Apple has acquired a “big data” analytics company that will allow it to analyse the huge mass of location and mapping information created by smartphones, connected cars and other internet-enabled devices.
Mapsense was founded two years ago in San Francisco by a former engineer at Palantir, the data analytics pioneer that is one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable private companies.
“Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans,” Apple said in a statement confirming the deal, which was first reported by tech news site Recode.
One person close to the deal said Apple paid about $25m for the 12-person company.
Apple has made a string of acquisitions in recent years to bolster its Maps app, including HopStop, a provider of public transport directions that likely contributed to the inclusion of transit navigation in iOS 9, which was released this week. It is also increasing its data analytics capabilities — in 2013, Apple paid roughly $200m for Topsy, another “big data” company focused on social media.
However, the potential applications of Mapsense’s cloud-based geospatial technology are much broader than simply enhancing Apple’s maps. For instance, it could crunch huge amounts of data generated from thousands of mobile devices in real time to aid automotive navigation.
Over the past few months, Apple has built a secret research team dedicated to automotive technologies with an eye to developing its own electric car, people familiar with Apple’s plans have said. Like its Silicon Valley neighbours Google, Tesla and Uber, Apple may have ambitions to create a self-driving car.
Asked about Apple’s automotive plans by talk show host Stephen Colbert on Tuesday night, chief executive Tim Cook said: “We look at a number of things along the way, and we decide to really put our energies into a few of those.”
Mapsense, whose team includes former employees at Apple and Google as well as Palantir, had raised $2.5m in funding from investors such as General Catalyst, Formation8 and Redpoint Ventures.
Its founder, Erez Cohen, has said in interviews that it has built a sophisticated “basemap” of the world that includes not just roads and rivers but the shape and dimensions of every building in the US. Its database technology has been used to map hurricanes, credit card fraud and bus locations.
The system draws on what its marketing materials describe as the “massive dumps of data that you might get from smartphone apps and other connected devices”.
In a video explaining its technology published online last year, Mapsense showed how it could use smartphone data to plot the precise location of people tweeting about a music festival from its venue, with such detail that clusters are visible around the event’s temporary stages, which would not otherwise be visible on the map.
Another video used data from ride-hailing apps such as Uber to show the parts of a city where most people were calling for a pick-up, in real time. “By understanding rider demand, I can strategically position and route my drivers,” a Mapsense employee explains.
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