EveryBlock is back in business under its new operator, Comcast. Re-launched in Chicago last January and in Philadelphia in August, it will be expanding to five more cities this year. Here, Comcast Local Media Director Paul Wright defends the old EveryBlock — shut down in 2013 by previous operator NBC Universal (which Comcast acquired in 2011) — and details new features of the resurrected data aggregator:
What value does a revived EveryBlock bring to a community?
EveryBlock is designed to be a dynamic source for what you want to know, whether it’s where you live, your place of work or just areas that you care about. It makes it easy to connect with people that share your interests, find new groups and learn new, localized information. Furthermore, it’s easy to start meaningful discussions with people who share the same desire to help improve their community – from the simple tasks like neighborhood cleanup to the more complex issues like school safety. The knowledge base from both EveryBlock users and aggregated local information is useful to everyone ― from residents to city officials, nonprofit groups, and the media.
EveryBlock got many positive assessments while it was in business, but it did fail. What will Comcast be doing to make sure it doesn’t fail again?
We don’t believe the original EveryBlock was a failure. It was a product that was, at its inception, very ahead of its time, and simply didn’t fit in with existing business models. However, Comcast evaluated EveryBlock and felt it was a fit with our business. We believe the time is right now and the site is here to stay as a community platform that bridges the gap between civic technology, localized (and often locally generated) content and the communities that can benefit from it.
We are adding more content, including public data, events, and web feeds. In other instances, we are bringing attention and traffic to civicly focused innovations, which benefits the entrepreneurs by connecting interested parties location-based information and builds another layer of community. We’re also expanding our syndication and localized delivery tools to share EveryBlock content with local bloggers and sites that care about a specific community. And we’re working closely with the development community, providing APIs that developers can use to leverage the content and technology for their own purposes. Finally, we’ve expanded our connection with WordPress and will be making it much easier for the writers and readers of the 75 million WordPress sites out there to share and discover EveryBlock content.
Not all data is equal. Meaningful numbers about the progress of minority academic achievement in, say, Philly or Chicago public schools is likely to be more valuable to users than tallies of overturned garbage cans from the Department of Sanitation. Will EveryBlock emphasize higher-value data?
Our goal is to provide consumer-friendly visibility into as much open data and applications as possible. Data has become so widespread and so specific, and communities have grown so diverse that it’s impossible to pinpoint what data is more valuable than others. That said, we have looked at the demand for data sets based on the given location’s data portal. In Chicago and Philadelphia, we chose to add 311 data because of its universal appeal. Users have thanked us for simplifying the process and making 311 data easier to understand, and we try to do that with all the data sets we work with. And once data is in EveryBlock, users can decide what they want to see and what they don’t. Basically, we allow users to decide for themselves what higher-value data is to them.
An additional goal is to ensure that EveryBlock emerges as indispensable tool for information gathering. In contrast to closed ecosystems that predominated the 1.0 hyperlocal news experiments, our contributors have urged us to cast a wide net, and let users decide how to deep to go. For bloggers and news organizations, that could mean survey plug-ins or using EveryBlock to find a local resident to confirm details of a story they are reporting. For community-organizations or elected officials, that could mean leveraging the shared user knowledge of EveryBlock to research the history of a park or seek input on proposed changes to an intersection. The value of data and information is determined by the user, EveryBlock simply aids the harvest.
“Data journalism” gets discussed a lot. Will EveryBlock push the envelope in that area?
It is important to note that EveryBlock is not a data creator, it is an aggregator of information and other content that is important to people based on location. But, by helping people discover the various feeds and data out there, we do believe we are helping push the envelope in data-driven journalism. We make it easy for data journalists to see location-based data and figure out trends in any given community over a certain amount of time. In that sense, we’re certainly a leader in providing the tools.
One of the promising indicators here is in the field of local civic data. We have found elected city officials from both parties very supportive of our efforts to use EveryBlock to help bring visibility to the information their cities provide as it helps illuminate trends that in turn can potentially shape the direction of their cities. An important distinction here, though, is that unlike leading data journalism sites like Vox or FiveThirtyEight, EveryBlock itself does not draw its own conclusions about the data – we simply want to make the data accessible for people to draw their own conclusions.
Under MSNBC, there was an attempt at Everyblock to “humanize data.” Is Comcast keeping that goal?
EveryBlock is a place where data can find a very specific, targeted audience. The benefit of being a part of the robust, and growing, open data movement is that there are fantastic examples every day of individuals, companies, startups and civic tech activists taking it upon themselves to “humanize data.” We seek to complement them, and we’re constantly looking at ways to help us to be good partners with them. We continue to add more and more sources of information every day, and are certainly into including as many good, local data sources as possible.
The founder of EveryBlock, Adrian Holovaty, criticized your relaunch for not having a “vision” or enough moderation? Your reaction?
Adrian, his highly accomplished co-founders and the original users established the foundation of an amazing product and we applaud their skill, passion and determination every day. In fact, we’ve been honored by the continued engagement and advice of several EveryBlock leaders as the site relaunched.
While we share a similar vision as the founders of providing EveryBlock as a community service, our approaches differ. We moderate the site with purpose rather than as strict editors, and are monitoring the various user posts and comments as much, if not more than the first version. Like any community meeting, sometimes there will be people who disagree or simply don’t want to participate in any meaningful discussion. There are tools on EveryBlock that allow users to ignore those types of trolls. In the meantime, we feel that it’s better to let discussions happen organically, rather than try to dictate what the course of conversation should be. We are expanding the reach of EveryBlock, engaging as many people and groups as possible who care about their community. Certainly, when you try to gather such a wide variety of people, there will be disagreements, and you need to let those happen in order to get to the meaningful change.
Does Comcast see EveryBlock as complementing existing community news sites or as competition in the same space?
EveryBlock is absolutely a complement to existing community news sites. Our focus is aggregation and discovery to help people reach the creators of the content in each market. In Philadelphia and Chicago, we are providing access to over 1,100 feeds and always direct users back to the native sites. And that almost always leads to an increase of traffic for those sites. We had one source that requested their content be removed from EveryBlock, so we took their feed down. But their site traffic dropped, and it was such a noticeable drop that they asked us, almost immediately, to put them back on.
We also want to give back to the communities whose data we aggregate, so we provide easy ways for any site, such as community news sites, to grab content from us for placement on their own sites, to help engage their own readers. Sites that are struggling for local content are able to use EveryBlock to help bolster their own web presences.
What specific communities are on your rollout schedule? Will you be serving suburban areas as well as cities?
We will be launching Houston, Denver, Boston (& Medford, MA) and Miami (& Hialeah, FL) through the end of 2014. Our focus right now is on urban areas, but we have received several requests to launch in suburban areas. All the sites are in the Comcast service footprint.
EveryBlock isn’t presenting advertising at this time. What’s the time frame for adding that?
Our focus is on the community, and using EveryBlock as a tool to help the people, businesses, and civic leaders in those areas. We currently have no plans for advertising.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched earlier this year.
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