Holovaty's EveryBlock unlocks neighborhood news data

Noted journalist/programmer/Web guru Adrian Holovaty just launched his latest project, the Knight News Challenge-funded EveryBlock. As the site’s name implies, it strives to provide information about every block of the three cities it covers: New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Included data might include crime reports, civic inspections and filings, even geotagged Flickr photos.

Too many news professionals get bogged down by traditional notions of “journalism,” that what newsrooms publish must be multi-sourced narrative “stories,” from five to 500 inches long, following J-school-approved norms for reporting and narrative structure.

Feh. When I worked a small daily, many of us on staff suspected that the most popular features in the paper were the obits, police blotter and log of ambulance runs. And you know what? When I moved up, to bigger cities and bigger dailies, I missed not being able to check the paper to see where that police cruiser or ambulance I heard yesterday was going.

Readers love information. Whether that’s a police blotter, local bulletin board, school lunch schedule or gripping story in the local paper — they don’t care about the format. Readers just want it to be accurate, relevant and complete. Without anything misleading or extraneous, either.

That’s why I love watching people like Holovaty, whom I’ve interviewed before on OJR. The public has voted with its mouse clicks that it wants more information from the rest of the world that they are finding from the same, stale stories in their shrinking local papers. Holovaty’s creations offer the promise of a reinvigorated news industry, driven by journalists who can wield code, statistics and data every bit as effectively as words and grammar. I e-mailed Holovaty, and asked him about EveryBlock.

OJR: What’s EveryBlock providing that the average Web reader could not get before?

Holovaty: First, fundamentally, we offer a way to browse news at the block level, with a news page for every block — hence the name EveryBlock. We’ve done a fair amount of due diligence and are pretty confident this hasn’t been done before — and in three of the densest cities in America, at that.

Second, we’re providing some information that didn’t previously exist online. Two examples are film locations in Chicago and restaurant inspections in San Francisco. The former is provided to us by the Chicago Film Office, and the latter is provided to us by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which has its own website but doesn’t include some of the data we publish.

Third, we make it easy to browse information that already existed online but was buried in deep government sites, either in “deep Web” search forms or non-Web-friendly formats such as PDFs. Two examples are landmark building permits in New York City and crime reports in New York City, but there are many other examples across our three city sites. This has been an interest of mine for a number of years, and it’s a dream come true to have the opportunity to do it at this scale.

Fourth, we’re detecting geography in narratives — “blobs,” so to speak — and making it easy for people to find relevant news articles and government documents that refer to specific places near them. Some examples are New York City news articles, San Francisco zoning agenda items and Chicago city press releases. Another (geeky) way to phrase this is that we’re harvesting geographic metadata from unstructured text.

Fifth, we’re providing some light trending and aggregate reports for *each* type of information on our site. For example, see the Chicago crime data.

OJR: Describe the work that went into creating EveryBlock.

Holovaty: The work that has gone into creating EveryBlock has been quite diverse, which makes the job interesting and exciting. On the “human” side of things, we’ve established many relationships with government officials and other partners who are responsible for local data. On the user-interface side, we’ve worked to design a gorgeous, easy to use site and an architecture that accommodates a wide variety of disparate types of information. On the map side, we’ve made our own maps, deciding against Google’s or Yahoo’s map offerings for a number of reasons; that took a sophisticated combination of design, coding and data chops. At the technical level, we’ve developed an array of technology just to get all of this data into an elegant, unified system. It’s beautiful. And we’ve even done a fair amount of manual labor, from hand-drawing neighborhood boundaries to hand-tagging newspaper articles to train our geoparsing algorithms.

OJR: I suspect that when many people, inside and out of the news industry, hear the word “journalism,” they think of a specific, narrative format for providing information. But sites such as EveryBlock provide information outside the traditional newspaper narrative form. Do you think that people in the news industry need to modify or expand their conception of “journalism” in order to account for the new and different ways that people can access and present information online?

Holovaty: People can define “journalism” however they’d like. At EveryBlock, what we’re interested in exploring is what sort of frequently updated information consumers want at the block level, and how they’d like to receive it. Whether this is called “journalism” or not is strictly academic. (I think it’s hard to argue against calling it “news,” though.)

I think people in the news industry should indeed modify their conception of what information they publish, and how they publish it. But should they modify their conception of “journalism”? Leave that to the people who have the time and inclination to debate semantics.

