Citymaps Seeks to Disrupt the Mapping API Business Model

Citymaps, a recent entrant to the mapping space, sees itself as employing two key strategies to disrupt the traditional way that mapping and geolocation APIs do business. And coming up on a year in operation, its approach is gaining traction with key new deals with large companies and new API features that focus on the social sharing of map data being released.

Citymaps' game plan to reimagine the business model for mapping products is twofold: to create a map interface that moves away from using pins to mark places of interest, and to create an API usage model where application developers are rewarded for using Citymaps data, rather than having to pay for the privilege.

Citymaps began as a mobile app focused on a visually stunning design approach to displaying maps. This included having a business’ preferred logo — whether that be a private enterprise or a cultural landmark — to indicate places of interest. Now it has a number of API products that enable other developers to use either the map design or the map design and the data layers being collected by Citymaps. SDKs for iOS and Android are also available.

Phase One: Rendering Maps as Visually Engaging

“We have built everything from the ground up,” says co-founder Elliot Cohen. “We wanted to change the interface dramatically, so it has taken awhile to get here. We built a vector engine, we built in social, we built up one of the world’s largest databases of logos, and now we have 80 million places of interest mapped onto our maps.” While Citymaps uses OpenStreetMap geographical services, Cohen says by building the vector engine on top of that, Citymaps is able to create its own design for rendering the map.

Then on top of that, by using logos as place-of-interest markers, businesses are better able to represent themselves, Cohen believes.

That’s one of the things we wanted to do: We wanted to change the entry point for local search. We wanted it to be a visual experience. We think local search can be a lot more than just red dots or pins.

And because we have taken a more narrow view, we can enhance that interface. We can answer, what’s just around the corner? Is there an event nearby? Do any of my friends like something around the corner?

Already, the map design and logos as point-of-interest markers have brought in new customers. “About 50% of all apps have some mapping component,” Cohen says. “That’s mostly wanting to show people and places, not turn-by-turn directions. There are lots of use cases for showing places, and we think we have the best map in the world to show them.” Cohen points to a new Comcast app that uses Citymaps map design, one of the biggest deals sites releasing a map based on Citymaps that shows all deals in a given area, and a food delivery company beginning to test Citymaps as it finds the design more engaging for its end developers.

Cohen is hoping the Citymaps developer site will be updated to include a marketplace or showcase section to highlight new apps built on Citymaps data.

Phase Two: The API Business Model

Citymaps has released APIs that provide access to multiple data sets:

  • The visual layer that displays a map
  • The logos and places-of-interest data
  • The social layer of Citymappers who have publicly shared their favorite locations on a map

Cohen explains that a developer can pull all of these data endpoints in via APIs published and described on the Citymaps dev portal. For now, new developers need to register via email for an API Key, but Cohen says this process usually sees a turnaround within the half-hour.

Cohen says there are multiple opportunities to use the data:

You can have just the mapping experience. Search is radically becoming visual, so we have created a very visual way to search maps, and some developers just want to use that aspect of Citymaps.

From a developer point of view, they can adjust what they show to their audience. So our maps can be used as a store locator, or you can show just the places that suit your business needs. Or you could show just places that have events tonight or just for deals tonight. Or you can filter the map through people; if their profiles are public, you can filter that via API.

It’s a living, breathing snapshot of what’s around you.

Cohen sees a new opportunity in how Citymaps can monetize its map data for local search apps. While other players in the maps API space charge developers, usually based on a per-usage basis or a tiered strategy of number of API calls, Cohen sees room to turn this on its head. The focus on the visual element of the maps and the incorporation of logos, Cohen believes, will mean more developers will want to use Citymaps maps in end products, and this in turn can drive local search monetization in new ways:

Right now the API use is free, and anyone can use our map in a similar way to Google. If you are driving millions of API calls, of course, we need to talk.

But fees for API calls to a mapping API — that’s the model today in maps. We are trying to experiment with something different. We see the long-term benefit of Citymaps as a native local advertising, so there could be a point in time where we can monetize on our end and share the revenues with people who are distributing the product. We could possibly pay developers if they are distributing the map.

If you jump in a taxi in New York City, when you click on the map, you see Citymaps. That is being sponsored by MasterCard, and we monetized this whereby businesses pay to be seen in that map. So that is an interesting model we worked out with one specific partner that can really scale. That is a really good win-win here.

We believe there is a real win-win-win opportunity here between storefronts or merchants, app developers and Citymappers. If you look at a product like Waze, they have a notion of branded pins. So they are charging Dunkin' Donuts, for example, to have a digital billboard inside local maps, and our aspirations are not dissimilar.

API Aggregation and the API Tech Stack

To make all of this possible, Citymaps consumes “dozens and dozens” of existing APIs in addition to regularly exchanging location data with OpenStreetMap, Cohen says:

OpenStreetMap lets you download their data and you keep it updated and contribute it back. Then we have things like menu providers, restaurant reservations, social media, Songkick, Groupon, Foursquare …

One of the biggest things we struggle with on a day-to-day basis is that there is no universal identifier, so we have built a concordance engine. We algorithmically ingest the data from external APIs and match it to other data sources, so it creates a common identifier. It is really hard to do just to get the logo to match; we think we have gotten it really tight.

In our database, we have done the job of linking all these disparate records, and that is something that developers and businesses who use our API will benefit from.

Citymaps API services include access to the data endpoints, search, notifications and an onboarding service that lets developers asynchronously load data from API partner sites like Foursquare without delay. Search is performed with Elasticsearch, and application services are proxied by an Nginx load balancer. Application and user images are stored in Riak and fronted by Amazon CloudFront, while business objects are stored on an in-memory Redis cluster. A RabbitMQ messaging bus enables communication coordination between the API services.

Mapping is one of the strongest areas of the API economy. Other recent ProgrammableWeb content looking at mapping APIs includes "Top 10 Mapping APIs" and "How to Use APIs to Build GIS, Mapping and Location Applications."

Be sure to read the next Mapping article: Daily API RoundUp: Bing Maps, Flowplayer, CloudMade