Messing about with local information

Over the last two years I’ve spent more time in than is healthy mulling over how to bring local information together effectively. I’ve tracked the adventures of outside.in and Everyblock, I’ve agonised over postcode data, I’ve mourned for the dreams that nearly made UpMyStreet the finest website in the world, I’ve installed WordPress half-a-dozen times with 20 or more different plug-ins to pull in feeds from different places, and I’ve wandered the halls of Yahoo! Pipes like I’ve wandered the streets of Los Angeles – with an overwhelming feeling that a party was going on somewhere to which I wasn’t invited.

All this thoughtfulness hasn’t added up to anything at all worthwhile, but has yielded the following thoughts:

  • Wonderful as they are, there’s something rather unnourishing about outside.in and Everyblock. And I think that’s because they’re just not very good at tracking emerging narratives, which is something local newspapers do rather well. Narratives are where aggregation fails, I reckon.
  • There just aren’t enough UK bloggers with local viewpoints to create a rich aggregated experience. Don’t know why that should be, but there just aren’t. There’s maybe two dozen really good local blogs in South East London. There’s probably that many in four blocks in Brooklyn. Americans talk more, work harder and are just more intense.
  • There’s something a bit sleazy about “direct aggregation” – by which I mean pulling in a blogger’s full-text feed into your site, and then slapping some ads on it. I think we need to be honest about that. So any aggregation which isn’t sleazy involves some kind of quid pro quo. And that’s hard for an aggregation start-up to provide. What I’m saying is that this stuff done ethically and well does….not…..scale.

But set against that is my continuing conviction that this stuff is important and will, at some point down the road, become very, very big indeed. Someone somehow is going to find a way of combining the power of dozens and hundreds of passionate local bloggers and publishing their narratives in ways which are compelling and sustainable.

Until that day, I’m going to continue experimenting. And in that spirit, I’ve hooked up with ex-colleague Dave Cross who’s written some nice feed aggregation code in Perl and packaged it up into the concept of “planets” (read up on this here). After a high-level strategy summit (ie, a pint in Clapham on Monday night), he’s let me use his system to launch planets for Herne Hill, Dulwich and Tulse Hill/West Norwood. These simple little sites are simply reflecting local conversations at the moment, which is fine as far as it goes. So now to see how far it goes.

Next steps: hook up with local bloggers and see if we can get their content in there, play around with ways of distributing this concept, and continue to mess with Twitter. It’s not a grandstanding strategy or anything. Fred Wilson need not apply. But it’s a bit of fun nonetheless.

15 thoughts on “Messing about with local information

  1. One awkward thing about aggregating local blogs is that bloggers don’t necessarily talk about where they live. It would be interesting to know there’s a guy round the corner who writes passionately about dogs (or whatever) every day, but there’s not much local value in me reading it all the time unless it happens to be about local dogs.

    On the other hand there are lots of local things that aren’t blogs. Where I live there’s an active forum which is a great way to keep up with what’s happening here and nearby. I’ve considered starting a blog about the area but can’t see what value would be added (for someone like me) above the discussion forum. (I guess http://www.groupsnearyou.com/ is trying to list this kind of local thing.) But it’s hard to summarise or aggregate a forum.

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    1. Totally agree, Phil. And maybe that’s an important point: there isn’t any benefit in turning “local conversations” into “media.” With one proviso, I think. I still see a great many unWebby people (ie, the great majority) who find themselves gripped, almost instantaneously, by media about their local area. They get used to the local paper, if it’s crap, and begin to ignore it, but any other media, particularly print and broadcast, grabs them. The local park on the TV news. A house on the street in the sales ads of the local free glossy. A planning application notice. These serendipitous things aren’t captured by forums necessarily, and there’s something about their “medianess” that seems to arrest attention.

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    1. Thanks Jeremy. Haven’t got an invite to the belocal private beta. But (if I may be so bold) anything that needs a private beta may already be too complex….

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  2. @Phil Gyford

    Phil, you’re absolutely right. My original local planet (Planet Balham – http://planetbalham.org.uk/) includes both bloggers who I know live in SW12 and feeds of “things” that mention Balham – searches on Twitter, Technorati, Flickr, Google News, etc. In my opinion, it’s that second set of feeds that are often the most interesting to local people.

    I’m always looking for other ways to bring in interesting local feeds. My Society do a number of interesting things that I’m planning on adding (FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou, for example). There are also local organisations, some of whom are clued-up enough to produce web feeds. For example, Wandsworth Council have a feed of press releases.

    So there’s plenty of stuff out there. And, paradoxically, it’s the bloggers who just happen to live in the area who may be producing the least interesting feeds.

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  3. Jack Mottram’s Glasgow Now page does a nice job of staying on topic by virtue of being incredibly simple.

    http://www.submitresponse.co.uk/glasgow-now/

    All it does is display a Flickr feed and del.icio.us feed for things tagged with ‘glasgow’.

    There’s something about the slightly larger scale of a city name, rather than a street or postcode, that makes this work.

    I think that what’s going to be required to make rolling news/updates/interestingness feeds work at a hyperlocal level is curation. I think the human editorial touch is going to be vital.

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  4. Tony Blow RT…

    ‘I think that what’s going to be required to make rolling news/updates/interestingness feeds work at a hyperlocal level is curation. I think the human editorial touch is going to be vital…

    EveryBlock has always need a cherry on top, IMHO, ie a part-time news ‘curator’ or, indeed, data interpreter… people don’t do data, they do people…

    http://outwithabang.rickwaghorn.co.uk/?p=264

    How we pay for said cherry on top is the next question; and it won’t be out of anyone Google AdSense returns… you need a DIY, self-service hyper-local ad system for SE24 and beyond, Lloyd…

    Mmm… 😉

    See you @JEECamp.

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  5. Hi I live in Dorset and I find a lot of stuff is or seems to be happening
    in America. I buy my local paper a couple of times a week. We have a good weekend supplement with the Bournemouth and Poole Echo. As we live in a holiday resort the beaches and surfers feature a lot in the news! We have a new college course at Bournemouth for surfers would you believe?
    We are lucky to live here as it is a nice friendly place and safe!
    I belong to a nice church and sing in the choir, recently we all went
    to Salisbury cathedral to sing with hundreds of other choirs! bye
    Maxine

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  6. Hi I would like to write about the local area as regards political agendas
    housing and the local area has a litter problem also some anti-social
    behaviour recently we have had smashed shop windows and also youths
    throwing stones near people’s property. Its a shame as we have good
    shopping facilities a nice pub and restaurants. There is also a lot of
    charity shops that are extremely good. I’m afraid here in Poole the class
    system is thriving! We live in Parkstone and have a post code lottery
    even within a small boundary ie Upper Parkstone and Lower Parkstone.

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