Ever heard of maps 2.0? Yes, just like web 2.0, they are not only digital but also social and personal. You can make them yours, as well as use your friends' knowledge and experience of a city. What do they show, how do they work? Citymaps is probably one of the most innovative startups in the game. CEO and cofounder Elliot Cohen tells us about the dreams that lie beneath the map – with a glimpse of the technical challenges and the business model.
Paris Innovation Review – How would you define maps 2.0?
Elliot Cohen – The experience is different. Thanks to social networks, when you look at photos you do it with friends. But maps are still solitary. This is what maps 2.0 is about: not only customizing maps, but transforming the old fit-it-all map into something completely different, vibrant from all the experiences of your friends or their friends.
When we started Citymaps a few years ago, the idea was just to enrich a map of NYC with every shop, in every street. Like a urban encyclopedia, a project that could provide you not only with the scale and directions, but the colors of the city, the experience it offers. This is still a key feature of our product: as we expanded from NYC to the rest of the world we kept adding data and our app now includes over 80 million places.
But rather soon it appeared to us that if we really wanted to catch this experience, we had to make it more personal, and also more social. Since New York – like any big city – is not just one city, but a collection of cities: my New York is not yours, and even my neighbor, the guy next door, will have a different experience, with another bookshop, other delis. Even though we go to the same local pizzeria, this guy may have some tips about the special dessert that is not on the menu, or some Sicilian wine I never tried. If you combine his knowledge with mine, you have a richer portrait of the neighborhood. You get closer to what the city really is: a collection of experiences.
Let’s put it differently. Imagine I’m coming to Paris with my girlfriend and we wish to find a really nice restaurant. I can use a guide, but it’s heavy. Or I can check on TripAdvisor – but do I know the people who made these recommendations? Are they real? And isn’t there a risk that we found ourselves in a place crowed with other tourists having followed the same recommendation? Now I have another solution: since I know you, I can ask you your tips. I gave you an interview, you reward me with a couple of addresses in Paris: sounds fair. But first I have to send you an email. And when I get your reply and try to find your restaurant, I will have a map in one hand, and your tips in the other. While with a digital social map of Paris, I can check your favorite restaurants without even having to deal with this email business, which can be quite boring. Better spend some time having coffee together!
Trust makes the difference. Anonymous recommendation is one thing and it does have some value, but personal tips from people you know have a different, often greater value. And a customized map has another advantage: you don’t use it only to reward your friends with your tips or use theirs, but also as a personal reminder. Of the place you liked so much and you fear you may not find again. Of the dessert you liked in that place. But basically it’s social. It’s about sharing things. And, possibly, showing off what a connoisseur of the city you happen to be.
Citymaps is an app, not a website. Why not both?
It will be both, be it only because it’s easier to enrich a map and contribute from a laptop. But we did want to design the app first, because this is essentially a mobile thing. You need this app in real time: it has to be perfectly usable on a mobile. This is not 2006: you don’t carry your laptop with you any longer!
But designing an app comes with some challenges: if you want your app to survive on someone’s smartphone screen more than a couple of weeks, it does have to be useful – and not only does it need to be useful, but to be actually used. This is why we are working hard to bring in users, since like any social tool it can work only if it has a lot of people using it. And besides bringing in users, we are working hard on building a really nice user experience.
To give you an example: the amount of available data is and has to be large – and ever larger. But in the same time we are dealing with a small screen. Besides, since it’s a digital map you will probably zoom – from the neighborhood to one street, then to the neighborhood, to the whole city, to the neighborhood again, to another street, then to a shop or a museum... How can we bring you the greatest possible amount of data without saturating your screen? This is a constant concern, and we have been working on various tools. For instance we use logos, as much as we can, instead of just names. This increases the speed and quality of information: if you are looking for, say, a McDonald’s restaurant, you will locate the “M” easily (as for the Sicilian wine they don’t have it). Then, to deal with the quantity of places, we use a collision detection tool, so the names and logos are displayed in a regular way and it’s never too crowded on your screen.
The social layer is not everything in Citymaps: what we provide first is a reliable infrastructure, a collection of places that are predefined. We had to build the maps ourselves. We’re probably one of the only maps startups in the world at this point that have built their own infrastructure and not just built a mash-up on top of GoogleMaps. That’s crucial if you want to make a difference: the functionalities I was talking of come with a full mastering of the infrastructure.
How come Google hasn’t done it yet?
Google started this revolution and they did a great job creating digital maps that make finding your way a completely different experience now from six or seven years ago. But maps 2.0 are really one step further. They allow you not only to use the map, but to make it yours – to shape it, to create collections of favorite places, to add comments, tips...
The point is: Google is trying to do less, not to do more. Their maps have to be ever more practical, with less functionalities – but functionalities that will be universal. Google tries to provide universal, somehow neutral information. We provide something else: a very contextual, social, and personal information. For instance our maps discriminate the information – or, better to say, they emphasize locations that are popular, and maybe, later, locations that seem to match your interests.
Now, just as Google went social with Google+, it’s perfectly possible that they try something new and use their ability with Big Data to design social, personalized maps. Not so long ago they bought Waze, a social traffic and navigation app. They may jump into the game, in a way or another. Tools like Citymaps are stand-alone apps, but the great platforms may be interested one day. After all, Facebook bought WhatsApp, which is also a stand-alone app and can’t really be integrated into the Facebook platform. We will see. But in any case our idea of is not to strike a deal with a great platform: it is to create one.
Talking of money, monetizing an audience is something social platforms find themselves uneasy to do really well: they know how to make money, but the user experience is somehow downgraded – think of FB’s reshaping one’s streamline along their own priorities, or of the ads on YouTube. People accept this because the platforms are so big you can hardly avoid being there. But isn’t it a challenge for you?
Monetizing was something we had in mind from the start and, as you say, one has to be careful with user experience. Especially when you deal with trust and when the only space you can provide is a smartphone screen.
What can work is to provide, not blind ads, but the possibility for a merchant to display some extra information. Think of a shop, for instance. They will be on the map. But it can be interesting for them to be able to provide some information about, say, a special deal they offer this week; or about a last minute change in their opening hours. It is perfectly possible to sell a native-advertising program that would allow merchants to market themselves to users, without downgrading the user experience. On the contrary, it can improve this experience, provided the information does not pop up on you but is correctly managed, in a user-friendly way.
The quality and utility of the information makes the difference. The good tips from your friends make good information. But so does the possibility to save money.
So Citymaps can work as a local advertising platform as well as a social network. The advertising side has to be carefully managed, with smart editorial rules and a good understanding, for the users, of who provided the information; but even so it can be very profitable.