The ‘Wishes and Dreams’ of Hyperlocal News Consumers

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Give me the news about my neighborhood, please,” wrote Marshall Kirkpatrick in March on Read, Write,Web. “Give me the restaurant reviews, the crime reports, the events listings, the gossip. Give me the art and the music I can find if I walk out my door. Give me a robot that finds the news stories too small for almost anyone else to care about. I care about what’s happening in the neighborhood around me and I want to see the fabulous new technologies of open government data, online news syndication, social networking and data mining all put to service to fulfill hyperlocal news wishes and dreams I didn’t even know I had yet.

What Kirkpatrick wants in his hyperlocal news is very close to the hot new thing in health care – “observations of daily living.” ODL is a record of  a patient’s “daily feelings, thoughts, moods and behaviors.”  Collectively the information can provide a good picture of the patient’s overall health as well as  help resolve a specific ailment or other issue far more effectively than the patient’s 10-minute visit with the busy doctor, health care researchers say. ODL data is easy for the patient to generate and manage because it can be punched in with an easy-to-use graphical app on an iPhone or other smart device and uploaded to the doctor, who can, in turn, share it with other care providers.

What would ODL be if it were applied to the news of a community?

It would, for sure, include things that Kirkpatrick lists, but also showcase engagement-rich “new news” — a content cocktail of data, journalism and “wisdom of the crowd” tailored to personal preferences.

Say you’re a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother in Reston – a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. – with two children in the local public schools (a girl in 5th grade and a boy in 9th grade). You want to know a lot about what’s going on at your children’s two schools; how well they’re performing compared to schools in neighboring Oakton and Oak Hill (where you have friends) as well as communities elsewhere in the region, especially those with similar demographics. You’re especially interested in the Fairfax County public school system’s individualized learning programs because your 15-year-old boy is having a pattern of problems with math even though he does well in other courses. The status of Reston home values, particularly the trend line, is of great interest to you because you and your husband would like to transition from your townhouse to a more-spacious single-family place.

Say you’re a 28-year-old single, male software developer in Reston. Schools aren’t on your iPhone screen. What especially interests you are where you can take your pet Lab, Pete, for a stimulating walk and obedience training, where you can find a year-round swimming pool with lap lanes, and a local bistro/pub that plays power metal and where you can meet geeky women. You are currently a renter, but keenly interested in trending condo values because you’re thinking of becoming a homeowner. Finally, you want to know how strong the job market is for geospatial developers in Reston compared, say, to Silicon Valley.

The flood of open data on the Web includes many “observations of daily life” about the livability indicators that would interest – and might materially affect – Married, Stay-at-Home Mom and Single, Male Software Developer.  But neither of these fictional but very demographically representative residents of Reston can go to any website to find useful readouts of “ODL” about their community – certainly not without laborious search – or to connect with other Reston residents who share their livability preferences.

It’s not as if there is a dearth of hyperlocal sites in Reston. Actually there are a number that claim to cover Reston – upwards of 10. But most are wedded to old definitions of news – the latest holdup at a local 7-Eleven, the big commuting-hour snarl on the Dulles Toll Road, the six-hour public hearing on the school budget. Sites like Foursquare push the envelope on what’s news, but with location-based information that, so far, doesn’t mesh with the short-listed preferences of our Married, Stay-at-Home Mom, Single, Male Software Developer or other demo-, geo- or psychographic profiles. Here’s the newest “tip” from Foursquare about one of Reston’s most popular gathering places – Fountain Square in Reston Town Center: “Don’t walk by the Chipotle fans by the rear entrance. They blow rancid air on you.” The date: Sept. 22, 2010!

The data explosion offers plentiful opportunities to develop new news. But to blend that data into a compelling content cocktail, hyperlocals have to be continually innovative, and that’s not happening (cf. Marshall Kirkpatrick’s lament).

Social networking is a big part of the new news, but it is nowhere near connecting to the user’s meaningful preferences. Married, Stay-at-Home Mom would love to meet and maybe even work with local parents who are also interested in individualized learning programs. Single, Male Software Developer would love to trade stories about work and career opportunities with other spatial software experts, and find other Lab owners to compare obedience-training info.

There are 198 million other Internet news consumers in the U.S., and they have their own personal preferences about  the livability of their community. How long will they have to wait to “fulfill [their] news wishes and dreams”?

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a website to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories, including K-12 schools, health and wellness, housing, fun and vision.  The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from Local Experts and users of the site.