekend.

Over the course of 2019, Apple’s improved, more detailed Maps experience has steadily expanded across the U.S., finally arriving in the North East as of last fall.

Today, the new Maps experience it’s starting to go live across all of the U.S. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see it right away when you launch the Maps app — the rollout is phased.

“We set out to create the best and most private maps app on the planet that is reflective of how people explore the world today,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, in a statement about the launch. “It is an effort we are deeply invested in and required that we rebuild the map from the ground up to reimagine how Maps enhances people’s lives — from navigating to work or school or planning an important vacation — all with privacy at its core. The completion of the new map in the United States and delivering new features like Look Around and Collections are important steps in bringing that vision to life. We look forward to bringing this new map to the rest of the world starting with Europe later this year,” he added.

The updated Apple Maps includes Look Around and real-time transit in some markets, Collections, Favorites, a Share ETA feature, flight status information for upcoming travel, indoor maps for malls and airports, Siri natural language guidance and Flyover — a feature offering immersive, 3D views of major metros, as seen from above. The latter is available across more than 350 cities.

Going forward, Apple will use the imagery it collects to deliver Look Around to more U.S. markets and begin to upgrade the Maps platform in Europe.

Maps’ biggest selling point today, however, may not be the sum of its feature sets. Instead, Maps’ standout feature is its focus on privacy.

While Google does use the data collected from Google Maps for many handy features — like reporting on a business’s busiest times, for example — it’s not a private app. In fact, it’s so not private that Google had to add an “incognito mode” as an option for users who didn’t want their Maps app collecting data on them.

Apple, meanwhile, notes that its app requires no-sign in, isn’t connected to your Apple ID and its personalized features are implemented using on-device intelligence, not by sending data to cloud servers. In addition, any data collected when using Maps, like search terms, navigation routing and traffic information, is only associated with random identifiers that continually reset to protect user privacy.

Apple also uses a process called “fuzzing” that converts a precise location where a Maps search originated to a less precise one after 24 hours. And it doesn’t retain a history of what a user has searched for or where they’ve been.

In an era where people assume, usually correctly, that the mere act of launching an app is an agreement to have their data collected, Apple’s increased emphasis on user privacy is welcome and a good reason to try Apple Maps again, if you never came back to it after the shaky launch.

Apple Maps, now used in over 200 countries, is available on iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and in cars via CarPlay.

Nexar’s Live Map is like Street View with pictures from 5 minutes ago

We all rely on maps to get where we’re going or investigate a neighborhood for potential brunch places, but the data we’re looking at is often old, vague, or both. Nexar, maker of dashcam apps and cameras, aims to put fresh and specific data on your map with images from the street taken only minutes before.

If you’re familiar with dash cams, and you’re familiar with Google’s Street View, then you can probably already picture what Live Map essentially is. It’s not quite as easy to picture how it works or why it’s useful.

Nexar sells dash cams and offers an app that turns your phone into one temporarily, and the business has been doing well, with thousands of active users on the streets of major cities at any given time. Each node of this network of gadgets shares information with the other nodes — warning of traffic snarls, potholes, construction, and so on.

The team saw the community they’d enabled trading videos and sharing data derived by automatic analysis of their imagery, and, according to co-founder and CTO Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz, asked themselves: Why shouldn’t this data shouldn’t be available to the public as well?

Actually there are a few reasons — privacy chief among them. Google has shown that properly handled, this kind of imagery can be useful and only minimally invasive. But knowing where someone or some car was a year or two ago is one thing; knowing where they were five minutes ago is another entirely.

Fortunately, from what I’ve heard, this issue was front of mind for the team from the start. But it helps to see what the product looks like in action before addressing that.

nexar zoom

Zooming in on a hexagonal map section, which the company has dubbed “nexagons,” polls the service to find everything the service knows about that area. And the nature of the data makes for extremely granular information. Where something like Google Maps or Waze may say that there’s an accident at this intersection, or construction causing traffic, Nexar’s map will show the locations of the orange cones to within a few feet, or how far into the lanes that fender-bender protrudes.

