How Hyperlocal Publishers Can Take Advantage of the Data Gold Rush

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data-funnel-150Big data. Little data. Hyperlocal data. It seems I cannot open my email without being bombarded with stories about how data is changing our lives. Our retail experience increasingly resembles scenes from the movie Minority Report; government agencies are selling your data; and there are new opportunities to earn money by allowing start-ups to access your social media behaviors. Data is everywhere.

The sources of this explosion, retail benefits and opportunities for journalism are well known. Perhaps less so are the benefits for hyperlocal publishers of embracing this trend. Here are five things to consider when exploring how to reap the benefits of the data explosion.

Opportunities abound
As Simon Rogers, data editor at Twitter, has argued; due to its nascent nature “data journalism is a great leveler.” Hyperlocals are therefore competing with “many media groups [who] are starting with as much prior knowledge and expertise as someone hacking away from their bedroom.”

This means that there are opportunities for local publishers to use data as a part of their current activities; or to create entirely new business models. Although the data bandwagon is gathering speed, there is still space to hop on board and influence where it is going.

Homicide Watch DC, a website covering every murder in the District of Columbia, is just one way in which the fusion of data and online publishing has turned a journalistic staple into something new – and potentially – commercially viable.

The site has spawned a series of copycat services, including Homicide Watch Trenton and Homicide Watch Chicago (although interestingly both of these spinoffs are affiliated to other titles such as Digital First Media’s The Trentonian, and WrapportsChicago Sun-Times, rather than standalone titles). It will be interesting to see how this data driven genre evolves.

Data in itself is not a solution. It needs context. And interpretation.
This is one of the reasons why the brand of “Homicide X” sites can often work; and a key reason why EveryBlock did not.

Steve Johnson, assistant professor of electronic journalism at Montclair State University and a founding Editor at Patch, explains this failing when commenting on his experience of using EveryBlock’s data for lower Manhattan:

“There were reports on what graffiti the city said it had erased each month, by neighborhoods. But what was missing was context, and photos. If I’m a reporter doing a story on graffiti, I want to show before and after photos AND, more importantly, I want to know whether the city is successfully fighting the graffiti artists, (i.e. who is winning). The raw data didn’t provide that.”

This example reminds us that the benefits of data can only be unlocked if supported by context and interpretation. Without this – as EveryBlock showed – data driven sites will fail to resonate enough with audiences or advertisers to survive.

Sustainability and credibility can go hand in hand.
In a media environment where so many products and services are jostling for our attention, hyperlocals constantly need to identify the hot topics that will help them to reel in their readers.

Crime, as I have already touched on, is one way to do this and the San Jose based NeighborWebSJ — with its Google Map of 2012 homicides — shows how you can cover this topic without becoming a single issue site.

Similarly, The Bay Citizen’s interactive Bike Accident Tracker and Oakland Local’s new Oakland Police Beat, have also used data to create tools which grabbed their audience’s attention; whilst at the same time going about their daily bread.

These tools and microsites can have great civic value, but they can also be very resource intensive to launch and maintain. Subsequently, many of these data driven efforts quickly become out of date, which can impact on audience perceptions of a site’s credibility. These types of data driven efforts should therefore not be entered into lightly.

There can be a beauty in simplicity.
One potential solution is to be more minimalist in your data ambitions.

William Perrin, a leading proponent and advocate of hyperlocal media in the UK, has noted that hyperlocal players can still tell great stories — and bring in audiences — with less complicated efforts.

“One trick is to keep data simple,” he says. “Many data sets can be made to do interesting things in a simple excel spreadsheet.” William’s Kings Cross Environment site has consistently used public data to tell — and source — stories like this piece on arson incidents. It’s not flashy, yet the conclusions are clear, and this lo-fi approach mitigates the risk of creating an expensive microsite with a short shelf life.

Publishers should also consider off-the-shelf tools like SeeClickFix. As Amy Gahran has noted, SeeClickFix is “an example of community news that doesn’t necessarily come packaged in story form”, but with a little bit of creative use it can be a tool that offers more than “cool eye candy”.

By providing journalists with real-time data that taps into issues that matter to communities; it can be a means for story gathering and promoting civic engagement, and as such a potentially low risk, data-driven tool for publishers.

You can still think big.
Location-based advertising, location-based (and triggered) content, as well as data-driven campaigns run in partnership with traditional and other hyperlocal media players, can all play a role in your portfolio.

In fact they’re probably essential. As media outlets of all sizes increasingly use data to drive both content and advertising, then this is an arena that hyperlocal publishers need to be in.

The trick is not to overstretch yourself – to be creative – and to use data to shape a sustainable offering of value to both audiences and advertisers.

Granted, that’s easier said than done. But this is frontier country. And as such, we’re all pioneers.

Damian Radcliffe is the author of “Here and Now”, the first UK review of the hyperlocal media scene; and an Honorary Research Fellow – and PhD scholar – at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies; the UK’s oldest J-School. Elements of this article appeared in Data Journalism: Mapping the Future edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble, which was published by Abramis in January. You can see links to Damian’s hyperlocal research on his personal website.