EveryBlock Was Experiment in Data Journalism That Fell Short

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

  1. SpaceChief
    February 7, 2013

    I never knew it even existed, and I’m a programmer…

  2. ChaseSpief
    February 7, 2013

    I never knew it programmed, and I existed.

  3. Connecting Dots
    February 7, 2013

    Tom misses on many points with his grumpy critique. Yeesh… I’m too tired to get into it. Go read the hundreds of glowing comments on the EveryBlock blog that landed there today… they’ll show that Tom is way off.

    The real story is which hyperlocal Richie Rich paid to “off’ EveryBlock. What else do you do with $30M in VC funds and ambitions to rule the world?

  4. Julie Brooks
    February 7, 2013

    Um, what about revenue? It doesn’t matter how popular or well-done it was. Or wasn’t. At all. If the path to profitability is non-existent, it’s a failure as a business.

  5. February 8, 2013

    Certainly the judicious application of technology can assist journalists at all levels, and EveryBlock was an important experiment in gathering data at the local level.

    NBC’s pulling the plug on EveryBlock points to what Local Independent Online News Publishers see as a central tenet: local news should be reported by local journalists working for local news organizations.

    National corporations aren’t invested in communities; their mission is to pull profits from them in the most efficient manner possible. The publishers of locally owned businesses are those who are close enough to their cities and towns to understand the sort of news they must provide, and who are positioned to focus on that while building healthy businesses for the long term.

    I believe the truth of the aphorism “local doesn’t scale” is as readily apparent in the case of EveryBlock as it is with AOL’s Patch. No matter how well they might work in one location, the cookie-cutter, top-down templated play can’t be widely replicated in every market.

    Central planning works even less well for the news industry than it did for Soviet agriculture.

    Dylan Smith

    Local Independent Online News Publishers
    Editor & Publisher,

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NBCU Shutters Pioneering Hyperlocal Network EveryBlock