Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The newly global mapping app shows destinations in their full urban context.
In the land of listings apps, the end of Yelp's reign could not come sooner.
Yelp's geolocated catalog of nearby restaurants and destinations is useful, but only if you trust the opinions of the self-selecting group that chooses to rate, comment, and publish illustrated essay collections there, or those businesses who've paid for prominence. As for its navigation tool, it's driven by Apple Maps, whose data continues to be awful.
In an ideal world, we'd have an app that takes on the Borges-ian ambition to chart the whole world in granular, place-by-place detail, presenting the full scope of what's available close by and allowing the user, as an individual, to make her selection.
Citymaps could be that product. Launched in beta with data strictly for New York City back in 2011, last week Citymaps rolled out a redesigned, re-imagined global product that maps more than 80 million location points in every city, in every country.
Founder and CEO Elliot Cohen had no smaller goal than to reinvent the "local discovery app," as he calls it, so that listings weren't so biased towards mass popularity or pay-to-play deals. "Our thinking initially was, 'How do you give a voice to smaller merchants, so that they don't get lost in these apps?'" he says. "The answer was to map them out one by one, like they exist in real life."
You're probably wondering how an app that purports to list everything, everywhere, is even remotely legible. The new Citymaps is supposed to work like this: The more you zoom out, the fewer listings you see. What does pop up are locations that its algorithm suspects you might like, based on spots you've visited or places your friends recommend. The closer you zoom, the more locations pop up, and the algorithm works less hard to determine your interests.
Each location—be it restaurant, post office, cinema, or university—comes stocked with ratings, tips, deals, directions, and ways to "curate" it into collections to share with friends or keep private. The social aspect is also what Cohen says sets Citymaps apart from other listings apps—it advances the mapping world into the social domain, rather than the other way around. (For example, what Foursquare did with "check-ins" was essentially to take status updates and put them onto a map).
But to me, the most interesting part about Citymaps isn't the fact that you can curate map listings in various ways, but that you can choose not to—and explore full neighborhoods instead. It's less about figuring out where "dinner" is and how to get there, and more about discovering one or ten restaurants in an area, in their urban context: Now you know where to find great pho—and that the place is across from a laundromat.
Now, is Citymaps actually living up to its ambitions of mapping every place, everywhere? No, not yet. What I'd consider the most popular restaurant in my D.C. neighborhood didn't readily appear even when I zoomed in tightly. But I did discover that there's an artists' collective half a mile from my house—a place I'd never have known to search for on Yelp or Google Maps.