Stand in the Place Where You Live

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With 105 newspapers shuttering in 2009 alone, there has been much despair over the death of local news and its consequences for democracy. John Whitehead wrote in the Huffington Post, "Even freedom of the press will not make much of a difference if there are no local newspapers keeping watch over what's happening in our own back yards."

From the ashes of city papers, a new breed of "hyperlocal" websites like Chicago-based EveryBlock.com has sprung up, providing block-by-block information about crimes, street repairs and restaurant inspections. EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty, a former web developer with the Washington Post, denies that his site was developed to replace the local newspaper. Instead, EveryBlock's five-person staff has used technology to leapfrog traditional journalism. Algorithm-powered data aggregation and strategically negotiated access to police logs, heath department records, and other government archives--as well as local bulletin boards and "citizen journalists"--give city-dwellers access to an unmediated pipeline of raw news.

The idea seems to be catching on--Holovaty says that EveryBlock receives about 1.3 million page views a month. In fact, The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times have both have incorporated EveryBlock maps into their own websites, and The New York Times has a partnership with EveryBlock to bring New York City readers news about their elected officials. Holovaty spoke to The Atlantic about championing "Government 2.0," expanding the definition of news, and helping people keep tabs on the micro-worlds just outside their windows.


holovaty.jpgWhere did the idea for EveryBlock.com come from?

I created one of the first local mashups--ChicagoCrime.org. You could get a timeline of recent crimes on your city block as an RSS feed. It seemed that giving people a newsfeed not just for their city but for their block was a pretty powerful concept.

Then I thought, why just crime? What about all the other local information that's out there that people may or may not know about? So I set out to make ChicagoCrime.org something that was about more than just crime -- and more than just Chicago. EveryBlock was born--with a grant from the Knight Foundation--and we launched in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. We do all the work of collecting neighborhood-oriented news and organizing it by microgeographies. You get a page for your block, or a small radius around it, or your whole neighborhood, and it will give you a constant feed of everything we've found that's going on around there.

OK, let me try it for San Francisco. Here's something to watch out for a few blocks from my apartment: the Bay to Breakers race is going on, and cans of beer are being confiscated at the corner of Fell and Masonic. Good to know.

Our definition of news is quite broad--anything that you might be interested in because of the fact that you live near it.  We only care about things that are neighborhood level or deeper.

I give this example to explain our "beat"--here in Chicago, the city was bidding to host the Olympics. It was a huge story for Chicagoans, obviously, but you wouldn't want a City Council meeting about the Olympics on your EveryBlock page because that would apply equally to the entire city. If they were going to tear down your house to build a stadium, however, you would find that on your EveryBlock page.

We try to get government departments to open their data feeds to us. We'll go to the Chicago Police Department and say, "Can you give us a feed of every police call and every crime?" Or we'll ask the Health Department for every restaurant inspections. Then we'll slice and dice it by ZIP code, by neighborhood, by street, by block.

It's a combination of a reporter's job, trying to get information from a source, and a sales job. You're trying to get not just the details of a homicide, or even of all homicides that year, but all crimes, down to the most menial pickpocketing. And you need to have it update automatically, indefinitely. When it comes to open government, this level of reporting is not something that government agencies are equipped to think about, let alone implement.

How's that working in Chicago?

Some police departments are great to work with and give us an up-to-the-minute feed of police calls and full reports. With the CPD it's only crime, though, and there's a nine-day delay between when a crime is reported and when it shows up in their database. Not much we can do about that. So this is where the EveryBlock community steps up.

Individual EveryBlock members can post announcements, saying, for example, My car was broken into at this time of day, this is what happened, and choosing which geographies get notified about it. So if you were in San Francisco, you could say, This will go out to all of North Beach, or just an eight-block radius of where I live.

Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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