OJR: What has kept, or is still keeping, newspapers from having functionality like EveryBlock’s on their websites?

Holovaty: Unfortunately, there’s a lot. In the general case (and “general” means this excludes the newspapers out there who are doing great things online) —

* A lack of technical competence
* A culture so obsessed with daily deadlines that little thought/resources are put into paradigm changes
* A culture that disdains technology and science, particularly math, and, worse, actually takes pride in that
* Red tape
* Legacy systems
* Legacy attitudes
* People who ask “Is this journalism?” 😉

OJR: How long can you keep the site running on your Knight funding? What happens after that runs out?

Holovaty: That remains to be seen! Knight has awarded a two-year grant, and we’re just over six months into it, so… ask again in about 18 months. 🙂

OJR: Who are you trying to reach with EveryBlock? How are your promoting the site?

Holovaty: We’re trying to reach residents of the EveryBlock cities. If you live in Chicago, New York or San Francisco, we hope to make your block’s page on EveryBlock into something that you’d find useful time and time again.

Something tells me you won’t be seeing EveryBlock billboards on the expressway, or EveryBlock ads on subway cars. That’s just not our style. We’ve e-mailed friends and family, and the rest has sort of happened through word of mouth, blogs and media coverage. This approach worked well for chicagocrime.org, which has (anecdotally) gained pretty good awareness over the past two and a half years here in Chicago, with zero traditional marketing on my part.

OJR: What’s the timeframe, and procedure, for expanding to other cities?

Holovaty: This is an interesting challenge that we knew going into the project: to some extent, the technology is scalable (i.e., replicable in a way that makes subsequent cities easier to launch), but at the same time, every city’s data is different. We still don’t know how that breaks down, resource-wise, but it’ll be fun to find out.

OJR: If a local publisher wants EveryBlock technology on his/her website, what should they do? Are you working with partners? Should they try to build this themselves?

Holovaty: We’re obligated under the terms of our Knight grant to release the site’s code under an open-source license at the end of the grant period. The idea there is to experiment and do some good for the news industry — that’s one of the core missions of the Knight News Challenge program (www.newschallenge.org), which is the contest I entered to receive this grant.

In the meantime, though, we’re very interested in working with partners — media companies, governments, bloggers and any other local-news publishers — in our EveryBlock cities. (Folks can contact us at feedback at everyblock.com.)

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend that news organizations attempt to build this themselves, but it’s obvious that I’m biased — both by having implemented EveryBlock and having worked at a number of news organizations.

OJR: What information, related to EveryBlock or not, do you really wish you could get in front of Web readers, but that you haven’t figured out either how to get your hands on or how to present effectively? (In other words, what’s the next challenge?) What’s it going to take to get that information out there?

Holovaty: That’s another good question. Regarding data on the current EveryBlock cities, I’d say we’re only at 10 percent of where we could be. We’re almost ready to add a couple of data sets that didn’t make it in time for launch, and we’re continually adding news sources and blogs to crawl.

One type of information that we purposefully haven’t included on EveryBlock is “static” information — the location of the nearest subway station, or the census demographics for your block. There’s been a small amount of user interest in this, but there’s a core difference in that type of information, namely that it’s not time-sensitive, and it would take some thinking to figure out how that fits in with our current “news feed for your block” paradigm. We’ll see what happens. It’s one of the many interesting problems we look forward to tackling.

Not just a homicide map

Last month’s Online Journalism Awards recognized the projects for which the medium is a large part of the message: those groundbreaking vehicles for reporting and storytelling made possible by the Web.

Oakland Tribune Web producers Katy Newton and Sean Connelley were the stars of that show, taking home two awards for Not Just A Number, their multi-layered interactive project geared toward humanizing homicide statistics in Oakland, Calif., consistently home to one of the nation’s highest murder rates.

Plotting crime on a map is nothing new. The Los Angeles Times similarly tracks its city’s murders in real time. Minneapolis’ Rake Magazine rolled out a homicide location graphic in an acclaimed feature, “Murder By Numbers,” earlier this year.

Though similar in appearance, Not Just a Number goes well beyond merely pinning crime stats on a city grid. It holds a magnifying glass over each anonymous coordinate on Oakland’s crowded murder map (112 thus far in 2007), enabling an intimate interactivity among the family, friends and loved ones of each murder victim. Behind each number lies a hub for mourners to exchange stories, photos, music and anything else to bring the victim out from behind a mug shot and a police report.

