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.