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The Future of the City

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.

We also gather every local news article we can get our hands on, dailies, weeklies, blogs, and index the articles by neighborhood and block. Then we use anything we find from around the web that we can connect with the neighborhood--photo-sharing sites, Yelp reviews, real estate listings, Craigslist postings.

So EveryBlock is more than just news?

It's intended to be open-ended. Hey, I lost my cat, has anyone seen it? I'm looking to unload my bookshelf...

My assumption coming in was that you set this up because you felt that local news was underserved as newspapers have gone into decline.

We are filling an unfilled need. But this is really not about the decline of newspapers. We're doing the work of organizing, indexing, and cataloging the news into one place so that people can find stories near them, something you could not do even when newspapers were strong. Right now The Chicago Tribune may still be doing a fine job of reporting all these local stories, but if it's a tiny mention on page B23, I'm likely not going to find out about it.

What has the response been from your readers?

Very positive. Our readers are very engaged, and they're really using the site -- one of the most widely adopted features is the daily emails, to keep you informed, via your inbox, about what's going on in your local neighborhood. People are also using EveryBlock.com for research, as they check the quality of life near a house or apartment where they're thinking of moving, or a business where they're going to be working.

I seem to remember now that a friend was using EveryBlock to see if she should move to an apartment building downtown. Every few minutes I'd get an omigod email--OMG there was a triple murder here! OMG the place next door was broken into, twice! She decided to move somewhere else.

[Laughs]

What does the future look like for EveryBlock?

Right now what we're thinking about is trying to focus on building community. We feel that's where we can really make a difference. There's not really a Facebook for urban neighborhoods, for lack of a better term; there isn't anyplace where you can connect with neighbors, not just go report news, but to collaborate on making your neighborhood a better place.

So you might post a message to your neighborhood saying you're interested in cleaning up your local park. Can I get any volunteers to help me out? Not to get too cheesy about it, but it would be a way to empower community organizers. It's about making your block a better place.

What kind of engagement do you have with community organizers?

Very good. In fact, just before you called I got an email from the new president of  Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood association asking how she could use EveryBlock. We'd like to formalize and foster that kind of relationship with a new page or section just for community organizers. 

You're in 16 cities around the country now. Are you going to take over the world, Craigslist-style?

I'm very much inspired by Craigslist. The reason we haven't done it already is because we do a significant amount of work in every city to set up the news that's coming in--all that government stuff I was talking about, police departments and so forth. Unfortunately there isn't a nationwide crime database that we can magically tap into; there's no nationwide building permit database.

Do you see international expansion in your future?

I wouldn't rule it out. But there's still plenty in the U.S. for us to cover. When your name is EveryBlock, people take it personally. The classic feedback we get is "EveryBlock? You don't cover my block." Ultimately, though, it's beyond our control--if there are no reports, no data, no news stories on a given block, we can't report it. But we're constantly working on getting additional information.

Finally, what's your revenue model?

We were recently acquired by msnbc.com, so that gives us stability. We're not profitable yet, but the main revenue model that we're considering is commercial messages for neighborhoods--for instance, your local pizzeria offering you $1 off pizzas. It's a tough problem to solve, given the economies of scale and the lack of technical savviness at local businesses. Nonetheless, I think there's a ton of potential there.

Image credit: JohnLeGear/Flickr

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