The project won Katy, Sean and the Tribune the Knight Award for Public Service, “honoring digital journalism that produces compelling coverage of a vital issue and engages a geographic community.”

OJR swapped emails with the producers to find out how a grassroots community project became an award-winning model for in-depth Web reporting and digital public service.

OJR: Could you briefly walk us through the genesis of Not Just A Number? Was there some specific job in your professional Web-production lives that sparked the idea?

KN: Sean and I are married. At that time, Sean was a full-time photographer at The Trib. He was having to go and take photos of the homicides and when he got home we would talk about it. We found ourselves counting off the homicides “number 65 happened today”…”now we are at 75” — that shocked us. We were forgetting that these victims were not just numbers but human beings. The initial goal was simply to find the families and learn more about the victims to help desensitize the issue of violence. The Tribune had done a homicide map every year in the paper, but there had never been anything done for online. We felt including statements from the families and friends of the victims would be really powerful and interactive was a great tool for telling the story.

SC: We brought our initial idea to Kathleen Kirkwood, Associate Editor for Online News. She was very supportive — basically said I love it go for it. She also suggested we contact a woman named Marilyn Washington Harris who runs the Khadafy Foundation. Her son Khadafy Washington had been killed in 2000. Marilyn now volunteers her time to help other families through the process of losing a loved one to violence. She is amazing.

KN: She met Sean and I at her “unofficial” office a local funeral home. We told her the idea and asked for her help contacting the families. She was interested but a little skeptical at first. She was concerned about our intentions and how the families and the victims would be presented. She told us that in many ways the survivors of the violence felt betrayed by the media. They were concerned with the use of police mug shots as identification of the victim. We got this a lot from others in the community as well. Here is a letter received from a reader on the issue of using police mug shots for id’ing murder victims:

“Mug shots scream GUILTY and that is a verdict the courts decided without taking into consideration what issues were occurring before, during and after his release from jail. My brother’s journey started way before he was in the system. When my father beat my mother in front of us… and he learned there was no consequence for that, it started. When we experienced our first police raid in my grandmother’s apartment, though there were no drugs found, the journey started. When he/we first had to identify ourselves as ‘homeless’ after my grandmother’s passing, we knew what options were left for Mar to choose from. And there are no photos of those times and no reporters recording those stats.”

That meeting with Marilyn was critical because hearing her concerns echoed this nagging feeling of a general desensitization and need to approach the story from a new direction.

SC: About that time, also met with Jane Ellen Stevens who co-wrote “Reporting on Violence – A Handbook for Journalists” and is also a journalism professor at UC-Berkeley. She helped us look at violence from a health perspective and not judicial.

As the project began picking up more speed, we started interviewing families and meeting more community members and we would always ask them what would they like to see be included in the project or how could we report on violence better.

Everyone wanted ‘Solutions’ — what can they do, how can the public get involved. We took their responses to heart and created areas on our site to address their issues.

Side note, Oakland is a town of organizers, historically. Huge civil rights changes have come from this city and not too long ago. People remember, and you feel that history when you go out and talk to people. Oakland is an amazing place and in the end, this project became a result of so many people in that community. I love that about it.

OJR: How long did the whole thing take to develop and launch?

SC: The idea, which Katy talks about in the previous question, started percolating around August of 2006. We started designing the site in September and I guess by mid-October I began to build and program the site. All the while, I was still working full-time as a staff photographer at the Tribune and Katy and I were also out there collecting content for the site. So it was a very interesting juggling act that we had to do. We did get a lot of support from several people in the newsroom who gave us the time and support to able to create it. Finally, the site launched on March 4th, 2007 to coincide with a homicide package that the Tribune runs every year.

OJR: What was the initial blueprint for the site, and what was the Tribune’s reaction when you pitched the idea?

KN & SC: We first just wanted to do an interactive homicide map with maybe a message board. Then after meeting various people in the community it grew to what it is now. The Tribune was very excited about the idea when we pitched them the idea. We went in with a little flash prototype we made up and I think that helped convey the idea.

OJR: As producers, what is your day-to-day interaction with Tribune reporters and editors, and how much hands-on access do they have to the site itself?

SC: We are very open to anyone in the newsroom to come to us with ideas. We also go to them when we find they are working on a story that would fit our site. We basically maintain the site right now but will eventually be shifting the responsibilities to other editors and even reporters if appropriate. Those responsibilities would be updating the data and posting new stories.

