These days, maps are much more than a guide for getting from point A to point B. They can (sometimes) perfectly time your walking trip so that you don’t miss the next bus. They can tell you where cops are lurking. And they can give you detailed data about nearby locations.
Mapping startup Citymaps thinks it has come up with the next level of utilitarian online maps: a vector-based mobile map with a built-in social network that crowdsources recommendations for businesses. Think of it as Yelp meets Google Maps—but mainly for walking.
"We focus on all the places around you, all your friends, and give you a personalized experience. Every time you open the app, you might see something different. You can share places and maps with one another in a seamless way," says Citymaps cofounder Elliot Cohen. "We had to build a map from scratch. We had the option to call on the Google Maps API, but we didn’t want to be another mashup on top of Google.
The maps go down to the block level, showing every single retail business and parking lot that’s there (Cohen won’t say how the company builds its maps, though there are algorithms involved). You could theoretically ignore the social aspect of the app and just explore all the businesses surrounding you. Click on, say, a restaurant, and Citymaps will pull up recent Instagram photos, menus, Foursquare tips, and other data points that might help you figure out whether it’s worth a trip.
But the heart of the app is its sharing functionality. "Most maps except Waze have no social whatsoever. You go to Google Maps, and it’s a very solitary experience," says Cohen. With Citymaps, he explains, "You can make maps of places you love and share those with friends. The paradigm of the Yelp star rating is falling by the wayside. It’s become sort of watered down when a dry cleaner has the same four star rating as a Michelin Star restaurant."
Say I want to build a map of all the best pizza places in my neighborhood (sadly, there aren’t many in San Francisco). I make my list, and a couple of my Citymaps friends want to add to it. I can either decide to accept or reject their additions. They can "like" my map, comment on it, and decide to follow me if they really enjoy my suggestions. Once you follow someone in Citymaps, you can see every map where they have contributed. The maps extend into every town across the U.S.
Every business is also given its own social score based on the number of check-ins, photos, comments, and activity on other sites like Instagram. Businesses with higher social scores are slightly larger on the map.
Citymaps is completely free for users. The company’s revenue stream will come from businesses, which have the opportunity to "claim" their store and add various features (i.e. their logo on the map and inclusion in directions). "If we’re giving you directions from New York to Hoboken and there’s a great restaurant nearby with a happy hour, that might make its way into directions if that’s right for you," explains Cohen. At launch, Citymaps already has partnerships with Bliss, Gansevoort, StyleCaster, Aeropostale, Time Out, and Bond.
The company has also been approached by smartphone manufacturers that are interested in licensing the app. "When we started, maps weren’t cool or sexy. Now maps are the zeitgeist. Everybody is going to start talking about social mapping," asserts Cohen.
Citymaps is available for iPhone today. An Android version is coming soon.