Citymaps Trying to Be a More Personalized Alternative to Google Maps

Hop in a cab in New York and chances are you will see Citymaps at work.

The company’s digital maps showing points of interest in the area appear on video screens in many of the taxis that crisscross the city. Lately though, Citymaps has broadened its borders to serve the rest of the globe.

The startup developed its map app, also available on smartphones, to give people a more detailed glimpse of the places they visit, says CEO and founder Elliot Cohen. For example, rather than simple red dots or similar markers to denote locations, Citymaps users see logos and icons that represent the businesses at the addresses. “You can open the map, look at SoHo, and in three seconds get an understanding of what that neighborhood looks like,” Cohen says.

Things have been busy lately for Citymaps. Last week, the company partnered with Songkick, which provides news about live music events, to show users which venues nearby will have performances. Developed initially for use in New York, a few weeks ago a global version of the Citymaps app went live, Cohen says.

He demoed Citymaps at this month’s New York Tech Meetup, and in February raised $6 million from Nokia Growth Partners, Coatue Management, and Acadia Woods Partners. All told, Cohen’s company has raised $10 million in funding since its founding in 2010 from investors that include Ashton Kutcher’s A-Grade Investments.

Google Maps is still the bar by which other mapping apps are measured, Cohen says, but Citymaps is more focused on experiences and places than navigation. “Directions and navigation are hugely valuable and well-executed by the Nokia, Google, and Apple contingent,” he says. “So we’ve been asking ‘where do maps go from here?’”

In addition to the location logos in the app, Citymaps users can add their own pins and descriptions for their favorite spots, from pizza shops to park benches. They can also share their personalized map info with friends, and vice versa to get recommendations on places to visit.

The dominance of Google Maps has sparked a desire for more choices, Cohen says, among individuals and even tech companies that work with maps. “They don’t want Google sucking in all their data,” he says. “The data generated by maps is so valuable; it doesn’t make sense that one company on Earth is going to own that.”

Digital maps can serve as interfaces for local content and commerce, Cohen says, and Citymaps set out to make an app focused on that type of usage. For instance, a user can look up restaurants and movie theaters on the app, and then click on the logos to book dinner reservations and purchase tickets to a movie (with a little help from OpenTable and Fandango). Furthermore, by displaying extra information, Cohen says Citymaps might encourage visitors to check out other nearby things to do.

The inclusion of these and other features, he says, help make Citymaps more social and personal for each user. “You can’t find your friends on an Apple Map or Google Maps; it’s a very solitary experience,” he says Cohen. “We think maps will become social; we’re trying to carve out a niche for ourselves.”

There have been other apps that promised to steer users to the local happenings. Hotlist, for example, was a New York-based startup that created an app that aggregated publicly shared social media info on venues people planned to visit and overlaid that info on a map. The idea was to show users who was thinking about going to nearby bars, lounges, and nightclubs and also create a list of things to do in the area.

Despite its aspirations, in 2013 Hotlist closed its doors.

There is some precedence for the strategy Citymaps has developed. Baidu Maps offers comparable features to its users in China, including the ability to make local transactions such as buying movie tickets and placing reservations at restaurants.

Not long after the app launched in 2012, NYC & Company—the city’s tourism bureau—made Citymaps the official tourism app of New York, Cohen says. After that, the Taxi & Limousine Commission introduced the folks from Citymaps to Verifone, maker of the video screens in New York taxis. That led to the app being installed in the city’s cabs.

The company has also launched an API (application programming interface) of the map, Cohen says, allowing third-party developers to make use of the maps. More than 100 firms are on the API waitlist, including companies with daily deals offers and media outlets, he says.

Before starting Citymaps, Cohen was a product manager for Audiobase, a startup in California, and then worked for real estate developer Vornado. He calls Citymaps a blend of those two passions.

However, the creation of Citymaps posed a challenge. Cohen’s initial thought was to license a database of retailers in the city and put that on a map. The problem was the information in the database comprised a lot of unrecognizable LLC names rather than the trade names the public knew. “We put the data on a map, it was a total disaster,” he says.

That prompted Cohen to put in logos to make Citymaps more user-friendly and social. What remains to be seen is if the international audience takes a shine to the app the way New York has.

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