EveryBlock’s Adrian Holovaty: Enabling Community Conversation

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Journalist and programmer Adrian Holovaty has been building out local news databases for a while now.  A former Washington Post staffer, Holovaty is also the creator of the open-source platform Django, as well as chicagocrime.org (which later was folded into EveryBlock).

His site, EveryBlock, was founded in 2007 and supported by a grant from the Knight for two years before being acquired by MSNBC.com in 2009. After several years of being focused on the data of hyperlocal, the site’s recent relaunch signaled a major change of course, with the understanding that community also needs to be part of the equation.

Here, Holovaty answers some questions by email with Street Fight about EveryBlock’s revamp, who is winning the hyperlocal game, and says it’s “too early to tell” on what local advertisers want from hyperlocal.

What does “hyperlocal” mean to you?
To me, “hyperlocal” is a delightfully content-free buzzword. If, starting now, nobody ever used that word again, I’d be a happier person. 🙂

The problem is that it’s been used to describe a wide variety of things, at a wide variety of geographic contexts, from block-specific news like EveryBlock to county-wide projects like the old Loudoun Extra site by the Washington Post. It’s gotten to a point where you could easily use the word “local” in place of “hyperlocal” and little to no meaning would be changed. Here’s a rant I wrote about this in 2008.

Who do you think is “winning” hyperlocal right now, whether in terms of an individual, company or type of business (mobile vs. blogs, e.g.)?
I think Front Porch Forum is winning. They’ve managed to get 90% of households in a Vermont neighborhood to sign up for it, and the community contributions are high quality, useful and interesting.

It’s gotten to a point where you could easily use the word “local” in place of “hyperlocal” and little to no meaning would be changed.

Beyond that, there are a bunch of great neighborhood blogs in various pockets in the U.S., like West Seattle Blog and Uptown Update here in Chicago.

And finally, I’m biased, but I think EveryBlock is genuinely interesting and useful, especially with our recent community-focused relaunch.

What is your sense of what local businesses want from hyperlocal?
Too early to tell.

What is a reasonable cost structure for a hyperlocal site or service?
Again, too early to tell.

What is EveryBlock’s most important hyperlocal strategy for 2011?
We’ve shifted from being a one-way “news feed for your block” to a platform for community conversation about your neighborhood, with the goal of making your block/neighborhood a better place. See this for the full spiel. Also check out my chat on Poynter.org.

Until this EveryBlock launch, there was no good online way to post messages to your neighbors. You use Facebook to post messages to your friends, you use Twitter to post messages to a larger/not-necessarily-friend audience, you use LinkedIn to post messages to professional colleagues, but there hasn’t been a way to post messages to people who live near you. We want to be that place.

And it’s already happening — even though the new site has been live for a few weeks, people have already used our service to connect with their neighbors to do a bunch of stuff, including organizing a neighborhood cleanup and meeting in person to bring a farmer’s market to their neighborhood.

What separates Everyblock’s mission from other major players like Patch?  What about your model is so compelling?
EveryBlock is a radically different product than Patch. I mean, just look at the two sites, and the difference will smack you in the face.

Patch is essentially like a local newspaper website — it is heavily oriented around staff-produced articles and “static” content like business directories. It’s trying to do a lot of different things, much of it not necessarily very well.

EveryBlock is much, much more focused. You tell us which places you’re interested in following (your block, your work neighborhood, whatever), and we give you a simple timeline of what’s happened in those areas recently. You can easily post a message to any one of your followed places, and it’ll be published in your neighbors’ timelines. It’s a simple concept and deliberately doesn’t do “static” stuff like business directories and telling you where your nearest train station is.

There’s also a difference in geographic focus. Patch has focused on suburban areas, and EveryBlock has focused on urban areas.