Adrian Holovaty is the co-creator of the popular open source web development framework Django. He's also the founder of EveryBlock, the five-year-old network of hyperlocal news sites that was acquired by MSNBC (and is therefore now owned by MSNBC's acquirer NBC). EveryBlock was founded in 2007 with a $1.1 million grant from the Knight Foundation, which funds journalism projects. Holovaty and his team received accolades for a clever site that plundered public data to create neighborhood-by-neighborhood news feeds. Holovaty also became a champion for open data, as EveryBlock lobbied local governments to make information available online. He was also one of the first well-known entrepreneurs to reject Google Maps in favor of custom-built maps. (EveryBlock recently started using OpenStreetMap, however).
Yesterday, he announced he was leaving EveryBlock because he was ready to create something new. He caught up with The Verge on his way out to reflect on his time with EveryBlock. He is on Twitter here and his blog is here.
EveryBlock had a lot of attention when it first started. How did you deal with that? Did that hype fade over time?
Yeah, we got a lot of attention from journalism wonks, given our Knight Foundation funding and my background working at news companies. I tried to make the most of it, but for a site that serves a limited number of cities, that kind of industry attention is helpful only to a point. If EveryBlock were a product sold to journalists, the buzz we got would've been fantastic, but it's a product for city residents who may or may not care about the Future Of News.
The hype definitely faded over time, but that's to be expected. No biggie. These days, orders of magnitude more people use EveryBlock than when we were darlings of the media industry. At the end of the day, that's what matters.
"These days, orders of magnitude more people use EveryBlock than when we were darlings of the media industry."
How has EveryBlock changed since the initial vision? The site is more about user-submitted content now than about aggregating data. What's the balance there now?
Yes, the original vision was "a news feed for your block," where we focused on a read-only view of everything happening around your neighborhood / block. We changed that in March 2011, when we made conversations a much more prominent of the site.
The balance depends on the city (or even neighborhood) you're in. In our most highly developed neighborhoods, it's mostly conversation, with tons of comments. In our less developed neighborhoods, it's still mostly news-feed-y. One nice thing about our model is that we have an elegant solution to the chicken-and-egg problem of neighborhood discussion: if nobody's in your neighborhood, that's OK, hopefully you can still find value in the news that we automatically gather.
How do you explain the current EveryBlock to someone for the first time?
From the simple explanation down to details...
It's all the news and talk for your neighborhood. Serving 16 cities.
You create an account, follow a few places (your home block, your neighborhood, etc.), and we update you with news and discussion around your followed places. Most people get our daily email digest.
What kind of news do you see? Anything we can find that's (a) geographically relevant, (b) recent and (c) would be interesting to people living nearby. That includes public records (crimes, restaurant inspections), fun from around the Web (recent Flickr photos, Yelp reviews), and media mentions (we index thousands of newspapers/blogs to notify you when a place in your neighborhood is in the news).
"It's a neighborhood-specific discussion forum."
Beyond the news feed aspect, it's a neighborhood-specific discussion forum, where you and your neighbors can talk about anything from "What was that noise last night?" to "How safe is this neighborhood?" to "Why don't we all get together and clean up the park?" These days, that discussion aspect has far-and-away eclipsed the news feed aspect in our most-developed neighborhoods, which are mostly in Chicago.
The big picture: EveryBlock is a great way to connect with your community, get "in the know," and maybe even effect positive change in the real world.
It's kind of awesome, nothing like it had ever been attempted, and it's still better than any of the modern-day neighborhood news/discussion startups.
EveryBlock got a lot of kudos for using custom-built maps; recently, it switched to a map provider. What advice would you have for entrepreneurs starting out today and considering building their own maps?
"I've generally become more pragmatic."
I've generally become more pragmatic. It doesn't make sense for a small startup to spend a ton of resources developing its own maps, unless they're somehow fundamental to the business. At the same time, there's value in NOT looking like every other Google Maps mashup. Services like MapBox strike a nice balance between cost (time + money) and visual differentiation.
How long do you think or hope EveryBlock will be around?
For a long, long time. The msnbc.com folks are taking the long view on it, and it's growing steadily. Over the years, msnbc.com has treated EveryBlock really well, giving us room to experiment, advising us when we needed help, being very patient. That's one big reason I'm bullish about its future.
Like I said in my blog post, EveryBlock has become a force. It's not sexy TechCrunch material, it's not what the Cool Kids like to talk about on Hacker News, but it's making a difference for real people in real neighborhoods. That's what matters.
Do you see yourself doing something journalism or news-related next?
Eh, not necessarily. I want to tackle an interesting technical challenge, be it in news or something completely different. I recently took the Coursera Machine Learning class and LOVED it, so I'd love to find a way to use those new skills.
Generally I'm interested in making structure from chaos and making the world a better place. I will NOT be starting a photo-sharing site.
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