Hyperlocal news makes news: the case of Everyblock

Yesterday’s reports of MSNBC’s acquisition of Adrian Holovaty’s Everyblock have generally treated the latter as a “hyperlocal news service.” And to be sure, this is abetted by some of the language Everyblock itself uses to frame and describe what it offers: a “news feed for your block” which can help you “find news nearby.”

But for whatever it’s worth, I’ve never understood Everyblock’s fundamental proposition in quite this way, and here’s why I think understanding what it offers as “news” is giving it short shrift:

As an aggregator of information that is ultimately generated elsewhere, Everyblock is built on the notion of the “open API,” or application programming interface. We can think of an API as a conduit that allows Everyblock to draw upon, and re-present, a wide range of geographically-specific information from external sites and databases, including geotagged pictures from Flickr, restaurant reviews from Yelp, real-estate listings from Trulia, and police, transaction and utility reports generated as a matter of statutory compliance by local government.

Of course, such location-specific information has been gathered since time immemorial, by cities and citizens both. Most all of the formally recorded material even got disseminated, if only in some half-hearted way that barely clears a minimal definition of public disclosure. Squirrelled away in a heterogeneous sprawl of files, repositories, archives, newsroom “morgues,” and never least in personal memory, the time and effort required to compile these tenuous traces into a useful picture of a given time and place would have been exceedingly burdernsome, to say the least.

Nor, frankly, did a first pass at publishing this kind of information to the Internet help much. It was all nominally “on the Web,” yes, but deposited in such a scatter of incompatible formats (including natural language), and in such siloed and hard-to-query locations, that it was effectively as inaccessible to casual inspection as the status quo ante.

The genius of Everyblock isn’t simply that it automates the onerous process of collecting the traces of urban experience. It’s that everything, regardless of source or type, gets rolled up and presented in the easily comprehensible form of a precisely-placed dot on a neighborhood map. In a detail that speaks particularly well of Everyblock and its desire to serve its users, these are not the off-the-rack Google Maps most other sites make do with, but bespoke cartography of unusual clarity and refinement. The result renders the heretofore-obscure workings of neighborhood life explicitly, in something not too far off of real time, and in unprecedentedly high resolution.

Consider the picture that Everyblock offers me of what is, for better or worse, my own zipcode: 10016. At the release of a pulldown menu, I learn things about the streets I’m used to walking that would have remained latent at virtually any point in the past, from the fifty-six crimes reported in Precinct 13 for the week of August 10, 2009 (two robberies, three felony assaults, nine burglaries, no fewer than forty-one grand larcenies, and one grand larceny auto) to the massive tally of 64 violation points racked up by my now-former favorite Indian restaurant – Tiffin Walla, at 127 E 28th St – in the course of its most recent Health Department inspection.

Data points like these are what we interaction designers, mangling the English language somewhat, refer to as “actionable”: they’re direct influences on behavior, if not outright drivers of behavior. (I’d certainly think twice before hitting the lunch buffet at Tiffin Walla again.) But are they “news” by any meaningful definition?

This isn’t information to be consumed with the Week in Review section over Sunday morning bagels and coffee, summarized in the top-of-the-hour recap, or dribbled out across a Chyron feed. It’s information that’s of most interest and best use pushed to us when we’re out in the world. As I tell my students, nothing in the world is as interesting as information about place when you’re in that place, or (perhaps more to the point) about to be.

Laminating place-specific information from the panoply of available and relevant sources into an at-a-glance guide to real-time decisions, and doing so with Apple-quality interaction design, would – to my mind at least –represent an absolutely unbeatable value proposition. And while it’s true that Everyblock, as powerful and as useful as it already happens to be, is still a few crucial steps removed from offering this, nothing in its history or that of its developers suggests that such a thing would be unreasonable to expect as a next evolutionary step.

If, that is, new corporate owners MSNBC leave well enough alone, and don’t simply try to repackage the site as a wrinkle on their news offering.

MSNBC implies that they’ll have the wisdom to do just that: to harvest Everyblock for information that substantiates or otherwise enhances existing news stories, and even potentially use it to generate new ones, but not to meddle with the API design, the cartography, or the other provisions that make the site what it is. Whether or not this will actually prove to be the case, nobody can yet say, but I must admit there are two things about MSNBC that make me skeptical: the “MS” and the “NBC.”

Personally, I’m delighted that Everyblock has found a way to remain viable. In the wake of the 30 June expiry of its sustaining Knight Foundation grant, I’d been concerned that this tool of unparalleled (if, as we’ve seen, occasionally uncomfortable) utility would simply cease to exist. But those of us who love the cities it serves should insist that it continue to be understood properly, whatever the distractions of its new livery: as a platform that helps us compose an active response to the environments we inhabit, and not simply a generator of reportage to be consumed.

Adam Greenfield is the head of design direction for service and user-interface design at Nokia. He writes and consults on issues at the intersection of design, technology and culture. He is the author of Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing, and the forthcoming The City Is Here For You To Use. He lives in Helsinki.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Snowflake Seven August 19, 2009

MSNBC surely has a number of strategies for leveraging the infrastructure that is EveryBlock, but the first thing that comes to mind is getting a toe-hold in the local newspaper market.

MSNBC bought Newsvine a little while back. Take the Newsvine user-base (aka columnists) and provide them a tool for doing local “investigation” into their neighborhoods.

You get a recipe for building a crowd-sourced local “newspaper” were the “reporters” are invested in talking about themselves and are constantly fed new data about their immediate surroundings.

And as Newsvine is vote-based news ranking service, the best local writing bubbles up (in theory) providing a more personal competitor to news wire services like the AP.

Dan Knauss October 15, 2009

Mr. Greenfield: I just happened to get off the phone with a friend who was warning me and another associate that “someone might take a shot at us” because we did something that has been a standard operation in my own hyperlocal experiment in Milwaukee at http://www.riverwestneighborhood.org, so I’ve heard this before. What I did was publicly expose and disseminate municipal licensing notifications, particularly one bar that is not wanted by a large number of residents. They have subsequently learned and begun exercising their rights to object to the granting of new tavern licenses near them.

So my question is, do you feel safer, should we all feel safer, and are the values of a free and open society safer when all the typically byzantine and backdoor nabe politics gets exposed to the relevant public audiences well and thoroughly?

I think the answer is yes, in part because merely spreading public information about public hearings and individual rights currently gets you looked at as a provocateur liable to be knee-capped one day. To the extent those default reactions of fear exist in urban neighborhoods, they are probably good predictors of their current and future health. I have been dismayed many times by the realization that much of my community appears to think and act as if it lives under a mafia controlled regime.

@Snowflake : What’s a local “news-paper?” 😉 They’re dying because their share of the total ad space real estate has shrunk due to the emergence of so many low-cost post-paper channels. MS, Google, Yahoo, etc. are getting in position to give media dinosaurs their death blow in the same way that Craig’s List mortally wounded them: by offering hyper-targetted, hyperlocal advertising to the world via thousands of these toeholds.

Who will produce original news content–filtering, framing, contextualizing, and interpreting the facts, including facts not fed into MSNBC…and will it be enough to sustain a good and free society? I am not opimistic about “the crowd,” just small bits of it.