Looking toward EveryBlock’s future

Written by Adrian Holovaty on January 29, 2009

It's been a year and a half now since I've started working on EveryBlock, and I'm still having the time of my life. Starting from scratch in July 2007, our team of six has built a one-of-a-kind local news site that now serves 11 cities and makes more than a hundred distinct types of local information useful to people. By all measures, from passionate user feedback to press coverage to traffic numbers to influence on other projects, the site is a success, and we're incredibly proud of our work.

Thanks to our out-of-the-ordinary funding — a generous grant from Knight Foundation — our team has been given free rein to invent a new form of news, and, more importantly, iterate on the concept. (Check out our recent one-year anniversary blog post to see how much we've changed.) This sort of experimentation is sorely needed by the news industry, and we're very lucky to have this opportunity — particularly considering the economy and the trend for news organizations to cut staff rather than invest in innovation.

But now we've reached an interesting point in our project's growth: our grant ends on June 30, and, under the terms of our grant, we're open-sourcing the EveryBlock publishing system so that anybody will be able to take the code to create similar sites. That's a Good Thing, in that EveryBlock's philosophies and tools will have the opportunity to spread around the world much faster than we could have done on our own, but it puts the six of us EveryBlockers in an odd spot. How do we sustain our project if our code is free to the world?

We have a number of ideas for sustaining our project beyond a dependency on grants, like building a local advertising engine and/or selling hosted versions of the open-source software, but we're sure there are other ways for EveryBlock to be a successful business. That brings me to the reason I'm posting this — we're looking for ideas and partners who would be interested in helping us figure this out. If you have any ideas or suggestions, get in touch with me. I'm confident we'll make something happen; it's just a matter of how.

Comments

Posted by Daniel Schildt on January 29, 2009 at 11:24 a.m.:

Very interesting to hear that you will be opening EveryBlock publishing system for development and improvements. It's surely good thing in many aspects but I hope you get some sort of result to allow you to continue working with it. I wish all good things to you and your project.

Posted by Marty Alchin on January 29, 2009 at 11:26 a.m.:

One thing that's been on my mind for a while is that having the code for EveryBlock doesn't really complete the package. You guys have a year and a half of experience working with municipalities and other organizations to find existing data to integrate, as well as convincing those organizations to open up more data they might not have previously released. This seems like an incredible service that the rest of us can't just figure out overnight. (I certainly wouldn't know how to approach my local government about such matters.)

Perhaps you guys can set up some sort of educational service, where people looking to implement an EveryBlock in their area can learn how to approach governments, who to talk to, what buttons to push, whether the Freedom of Information Act comes into play and how to invoke it, things like that. Similarly, if these types of organizations want to come onboard but aren't sure what data to release or how to make it available, there might be a market in educating from that angle as well.

Basically, I think it'd be good to look at what else you've developed over this time, beyond just the code. There are likely a lot of these less tangible results of all your hard work that help make EveryBlock what it is today.

Posted by Brad Fults on January 29, 2009 at 12:52 p.m.:

I think your primary value and advantage beyond your software is the relationships and agreements you've formed with the various organizations to pull data, as well as the experience in that area that will allow you to continue to do so.

You could set yourself up as the primary destination for microlocal news (at everyblock.com), but also as a central aggregator of quality data. You could then sell the access to that data (as feeds) to other sites that want to implement microlocal news features (whether with the EveryBlock code or not). For instance, the SF Chronicle might want to implement some microlocal features on their site, but they would rather pay you for some of your SF-based feeds than wrangle with the city government and data cleaning themselves.

You could also go the route of consulting with news organizations to integrate microlocal features into their sites, but there be dragons down that path—infrastructure maintenance is a nightmare.

I'll be looking forward to whatever you guys decide to do. Your work is excellent.

Posted by frederic sidler on January 29, 2009 at 3:54 p.m.:

There are many business models relative to the aggregation of information around a block. You created something very attractive by collecting all these informations and displaying it in the "block" context. I read it somewhere and I really think that the next web will be contextual. Why because there will be more and more content in the future.

As you said you can add advertising on the platform, I mean an hyperlocal marketplace service like the one that was developped with ellington. You know they are making money with it. You can also sell the formatted feed to other businesses like gnipcentral is doing with twitter and different other services. If you add feed like events, you can probably sell tickets. You can add classifieds for birth and death, you can add classifieds for whatever you want in fact. You can add a premium service for SMS notification. With the context of the block you could even propose a dating service or a tool to bring people together.

Depending on what people are doing on everyblock, you can choose between a lot of different solutions. It would be great if you would share some insight of the service. People are curious, very curious and I'm sure you can notice it through your stats ;-)

As you can imagine, I'm very excited to see how you will develop the offer and how all this big machine is working (especially the crawling, parsing and the screen-scraping).

Posted by Scott Rafer on January 29, 2009 at 4:31 p.m.:

Adrian,

Congrats so far.

The first decision you need to make is -- will it make us happy to be a for-profit entity? If so, the suggestions above are a good start and you start looking towards the myriad open source startups and data syndication companies for your precedents (I hope you pick this route as I believe it will provide the most civic benefit.). With any reasonable revenue theory, you won't have any trouble getting funded even in this environment.

