I recently had a conversation with Darrin Clement, who is CEO of Maponics, a company that provides neighborhood polygons for mapping purposes to companies like Google, Trulia, and Foursquare. The company’s plans for 2013 include some interesting overlays of demographics and what they call “lifestyle data” on top of maps. The initiative is called Maponics Context, and that’s an appropriate name, because Maponics is talking about a value-added component to traditional maps that may help to bring primary mapping information into a meaningful context for users.
In their case, with dual emphases on local search and the real estate vertical, the focus is on mapping data like real estate statistics, school rankings, and crime statistics. But there’s a wealth of data out there that might be of interest to users of maps, and likely the Maponics initiative and others like it are only the beginning.
The site Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks, designed by journalist Chris Persaud, brings the use of census data in maps into a stark focus. Enter any city in the U.S., and the site displays a color-coded map indicating the median income and which areas fall above or below it. You can also choose to view average rents for any city broken down by neighborhoods. Data for the site is taken entirely from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The visual impact of a map showing average incomes and rents in your own neighborhood is only the most obvious impression. More than this, maps overlaid with census data help us to understand how demographics add context to primary information, such as local search listings.
Demographic overlays could have broad implications for local search applications. One use case I discussed with Clement seems obvious when you think about it: say you’re in an unfamiliar city and you’re looking for a nearby restaurant. If there’s a default local search use case, this is it. Wouldn’t you be interested in knowing the crime statistics of the neighborhood the restaurant is in? Maybe you’re the type who likes to venture boldly into unknown regions, but more cautious travelers would be grateful for this kind of information.
The trick is to add demographic overlays very carefully and selectively so as not to get in the way of the basic search experience (which is already threatened by social networking bells and whistles that sometimes detract from the basic task of getting you where you want to go). Perhaps the ideal way to make use of census data is in the form of overlays the user can turn on and off, or as a completely separate application that lets you dig deeper into the context of local results provided by any site or app.
Maybe there’s something in the air. Another very interesting spin on the use of demographic data for local appeared this week on the SEOmoz blog. “The Guide to US Census Data for Local SEO,” from Harris Schachter of Dynamic Web Solutions, describes how local marketing campaigns can make use of an incredibly rich array of census information in order to correlate regions, age groups, business types, consumer spending statistics, and other details. Such analysis can help marketers and local SEO companies determine exactly where and how a local campaign should be targeted. You might call this the other side of the coin for demographic overlays. Just as the Obama presidential campaign made brilliant use of sophisticated demographic analysis in order to micro-target its messaging, so too will forward-thinking local SEOs likely take to Schachter’s approach.
The Census Bureau is, of course, only one corpus of information that can be used to add context to local search. Much of the user data that popular applications currently collect could be anonymized and turned into valuable overlays. Facebook’s Graph Search is one example (pointedly not anonymous) of this type of thinking, though Facebook’s social paradigm turns out to be poorly suited to the type of implementation that would truly make good use of its own data, simply because Facebook is not a local search site. However, if Graph Search becomes available to third party developers via API, one of the very obvious applications will be to use local engagement data as a map overlay.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.