The site was created so that reporters or editors who weren’t necessarily comfortable with flash could easily update the site. Basically, there is a series of forms for each section of the site. The reporter can open the forms and input the new data, which then updates the site.

OJR: The “Features and Stories” section houses a pretty comprehensive mix of articles, videos and interactive one-off sites. How often is that updated, and what does content management entail?

KN: Usually, there are a couple of new stories added each month. Unfortunately, when the site was launched the paper went through a big shift. The Trib joined with The Contra Costa Times and The San Jose Mercury News under The Bay Area News Group — people had other things to focus on. Things have settled and people have more time to do multimedia and special features. It’s actually really exciting how the reporters have responded to the project. A lot of that credit goes out to Kathleen Kirkwood, who is awesome about recruiting reporters stories for the NJN.

OJR: How about the “Stories by You” section? Do family members and friends of victims come forward with those, or does that require some solicitation on your part?

KN & SC: The idea for this component of the site came about while researching the story, we discovered there were many after-school programs teaching youth new journalism tools, mostly video and audio pod casts. Oakland youth are so impacted by the violence, they were already reporting their own stories about this issue. We were impressed with the videos we saw, so we thought it would be great to showcase the work on the site — that’s how the community voices page developed.

Joe Weiss of SoundSlides, generously donated copies of his program to us and we handed them out to some of these organizations. We have had a few people send us content but for the most part ithas been slow. You really need a person that can go out consistently to solicit material, and the Trib just doesn’t have the staff for that. But, we haven’t given up. We are trying to develop other ways to help people in the community tell their own stories. CBC Canada’s “This I Believe” and the use of mobile phones in the interactive project MurMur are totally inspiring for us and we hope to co-op some of those ideas.

OJR: Any sense of how much residents in the heavier-homicide zones are interacting with the site?

KN & SC: Without having much to back this up except personal responses we get, we feel it is mainly the residents from the flat lands (crime rich areas) are the ones who are using our site, they are the ones most directly effected by violence and therefore have more interest in crime related stories especially ones that tell stories of hope or solutions. For example, we have been asked by many schools in the flat lands to come speak to their class because they have been using it as a tool in the class, we have yet been asked by a school in an area where violence is not a common thing.

OJR: What is next for the site? Any significant new features on deck?

KN: We are currently reworking the “Risk Factors” section of the site. While Kathleen Kirkwood was working with the Alameda County Health to gather the information on the risk factors, they encouraged her to also look at the resilience factors — the factors that help young people thrive despite living in potential harmful environments. We all loved this idea, but there wasn’t time to explore it before the launch.

Working with several community centers in Oakland, we recently had the opportunity to conduct video interviews with youth talking about what has helped them and their peers thrive despite some of the obstacles they face. It was one of the best experiences we had doing this project. The component launches at the end of the month so please check it out.

SC: I think for us the next step would be find ways to connect to low-income residents who may not have a computer. We think one way would be enabling interaction to our site with a cell phone. Also, finding funding to put kiosks in public libraries would be nice as well. As far as new features, not much except the resilience feature that Katy mentions, and maybe give the site a little makeover.

OJR: Finally, what advice would you offer online journalists at other news organizations who wanted to create a project with similar impact?

SC: I would say first of all not to be afraid to fail. The whole time we were creating this project we kept telling everyone that we could do this but there were a lot of times Katy and I had no idea what we were doing. It was a big leap for us. Other tips would be to talk to as many people as you can about the idea to help flush it out. Get out of the newsroom and into the community. As far as building the project, we benefited greatly from so many people out there sharing their expertise online. It is truly amazing, the generosity of the web programming world.

KN: Rough out your concept—how you think the story should be told—then go out and meet with organizations and individuals working in the community. Listen to their struggles and the stories they would like to learn about. Find out what information/tools they could use. Then go for it!

KN & SC: We would recommend groups with limited resources take a look at online services and open source software that could help streamline the process, such as:

  • Vuvox
  • Elgg
  • Javascript & PHP libraries like CakePHP & JQuery
  • Content Managment System or frameworks like WordPress, Drupal, Django, etc…
  • Web services with API’s like Yahoo Maps, Zoho, Picnik, etc…
  • Bob Cauthorn returns with CityTools

    Newcomers to online journalism might not recognize the name “Bob Cauthorn.” But to industry geezers like me, Bob was the guy you could count on, back in the late 1990s, to rip newspaper companies for their ham-handed, clueless approaches to the emerging Internet marketplace. Bob could be profane, abrasive and loud… but time has shown that he was almost always right.

