Mapkin Wants to Put Community Into Local Navigation

mapkinHow many times have you missed a turn when using a GPS device, or been uncertain that you even understood the directions? Mapkin a Cambridge-based startup, aims to fix that. Mapkin’s mission is to provide an improved GPS-app experience that’s “as human as possible” using nuanced navigation provided by locals.

“The directions should sound as if you have a passenger sitting next to you and they know the way,” says co-founder and CEO Marc Regan, who spoke to Street Fight this month about the venture. They also should be clear enough so the driver keeps his eyes on the road and not on the app screen.

Regan, a self-professed “map nerd,” came up with the idea because he hates using navigation devices. “They do a fantastic job planning how to get from Point A to Point B, but the voice prompts by themselves are deficient. [It’ll] say to turn right in 700 feet. I have no idea how far 700 feet is. No one does,” he explains.

Instead, Mapkin directions will rely on open data sources combined with input crowdsourced from local drivers. Directions will include both landmarks and behavioral actions, such as “Watch out for parked cars in the right-hand lane,” “After this row of huge trees, bear right at the fork,” and “Bear slight right at the lights and watch for Harvard students jay-walking.” Check out the demo here.

“The directions will be different than what GPS gives you today,” says Regan, who began working on the idea about two-and-a-half years ago. He previously worked at Nuance, a leader in voice and language communication applications.

The app, which will be free, is currently in limited testing. The beta is set to launch “really soon, hopefully before fall,” and initially will cover just Boston. Once that market is scaled, plans are to expand city-by-city before going nationwide.

The company is leveraging crowdsourcing to build its first community and gather improved instructions to create an “intelligent voice layer” to make the navigation experience more “real.” “The nice thing about starting in Boston is it’s notoriously hard to drive, and everybody knows it,” Regan says.

Still, building such detailed sets of instructions will be difficult and time-consuming at first, as a lot of the directions will initially have to be checked manually. Regan says Mapkin will use some gaming mechanics and is working with partners on mobile to make contributing fun and rewarding.

“We’re targeting people who want to contribute to improve their neighborhoods, and they can claim their block or their intersections,” he says. “It’s giving people a measurable way to feel like they’re helping to solve a problem, which is incredibly important.”

When asked about early signups for the beta, Regan says they’ve been getting a steady stream, even though the “landing page is pretty dull.” Instead, the focus has been on fundraising. “We’re on AngelList right now, and getting signups from that. We haven’t done any marketing at all.”

Even though he founded the rock-climbing guide app Alpinewerks, Regan says Mapkin is his first startup. He credits Boston’s tight-knit tech community and advisors from several successful businesses that have helped with setting the tone for the company, fundraising and community management. Mapkin also participated in April’s Techstars Boston.

“Building a navigation startup is a pretty intense undertaking. There are a lot of pieces: working with map data, building other components, visualization, voice on the back end and the front. It’s been quite the adventure,” Regan says. “I’m enjoying it the way you enjoy a marathon. I assume when it’s over I’ll go, ‘Wow that was great.’”