EveryBlock Was Experiment in Data Journalism That Fell Short

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everyblockWhen it was launched in 2007 by digital wunderkind Adrian Holovaty, EveryBlock — shuttered Thursday by NBC Universal — was hailed as one sure part of hyperlocal’s future. As a result of Holovaty’s coding, the site had the ability to tease out for publication petabytes upon petabytes of government-collected data that otherwise might not ever see the light of day.

Some of the data was surely interesting, like the details about restaurants flunking their sanitation tests or a spate of burglaries or car thefts within a neighborhood. But a lot of the data didn’t rise above the level of an overturned garbage can. How engaging can you make a community conversation about garbage cans or rodent abatement programs in your neighborhood?

NBCU spiffed up the look of the site, but strangely the sleek design didn’t seem to complement EveryBlock president Brian Addison’s push to “humanize” data. To browse the site was like entering the stringently appointed lobby of a Silicon Valley company.

EveryBlock president Brian Addison speaking at the Street Fight Summit in January.

To encourage user conversations on the site, EveryBlock added some “jazzy-looking badges” to energize its more socially minded users into “sharing.” The Blockstar badge was awarded to neighbors deemed to be “above average when it comes to the number of thanks they receive for each comment or message.” How many recipients were thrilled to be recognized for being “above average”?

The truth about data is that a lot of it just isn’t interesting enough to be the basis for a new kind of news. But that still leaves a lot — petabytes’ and zettabytes’ worth, actually — that could be transformed from raw information into knowledge. Doing that, though, takes more than coding and software. It takes human mindware, the sort produced by editors and contributors who don’t accept every data point as gospel and who appreciate, say, that the metrics on the success (and possibly failure) of minority achievement programs in community schools are more interesting, significant, and appreciated than the digital dump trucks full of minutiae from the department of sanitation.

EveryBlock was a pioneer in collecting, sorting, and filtering data. But it had not progressed to transforming its neat digital piles of information into knowledge. Its vaunted coding, which located every overturned garbage can from Boston to Los Angeles, couldn’t do that.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.

Read also:
*  EveryBlock Updates App to Facilitate Mobile Sharing of Local News
*  Interview: EveryBlock’s Adrian Holovaty on Enabling Community Conversation
*  NBCU Shutters Pioneering Hyperlocal Network EveryBlock