Extending User Reviews to Places, Block by Block

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We’ve become used to reviews of establishments on web services like Yelp, but there are also a number of hyperlocal services that have popped up to allow users to rate neighborhoods and create profiles around subsections of their town or city.

One such service, Block Avenue, launched last week with an offering that gives locals the opportunity to grade their neighborhoods, blocks and businesses down to the building level. The company has “divided up the U.S. into 1.89 billion squares” and allows users to assign grades from A to F on specific blocks and for businesses, which are displayed on maps to show the destination spots (A’s) as well as danger zones (F’s).

This kind of online microlocal profiling originally started in the real estate industry, with Trulia and Zillow providing tools for consumers to rate and assess neighborhoods they were researching. With increasing access to data, real estate buyers were demanding granular knowledge about their locality beyond real estate value metrics (i.e. “what is this area really like”). To get at that information, microlocal profiles are built out of all kinds of geolocational data — restaurant reviews, crime data, events — that can help give a more in-depth understanding of what a place is like, and how it compares to the areas around it.

Block Avenue’s approach pulls feeds from data aggregators like Factual and various sources like GreatSchools.org for school data, and then builds it all into a neighborhood map. “Our grades weight the more negative hard data, like crime statistics, about equal with user rating, and we’ll expose our  algorithm so users can see how a block gets a B or C,” said Tony Longo, Block Avenue’s CEO. “We’re also looking to tap into the APIs of Yelp and Foursquare to add existing consumer reviews to the algorithm.”

Building up this kind of ratings data and user-generated content can take time, though. Long form reviews like Nabewise’s neighborhood defining blog posts and even Yelp reviews may be descriptive but it’s a slow ramp up to get users to write a lot of them for a new startup. To build the database quickly, Block Avenue has a one click “Does this make your block better or worse?” button. Tony states that he has a 7/11  convenience store on his block but gave it a “worse” review because it gets noisy with loiterers late at night. Arcane data like street noise levels will eventually be mapped.

This empty room phenomenon is currently a bit of a hurdle for BlockAvenue. The company launched in beta and has only built minimal traction in Boston and a few East Coast cities with about 2000 reviews at the outset, leaving most cities with baffling grades, errors, and missing data. But if the service can build up to a critical mass, I think it could be a really useful tool. After all, I remember when Yelp’s most popular restaurant in San Francisco only had 40 reviews.

 Patrick Kitano is founding Principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is reachable via Twitter @pkitano and email [email protected].

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