    Then, after stints at a couple of newspapers, Cauthorn essentially disappeared from the industry scene. He went off to some start-up called “CityTools,” which produced… well, many us weren’t quite sure.

    Now, Cauthorn’s back. CityTools is ready to launch, and Cauthorn’s ready to show off his new baby.

    In short, CityTools is a social media framework for publishing news articles, lists and classified advertisements. Cauthorn demo’d for me a platform that serves both newspapers as well as independent and individual publishers.

    Newspapers could use CityTools as an ad hoc wire service, to create with other papers online portals on topics of mutual interest. Interest groups could use the platform to manage collaborative publications. Readers can build lists of their favorite… whatever, and share those lists with others to create aggregated “favorites” lists from designated communities.

    And, of yeah, the platform supports stories, ads and lists in multiple languages. Speak English, Spanish… and Swedish? CityTools will let you read, create, order and distribute content in all three, at once. Registered users can declare which of 13 supported languages they read, and select which one they want to use as their primary language while navigating the site. They can also select their community, which will deliver them content and ads tagged to that community, while allowing them to use breadcrumb trails to navigate to content from all other CityTools communities.

    It’s loaded with cool widgets like this, so my inner geek demanded that I get the scoop. I talked with Cauthorn on the phone earlier this month, and an edited transcript follows.

    OJR: You were raising hell in the newspaper.com world there a few years ago and then just kind of disappeared into CityTools. Bring us up to speed on what you’ve been up to.

    Cauthorn: I went into the lab. After I left The [San Francisco] Chronicle, I went backpacking along the Pacific Crest Trail and did a lot of thinking about the state of journalism and online newspapers and stuff and, as you probably know, I was one of the very earliest people doing what we now call social news. Back then we didn’t really have a name for it, you know, we’re just doing the community front page which allowed people to decide what was on their front page and share links and vote on things and – but all the stuff that has now become commonplace with Digg and whatnot.

    I was thinking a lot about the need for a new kind of journalism online as well as the kinds of things that may help, you know, existing print newspapers to survive. And when I say print newspapers it’s because even though they have online operations, they’re still thinking so much like print operations, you know, and so after, you know, sort of both literally and figuratively going to the mountain, I came back and decided to try to re-imagine this stuff from the ground up.

    So that’s what I’m focusing on right now.

    On the newspaper side, what we’ve created is what we think is an extraordinarily interesting and brand new thing. We’re giving newspapers the ability to very easily set up ad-hoc wire services if you will, to share content with other newspapers of a like mind as well as to share classified ads.

    OJR: I think one of the distinguishing characteristics between let’s say, first generation online publishing versus traditional offline publishing has been that the focus of offline publishing, local newspapers, has been geographic. A lot of early online publications have been organized around topic and they’ve been geographically agnostic, if you will. They don’t care about where you are in the world, just what you want to talk about. And what you’ve just described here seems like it is taking the geographic-based local newspaper and moving it into the more topically based world where you’re creating topic – you’re creating topical networks for local communities so you’re no longer just about the Fort Lauderdale community, you’re about boating.

    Cauthorn: Well, geography is still important. What we’re trying to do though is we’re trying to say, “Look. Let’s imagine content as a palette of colors.” Right now we’ve had a very limited palette. You’ve got what the wire services give you and you’ve got what your local folks generate and of course with layoffs and stuff like that, that palette of colors that your local folks is generating is getting less. And what happens is you say, “Okay fine. Why don’t we expand that palette by borrowing colors from other people?”

    Let’s use agricultural reporting as an example. The fact of the matter is that agricultural reporting across the country, the numbers have been shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. Right? Because the newspaper has to make a choice between covering agriculture, even if you’re an agricultural market, and covering the statehouse, they’ve got to cover the statehouse. It’s just their natural bias. Whether or not that’s relevant to the reader or not, who knows? But it’s a natural bias.

    So what happens of all of a sudden you say, “Okay, but you know what? So we’re not doing a great job of covering all agriculture in our area, but you know what? If we combined four cities, let’s say all the small newspapers in the Imperial Valley, and say okay, we’re gonna share our agricultural coverage and ou can put it online or you can put it in print. It doesn’t matter. It’s up to them. All of a sudden, you’ve got a rich, brand new product that really resonates for the local audience. And guess what? Google can’t match. There’s no way a mass aggregator can match that.

