Erez Cohen: Making Supermodern Maps With Data
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s not enough to know just where you are anymore.
By Nathan Siegel
We’re awash in digital maps that have opened up the world in unexpected and sometimes still breathtaking ways. Maps on our phones and computers give us directions, tell us where the nearest burrito shop is and even let us virtually wander the backstreets of Ulaanbaatar or dive right into Loch Ness (though, sadly, there’s not much to see). You might reasonably ask why we need more.
Unless, that is, you’re Erez Cohen. This modern-day Magellan has a ready answer: All those maps, whether from Google, Apple, Bing or others, do a fine job of helping us navigate the physical world of streets, buildings, mountains, rivers and deserts. But they’re terrible at telling us what’s happening in these places, much less how to make sense of it. Which is why Cohen, 27, and his best friend from sixth grade founded Mapsense, a company with the not-so-small ambition of basically explaining the world to everyone — visually. And personally.
He’s a nuts-and-bolts guy who seems he’d be more comfortable behind the scenes in engineering than captaining the ship.
During my recent visit to the company’s San Francisco headquarters, tucked away on the fourth floor of a nondescript building above an art gallery, Cohen eagerly showed off several of the maps that he and Mikey Watts, that childhood friend, have created. Some display millions of tweets from around the world; others show crime data or the movements of endangered species. All are layering billions of data points onto city grids and landscapes, creating moving patterns that play out in real time, sometimes over the space of years. These maps have caught the eye of venture capitalists, who’ve pumped $2.5 million into the company so far — Silicon Valley chump change but a start. And Cohen says Mapsense is picking up some big clients, even if he won’t say who many of them are.
Where your typical Silicon Valley CEO would be full of buzzwords, incessant eye contact and an intent to “disrupt” so intense that it’s almost palpable, Cohen is pretty much the opposite. He dresses sharply, wears a buzz cut and is clearly excited about what Mapsense can do. But he never raises his voice or leans across the table to narrow the distance between us, instead describing features and technical details in a monotone stream of anti-patter. He’s a nuts-and-bolts guy who almost seems he’d be more comfortable behind the scenes in engineering than captaining the ship.
Which is fitting, because a lot of what Mapsense does seems destined to stay behind the scenes. You’ll probably never actually use a Mapsense-branded map; instead, the company provides technology to other companies, which use it to sort out some huge, messy problem they want to solve. Cohen says he has inked deals with two big-name banks (he won’t name them) that use Mapsense to suss out buying patterns in order to better detect fraud. Mobile advertisers who want to pop up a burrito coupon on your phone while you’re walking past that taqueria and makers of other “location sensitive” apps are also customers.
When Cohen was working at the big-data company Palantir in New York, a friend of his inadvertently planted the seed for Mapsense. Having just returned from backpacking around the world, this friend, he says, declared Lonely Planet guides “shitty” and said it’d be much better just to have a map that listed the interesting stuff he cared about, from hostels and public transport to tourist attractions and nightlife. While out eating ice cream one night, Cohen and Watts realized that any type of data related to location — say, weather or crime — could be layered onto maps and analyzed much more quickly. “That was really good ice cream,” Cohen remembers.
While companies ranging from big banks and food-delivery outfits to Uber are understandably interested in knowing more about where people are using the stuff they sell, Mapsense has do-gooder applications as well. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is experimenting with Cohen’s tech to track California condors, an endangered species in Southern California. Researchers have tagged many of the birds with tracking devices that record their location; with Mapsense software, they can see exactly where the condors are flocking. If a bird is flying slower than normal, maybe it’s hurt. If there is a male and a female in one tree — hope for the best! By flight patterns, the researchers can tell where the birds eat and rest and better monitor their health.
Demand for better analytics is only increasing, says Hemant Taneja, a venture capitalist at General Catalyst Partners, one of Mapsense’s investors. “Every developer that builds an application uses location,” says Taneja. (Read: a lot of people.) But with a market so hot, competition is building just as fast. Incumbents like decades-old Esri and new entrants like CartoDB are making life a bit more difficult for Cohen and his crew. In these early days, “a generic mapping offering” like Mapsense’s won’t immediately win out, says Brian Timoney, a geospatial-data consultant based in Colorado, who adds that the company “just needs to find that killer app or data stream.”
Cohen, though short on experience as a CEO, doesn’t lack in the confidence department. “Apple and Google are dinosaurs,” he says. “I’m a minnow that’ll swim right through their feet.”