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December 5, 2017

Block by Block, EveryBlock Lowers the Bar on Local

Important Details: EveryBlock has launched. Long anticipated in the online news world, 27-year-old Adrian Holovaty’s latest brainchild offers readers micro-local views of three cities (Chicago, New York and San Francisco) with more planned.

Holovaty is a classic tweener: part journalist, part programmer, part reader representative, part dreamer.  His work has been watched since he first built ChicagoCrime.org several years ago, overlaying detailed crime information on Google mapping to provide a modern way of displaying misdeeds by place. The Knight Foundation recognized that work and funded this next project – EveryBlock – with a two-year, $1.1 million grant. The shrouds came off at the end of January and now, after a month of navigational tweaks, the site is well worth a look.

Explore the site, and you’ll see three main kinds of offerings, best described by EveryBlock’s own blog:

  • “Civic information: Building permits, crimes, restaurant inspections and more. In many cases, this information is already on the web but is buried in hard-to-find government databases. In other cases, this information has never been posted online, and we’ve forged relationships with governments to make it available.
  • News articles and blog entries: Major newspapers, community weeklies, TV and radio news stations, local specialty publications and local blogs. We do the work of classifying articles by geography, so you can easily find the mainstream media coverage near particular locations.
  • Fun from across the web: Local photos posted to the Flickr photo-sharing site, user reviews of local businesses on Yelp, missed connections from craigslist and more. We figure out the relevant places and point you to location-specific items you might not have known about.”

So, using geoparsing algorithms, EveryBlock lets readers find a vast assortment of data on everything from excavation permits to building inspections, liquor licenses to lost and found, and even provides some good reading in “Missed Connections.” It’s a data-focused prism into local, sorting the web for dynamic information; at this point EveryBlock doesn’t include “static” information like subway stations. So it’s not a city guide, but a constantly updating database of dynamic information.

The interface gives readers a choice of browse or explore models, and four tabs to drill deeper by geography, tailored to local nomenclature and political jurisdiction.
Holovaty’s stated aim is simple, intending to answer the question: “What’s happening around me?” Under that simple aim is a two-fold approach: 1) getting to the database-held community info and stats as fast and as efficiently as possible, by tapping into public information that used to take time and shoe-leather to gather; 2) presenting it in a no-nonsense, sensibly navigated interface. He also calls it a “newspaper for your own block.” It’s one of those once-essential parts of the newspaper, especially local-focused dailies and weeklies, offering “vital statistics”, “crime logs” and a lot more – a melding of a long-established newspaper staple with the potential of the modern database.

Interestingly, Holovaty says the fledgling sites only offer about 10% of the content he envisions the site including.  As to where he wants to take the initiative, he and his team of four are mulling business models. Under the terms of the Knight Foundation grant, the code created for EveryBlock will become publicly available when the two-year grant ends in late summer, 2009.

EveryBlock certainly isn’t the first site to see the value of local databases, but it is the simplest expression of their value. EveryBlock’s introduction comes at a time when the local news web space is increasingly hot. Google has raised its own priority level, with a new “Local News” search box, though it is so far characterized with a kind of results randomness (in relevance, quality and recency) that often marks Google betas. US newspapers in the Yahoo! consortium are targeting locally oriented ad inventory on Yahoo! with a vengeance while they ramp up significantly their own locally oriented “online only” sales. Local broadcast sites are likewise ramping up sales and marketing, showing significant local penetration gains year over year. Geo-targeting is going mainstream, and EveryBlock’s launch fits right into that trend.

Implications: Many news publishers understand that their national franchises around news, sports, business and entertainment are eroding quickly. They’ve embraced the idea of local, believing that this is their last refuge and greatest hope. EveryBlock should therefore give them significant reinforcement – and a warning. Local isn’t just the province of newspaper publishers.

While EveryBlock is far from a finished product, and can be picked apart on its presentation, lack of voice and completeness, it’s an achievement that should remind local publishers (and really all publishers, news, B2B, Trade, STM and beyond) that there is a great deal of free information out there to harness. Much of it is governmental – taxpayers have paid for it – but it’s been locked away. The key here, Outsell believes, is thinking about it from the reader’s point of view. What kind of information/data does a reader want? Then the drill begins: who’s got it, how do I get at it, how do I sort and organize and present it.

A site like EveryBlock can be seen as a standalone product or one that is part of a wider city, newspaper, or broadcast site, with accompanying lively commentary, news and, yes, advertising.

Lastly, it’s worth asking how a 27-year-old with a million-dollar grant could come up with something that newspaper sites haven’t (though some have touched on similar ideas). In a recent interview in Online Journalism Review, Holovaty ticked off the reasons why local publishers have missed this particular boat:

  • “A lack of technical competence;
  • A culture so obsessed with daily deadlines that little thought/resources are put into paradigm changes;
  • A culture that disdains technology and science, particularly math, and, worse, actually takes pride in that;
  • Red tape;
  • Legacy systems;
  • Legacy attitudes;
  • People who ask “Is this journalism?” “.

That’s a sobering list indeed.