    OJR: Let’s talk about some of other folks that are out there, in this spectrum of social media, from earlier sites like Backfence to Topicx to whomever the Knight Foundation’s gonna be funding this year and next. What have you got going that you think distinguishes CityTools?

    Cauthorn: Up until now what’s happened is that sites have enforced their view of what local is. So, you say, okay, this site is about Pima County Arizona. That’s our local view and that’s it. And it may be part of a network where you have Pima County here and you’ve got Maricopa County there, but if you’re on a Maricopa County site you don’t see the Pima County stuff. If you’re on a Pima County site, you don’t see the Maricopa County stuff.

    What we’re doing to begin with is we’re saying, “Look, what we need to do is put the definition of what local is from the perspective of this site in the hands of the user.” We talk about personalization but what I want to start talking about is context of your life. The user has a context of their life and their context is that I might identify myself as being a local to the Bay Area, but my next-door neighbor might think of San Francisco only as where their local context is. How do you build a site that responds to both of those people’s concerns in a fluid manner? That’s what we’ve built.

    So what happens is that, for example in Brooklyn — I think we’ve got twelve or fifteen neighborhoods in Brooklyn, specific neighborhoods. So let’s say you’re looking at Bensonhurst’s stuff. You’re reading a restaurant review in Bensonhurst and you click on Bensonhurst, say, “Show me all the restaurants you got in Bensonhurst,” because what we allow you to do is combine. I don’t know the context. I’m gonna allow you to set the context. Right?

    So you say, “The context I’m interested in is Bensonhurst and I want to see all the restaurant reviews in Bensonhurst.” Well, everybody’s posted a restaurant review in Bensonhurst, there they are. If there’s not enough content, and if you think, “Oh well, wait a minute, I’d like to see all the restaurant reviews in Brooklyn,” all you got to do is click Brooklyn [on the page’s bread crumb trail] and suddenly, bang, you get everything in Brooklyn.

    OJR: One of the distinguishing characteristics about my hometown, the L.A. area, not that it isn’t beginning to happen in other metro areas as well, is as you go by neighborhood to neighborhood, you’re not just changing geography, you’re also changing, literally, the language spoken by the people in that neighborhood. Tell me a little bit about how CityTools is accommodating language differences.

    Cauthorn: We currently support 13 languages. And we believe, we’re not sure about this, but we believe we’re the first multilingual news site in the world. Up until now, if you speak Spanish and you’re in Los Angeles, you have the choice of an English language newspaper or a Spanish language newspaper, either in print or online. But I go down to the mission in San Francisco and you hear people freely mingling Spanish and English together. That’s the context of their life. Right?

    So what we do is we allow you to say, “Okay, I only want to see Spanish language content in East L.A.” So you’ve got it. If you’re comfortable in Spanish and English, you can have Spanish and English and it’s freely mixed in there.

    Now think about this in terms of business model, what happens when you have bilingual classifieds? Imagine what would happen if the Hispanic community in Los Angeles had the ability to say, “Okay, I want to see classifieds in Spanish or English.”

    That’s what I’m talking about when is say context. I want to know where you live, I want to know what languages you speak, tell me what you’re interested in. I will change the nature of the site to match those things. This is a big deal, we think.

    Now, that’s – so that’s all really powerful, but then we get into some other stuff that also we believe is quite new. And you’re getting back to what distinguishes us from the other sites that have come before. We have this entire group publishing model that anybody can create what we call teams.

    Let’s say you have a class full of journalism students and you create a team for that class and they write their stories and they assign them to their team. Now you have flexibility. You can I want it to appear with other team stories, but I don’t want to allow the team members to edit it. Or, you can say I want it to appear with other team stories and I’m gonna allow other team members to edit it. Because we have a draft and edit mode, what happens is that the students can write their stories in edit mode and then they can submit them to the teacher and when the teacher says that they’re good enough, then the teacher can say, “Okay, publish that one, publish that one, publish that one.” It’s just click, click, click, click, click and they get published.

    Now here’s what’s slick about that. So all of a sudden what you have is you have got a workflow that resembles an existing news room. Right? But what’s slick about that is two things. One, every university in America is part of our geographic database. So let’s say this is at University of California-Berkeley. Let’s say they assign these stories to the geography of University of California-Berkeley.