If not, you need to disband or pick a non-profit model. Being the AP's little sibling or supported by citmedia.org might also work fine. It leaves for getting into the same situation as the Apache Foundation, however.

Let me know if there's any way I can be of use.

Scott
@rafer

Posted by Peter Christensen on January 30, 2009 at 11:21 a.m.:

I think that the value proposition you provide after the code is open sourced is *acquiring* data. Having a knack for knowing what kinds of data exist, where to find them, how to work with the data's owner, and how to convert it into a useful format is something that an EveryBlock installation would be lost without. You guys, just as much as Google, have what it takes to make the world's information free.

Posted by Jeff Beckham on January 30, 2009 at 4:18 p.m.:

These are all great ideas -- EveryBlock has the potential to provide focused, local content to online properties in any city. For editorial staffs at those site, EveryBlock can keep them from becoming overextended and let them focus on curating the best content through targeted, custom feeds. Many of those sites would likely choose a EveryBlock-hosted solution. There's also the potential for delivering advertising at a microlocal level. An iPhone app seems logical.

I look forward to seeing how things progress. Best of luck!

Posted by Sundar on January 30, 2009 at 10:43 p.m.:

Focus on the generatives identified at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/kelly08/kelly08_index.html
And, wish you all the best.

Posted by Michael J on January 31, 2009 at 8:01 p.m.:

Awesome work so far.
Consider producing print-ready PDF files to syndicate to regional newspapers.

Let each editor choose the data that is important for their audience. Then tie in your feed to XML. Going to an appropriately designed PDF can be automated. The model is radio syndication. They fully produce a show leaving room for local advertising. The radio station turns on the button and plays. By delivering a print ready PDF, you fill a newshole with no staff or effort required by the regional paper. And give them extra ad real estate to sell with zero production cost.

Either charge a subscription fee for the PDF. Or charge a smaller fee and figure out a way to do a deal with Google to do AdSense in Print. Depending on how many pages the newspaper wants and the layout, you might be able to do say 1/4 of the ads from adsense. 1/4 of the ads are national buys that need local presence. And leave 1/2 of the ad space for the regional paper to fill.

The value is that you have the right indicators of social capital. The metrics you have gathered are the best "context" for stories about education, health, investment of public funds. It is the necessary but not sufficent context to be able to help people learn the issues of building infrastructure.

Given the need for our people to get a lot smarter, a lot faster, you are on the way to solving a very hard problem by making the data understandable. Solving important very hard problems creates a high value. Thank you for all the great work.

If you would like more specific information about how to get from here to there. (Assuming there is a place you think you want to get to. Please post at newsless and I will be glad to share whatever I think I've learned about the details of the necessary workflow.

Posted by Rishabh Manocha on January 31, 2009 at 10:34 p.m.:

I really love the idea behind EveryBlock. The kind of data you provide is useful for a myriad of purposes, so I'm kinda jealous that no such site exists for my city (or any cities I have lived in in the past).

However, the one obvious feature missing, in my eyes, is the lack of something like a comments section. Maybe I'm missing something here, or maybe this is a conscious design decision, but I feel having something like a comments section for every block, neighborhood, restaurant, news article etc. would be invaluable. One good example of it's usage would be when someone is planning to buy a house in a particular neighborhood, they could interact with people already living there and ask questions off them.

Another feature that would help would be the ability for user's to start petitions. They could vary from people addressing their councilwoman to them addressing their local municipality. Given EveryBlock's reach (which will, in my opinion, keep increasing), this would give people a good platform to have their voice heard. You could run this on a freemium model where basic petitions are free, but for a nominal fee, people/PAC's/etc. can start advanced petitions where they get detailed analysis of the traffic, signators, comments etc. for said petition.

You could also let local candidates who are running for office, and don't have enough money to hire their own web team, use the EveryBlock platform to host their campaign sites. You could charge a nominal fee for this, and provide them features they would not get from hosting a basic website for themselves (such as page hits, rating campaign issues - like what the Obama transition team did etc.).

Finally, given the amount of data you are collecting, and the data you could collect from user input, you could start generating and selling dynamic reports. These could be used by newspapers in that town, or candidates running for offices, or people doing research on that area.

This comment's got a bit long, but I've been thinking of doing something similar for cities outside the US (and countries other than the US too) and these are some of the thoughts I had.

--Rishabh

Posted by Jon on February 2, 2009 at 7:10 p.m.:

I agree with Michael J. My company has developed "Grassroots PR," a service that distributes "local news to the local media." We now work with over a hundred major companies in a variety of industries who possess local outlets in thousands of local towns across the country. All of our clients generate local news every day - new store openings, charitable events and local in-store promotions. Our clients' content might seed thousands of individual Everyblock sites. And these seeds might grow.

Posted by Matt Milosavljevic on March 9, 2009 at 3:16 a.m.:

Hey Adrian,

Don't know if you had a perusal at the blog post on Wired regarding the opening up and consolidation of government data. If not the link is http://howto.wired.com/wiki/Open_Up_Government_Data

EveryBlock has already demonstrated that it can effectively provide access to a broad range of civic data, which in my mind makes it an ideal candidate for something like this.

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