CityMaps Provides More Than Just Maps of Cities

December 6, 2012

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Try a thought experiment. Picture in your mind the maps created by a company called CityMaps. The company does offer maps of cities, right now just five cities, but the maps probably do not match the ones you’ve imaged. The maps of Austin, Boston, NYC, San Francisco and Chicago show only businesses. And, those businesses are marked not by a red tear drop or even a category symbol such as a dollar sign for a bank. These businesses are represented by their actual logos, whenever possible.

Figure 1: The area near State Street in Boston on CityMaps

What is CityMaps?

Map manipulation tools on the CityMaps website or app for iOS allow users to filter the businesses by category (nightlife, restaurants, shopping, hotels, etc.) or a detailed query. Further, symbols on the map indicate deals and special offers. I found a rather dated offer for a Boston restaurant from Patriots Day, aka Marathon Monday in Boston, back in April.

What strikes me most about these maps from this 12-person company founded in 2009 is how different a city looks and how differently it can be understood with this symbology. The logos that are recognizable are quickly digested and the ones that are not spark curiosity. The accessibility of CityMaps’ visualizations to map users of different languages likely nudged New York City Tourism to choose CityMaps as its basemap back in April (press release).

Founder and CEO Elliot Cohen suggested that CityMaps is where you start your exploration for “what’s around,” in contrast to Google Maps which you use to find a route after you’ve determined the destination. I agree and go one step further: CityMaps is really only useful at a large scale (“zoomed way in”) because it is explicitly about what’s nearby, not about distant offerings.

Cohen has been busy lately. He’s been fielding calls from the likes of Esri and Nokia. He’s been preparing to move from five cities to a nationwide map, even as the technology at the backend moves from raster tiles to vectors, and an API is added. There are plans for a social network complete with profiles, the ability to share and save personal maps, and “like” other maps.

Late November saw one big milestone on the company calendar. City 24/7 and Cisco launched a few of the planned 250 kiosks (in old phone booth locations!) to help visitors find their way in the Big Apple (PC Mag article). Among the tools?

Figure 2: The kiosk at 12th & Broadway, at launch on Nov 20, 2012

The Backend

Cohen comes from a background in urban planning, real estate and startups. Whip those together in a blender and you can imagine how he got to the idea for CityMaps. The tricky part, he noted, was finding a team to create the maps from scratch, not just lay the data on Google Maps. It took some work, but Cohen describes his team as “one of the finest online mapping-specific teams out there.”

The backend of CityMaps, in the early days, was MapServer and TIGER data. But that morphed into the current version powered by OpenStreetMap. But where does the company get its detailed, block by block data on large chains and “mom and pop” stores?

Cohen doesn’t give out too many details but explained a process of fusing together licensed datasets from well-known companies and unique details from as-yet-unknown providers. The data are enhanced with regularly spidered social network data such as Yelp reviews and foursquare check-ins. Finding those data points, Cohen explained, confirms a business is indeed open.

CityMaps’ business model does not rely on advertising. Currently, the company licenses its dataset to organizations like NYC Tourism and Cisco/City 24/7. That does not mean direct connections with businesses on the maps are not in the works.

The Future

Along with the expanded geographic area, API and social network, some big changes are coming to the end user experience. The current orthographic map view (straight down) will be replaced by an isometric view, one “more like walking down a street,” as Cohen put it. Research revealed that’s far more pleasing and familiar to users.

Also in the mix are enhanced representations. Instead of every logo being the same size, businesses with more “likes” will be more prominent, those with fewer, less prominent. Further, as the app learns more about you, and you share more about yourself and friends, the maps will become more personal and social. If you are not a customer of Bank of America, for example, you can hide those logos. Prefer sporting goods stores over bookstores? Show the Sports Authority stores, but not the Barnes and Noble ones. And, here’s the part that’s most interesting to me: When you travel to a new city, your profile (defining banks and shopping preferences, for example) can be applied to the new city, along with recommendations from your friends about which restaurants they prefer in that locale. CityMaps hopes, in time, to build the ultimate personalized map for each of us.


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