    All of a sudden then, you’re looking at collaborative group output of content which is tied to a place. And what’s really slick about it is that they can also put those headlines on their own sites because we give you code you can just cut and paste this code on and anytime that your story’s on CityTools, it gets updated on your own site.

    Why does that matter? Here’s why. What we’re trying to do is we want to help nonprofits and community organizations, parent teacher organizations and stuff like that. None of them have the ability to conveniently and quickly update content on their own websites on a regular basis. Right? So what we’re saying is all you have to do is put this code in and once you start using CityTools, automatically those headlines will go over on your site, styled the way you want them, looking the way you want them.

    But here’s where it gets really cool. So you and I have this organization working on leukemia. And let’s say we have a constituency of 3,000 people out there who have an interest in leukemia. All of a sudden, we can open up a public team that is tied to the organization and we can invite all of our thousands of people to join. So if you’re an activist – imagine if an activist organization, such as anti-war organization, said, “Everybody join this big team,” then you’ve got 1,000 people looking for stories about anti-war stuff every single day. And, by the way, it also shows up on your own website. Suddenly, that gets interesting.

    So we are hoping that what’s gonna happen is we’re gonna start to engage people in the context of their lives – again, getting back to this word, context. Tell me what organizations you belong to and I will help you make life in that organization better.

    OJR: Getting more into this idea of the crowd, tell me more about the kind of collaborative list building technology that you’ve built in here.

    Cauthorn: When I was on the mountain I was walking down a trail and listing things in my head and I said, you know, if I got two other people doing this, I could build a consensus and that was when I went, “Oh sh-t.” What we do is that we allow people to create rank lists and these rank lists can be about anything. By itself, this is not unknown, it just hasn’t been done in this context.

    What we can do is allow you to say, “Okay, here are – here are my five favorite Italian restaurants in all of Los Angeles.” And, by the way, you can adapt that by neighborhood if you want to, and you can do it in Spanish.

    But then what happens is somebody else comes along, because none of us can resist a good list. And they go, “Oh no, Robert’s list was good, but he missed this, this and this and I disagree with the order.” So what they can do is what we call linking lists. When you read the list, if you’re a member, you just click, “I want to link to this list,” and create your own list.

    Now [the lists] are part of a family and what happens behind the scenes is that we do some heavy lifting on text analysis and we look at the item titles and then we say, okay, we then can allow you to create a consensus view of what the best Italian restaurants are by merging them together.

    For example, let’s say there’s a restaurant that you call Paizano and I call it Il Paizano. Our system will recognize that you’re talking about the same place and so Paizano appears on both lists. As you know, consensus building algorithms are not unknown. This is pretty well established, but nobody’s applied them to lists before we believe.

    So all of a sudden what happens [on CityTools] is that then you the reader can say, “Hey, here’s Robert’s list and here’s Bob’s list. I want to see the consensus. Show me the ranked view of what both lists think is the most important.” And that’s cool if it’s two people. It gets really, really interesting if you have 25 people doing it or 100 people doing it and then it get really, really, really interesting if you can bring it up by geography.

    Now imagine if the PTAs in San Francisco all put in their lists of their greatest needs at their school and they link them together. With one click then a reader can say, “Show me what the most serious needs are in the schools.” No one’s every been able to do this before. And we’re allowing people to determine the context in which it’s done, certainly they can say, “Okay show me what are the worst needs in San Francisco.” Oh guess what, you can expand the view to show me the rank list of the needs of schools in the entire Bay Area.

    This gets powerful. I mean that is magic, man. I mean think about what this can mean for a society.

    You start to pull these things together and what you’re looking at is a sandbox for community interaction that hasn’t existed before. Up until now, here’s what we had: You had UGC [user generated content] sites where people can create stuff, or you had shared news sites where they could share news. Okay. That’s fine. We do both. We say, “Look. You go in both modes, because sometimes you want to write stuff. Sometimes you want to read stuff.” Okay. There are a couple of sites out there where you can make lists, but you just write lists down. You can’t tie them together. You can’t link them together. You can’t do this other stuff that we’re doing.

    When I was doing my big backpacking trip and thinking about this stuff, I decided, on a very cold night in the Sierras, to peel back newspapers to their essential core. You know? And part of that essential core has been creating marketplaces.

    But the other part of it is this entire connective tissue argument is the way in which our reporting and the reading of those reports connects individuals to one another.

    That’s what we’re trying to do: to get back to that essential core of allowing people to create these connections between the writer and their audience, between groups of people who are trying to get something done in a community.