Street Wise

From June 2009: A Chicago company has figured out how to drill deep down for “hyper-local” news—that is, the stuff that’s happening on your street. But is there a future for this new breed of jounalism?


Adrian Holovaty

 

For the last year or so, thousands of Chicagoans have regularly visited the Web site Everyblock.com and typed in their street address to see if a new lunch spot has opened nearby or if a bike rack is being installed near work or if anyone on the block has been a victim of a burglary. Everyblock.com, which operates out of spartan headquarters in the Loop, is the brainchild of 28-year-old Adrian Holovaty. In 2005, not long after he and his wife moved to Chicago and began looking for a safe neighborhood, he started toying with Chicago crime data. (They ultimately settled on Lake View.) Google Maps had just launched. The Chicago Police Department had put some of its statistics online. Holovaty combined the two and created Chicagocrime.org, a Web site that allowed anyone to search for crimes by location, type, and date—and on a map, no less.

Chicagocrime.org was an instant hit, and spawned a worldwide “mash-up” craze in which all sorts of info—from drink specials to ancestry records—got plotted on Google Maps. It turned Holovaty into a rock star in the journalism world, earning him a $1.1-million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2007. The site also landed him a job at The Washington Post; as editor for editorial innovations, he had the freedom to pursue database-driven projects—as well as permission to stay in Chicago instead of moving to D.C. 

Holovaty left the Post in 2007 and used the Knight Foundation grant to launch EveryBlock, which tracks not only crime, but business licenses, restaurant inspections, building permits, and more in a dozen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and, coming soon, Detroit. In essence, EveryBlock offers a technological answer to a basic question: What is happening in your neighborhood? So far, the site—which boasts overall traffic of 600,000 to 700,000 unique visitors a month—seems to be beating local newspapers in finding an innovative way to give citizens timely, relevant, hyperlocal information with relatively light manpower.

But Holovaty has yet to figure out how exactly to make money from his venture: The grant ends on June 30th, leaving his young company without a source of income. “Going into this, we knew it was a two-year grant, and we might just decide to give up and say it was fun while it lasted,” he says. “But now that we’ve been doing this for a year and a half, we’re determined to see it continue and turn into a sustainable business.”

Holovaty is considering several business models, from selling advertising to offering up his platform to people and organizations interested in creating their own versions of the site. Earlier this year EveryBlock—which is run by a lean team of six—began working with several outfits to provide localized coupons for Chicago-based businesses. EveryBlock earns a commission on coupons that get used, as it does with Google text ads that run on some pages.

Holovaty speculates that EveryBlock could someday allow, say, a dry cleaner to buy ads targeted to its neighborhood. But that presumes a specific neighborhood has sufficient traffic on the site. “If a dry cleaner is going to advertise to a three-block radius around them, we need to be able to say that there are actually EveryBlock users by them,” Holovaty explains. “The only way to do that is to keep adding features to keep people coming back.”

Meanwhile, another major development looms. The rules of the Knight grant stipulate that the project’s code must be made “open source”—available for free to anyone who wants to use it. Holovaty predicts that the most likely adopters will be independent citizens and news organizations—but since he got there first, he’s not very worried about competition. “It’s almost like a zero-sum game,” he explains. “If there’s [EveryBlock] in the city, it doesn’t make much sense for there to be more than one.”

So far, both the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune have incorporated a map from EveryBlock into their Web sites. The Tribune has gone even further and developed EveryBlock-esque projects of its own, including Chicagotows.com, a site that tracks cars towed by police, and a crime tracker similar to Chicagocrime.org. Bill Adee, the Tribune’s editor of digital media, says EveryBlock’s work has been inspirational. “I think Adrian and his crew are way ahead of everybody in the way they organize the news.”

“EveryBlock is very much a part of the future of journalism, but I don’t think it’s the only part,” Holovaty says. “We’re very much focused on one specific type of news, and that’s neighborhood level or deeper. If it’s something that affects the entire city, you won’t even find it on our site.”

Dr. Barbara K. Iverson, a journalism instructor at Columbia College and editor of the citizen journalism site Chicagotalks.org, thinks the service is valuable to the media as well as users. “A site like that will help small news organizations because they don’t have to collect the data, but you still need a reporter to make sense of it.” She argues that raw data lacks the “passion” a human reporter can bring to a story.

Holovaty hopes to bring some of that passion to the site by adding ways for users to get involved, “whether that’s just a big box that says ‘Tell us what’s happening in your neighborhood’ or very structured, focused things that are spinning off our data,” he says. The site might prompt users to do some reporting based on trends that show up in the data stream—digging deeper if a rash of assaults strikes a neighborhood, for instance.

One thing EveryBlock won’t be doing right now is expanding to the suburbs. That’s because each city, town, and village keeps its own set of data, and negotiating to get it would eat up far too many resources relative to the gain. “It would take just as much effort to do Oak Park as it would to do Houston,” Holovaty explains. “That’s not much bang for your buck.” But he is excited to see if someone will use the open source platform to build a small-town EveryBlock. “That’s the most fascinating thing to me—thinking about who will use it.” 

Photograph by Andreas Larsson

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