You can also select the time of day, letting you rewind a few minutes or a few days — what was it like during that parade? Or after the game? Are there a lot of people there late at night? And so on.

Right now it’s limited to a web interface, and to New York City — the company has enough data to launch in several other areas in the U.S. but wants to do a slower roll-out to identify issues and opportunities. An API is on the way as well. (Europe, unfortunately, may be waiting a while, though the company says it’s GDPR-compliant.)

The service uses computer vision algorithms to identify a number of features, including signs (permanent and temporary), obstructions, even the status of traffic lights. This all goes into the database, which gets updated any time a car with a Nexar node goes by. Naturally it’s not in 360 and high definition — these are forward-facing cameras with decent but not impressive resolution. It’s for telling what’s in the road, not for zooming in to spot a street address.

Detection Filtering

Of course, construction signs and traffic jams aren’t the only things on the road. As mentioned before it’s a serious question of privacy to have constantly updating, public-facing imagery of every major street of a major city. Setting aside the greater argument of the right to privacy in public places and attendant philosophical problems, it’s simply the ethical thing to do to minimize how much you expose people who don’t know they’re being photographed.

To that end Nexar’s systems carefully detect and blur out faces before any images are exposed to public view. License plates are likewise obscured so that neither cars nor people can be easily tracked from image to image. Of course one may say that here is a small red car that was on 4th, and is on 5th a minute later — probably the same. But systematic surveillance rather than incidental is far easier with an identifier like a license plate.

In addition to protecting bystanders, Nexar has to think of the fact that an image from a car by definition places that car in a location at a given time, allowing them to be tracked. And while the community essentially opts into this kind of location and data sharing when they sign up for an account, it would be awkward if the public website let a stranger track a user all the way to their home or watch their movements all day.

“The frames are carefully random to begin with so people can’t be soloed out,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “We eliminate any frames near your house and your destination.” As far as the blurring, he said that “We have a pretty robust model, on par with anything you can see in the industry. We probably are something north of 97-98 percent accurate for private data.”

So what would you do with this kind of service? There is, of course, something fundamentally compelling about being able to browse your city in something like real time.

On Google, there’s a red line. We show you an actual frame – a car blocking the right lane right there. It gives you a human connection,” said Fernandez-Ruiz. “There’s an element of curiosity about what the world looks like, maybe not something you do every day, but maybe once a week, or when something happens.”

No doubt we are many of us guilty of watching dash-cam footage or even Street View pictures of various events, pranks, and other occurrences. But basic curiosity doesn’t pay the bills. Fortunately there are more compelling use cases.

“One that’s interesting is construction zones. You can see individual elements like cones and barriers – you can see where exactly they are, when they’re started etc. We want to work with municiapl authorities, department of transportation, etc on this — it gives them a lot of information on what their contractors are doing on the road. That’s one use case that we know about and understand.”

In fact there are already some pilot programs in Nevada. And although it’s rather a prosaic application of a 24/7 surveillance apparatus, it seems likely to do some good.

But the government angle brings in an unsavory linen of thinking — what if the police want to get unblurred dash cam footage of a crime that just happened, or one of many such situations where tech’s role has historically been a mixed blessing?

“We’ve given a lot of thought to this, and it this concerns our investors highly,” Fernandez-Ruiz admitted. “There are two things we’ve done. One is we’ve differentiated what data the user owns and what we have. The data they send is theirs – like Dropbox. What we get is these anonymized blurred images. Obviously we will comply with the law, but as far as ethical applications of big data and AI, we’ve said we’re not going to be a tool of an authoritarian government. So we’re putting processes in place — even if we get a subpoena, we can say: This is encrypted data, please ask the user.”

That’s some consolation, but it seems clear that tools like this one are more a question than an answer. It’s an experiment by a successful company and may morph into something ubiquitous and useful or a niche product used by professional drivers and municipal governments. But in tech, if you have the data, you use it. Because if you don’t, someone else will.

You can test out Nexar’s Live Map here.