The Instant Pain of EveryBlock’s Demise

8 02 2013

The abrupt death of Everyblock caused almost a sense of panic on the internet, particularly among the new media class, and for a good reason. Everyblock was a brilliant concept that instantly became an invaluable tool for people curious about their communities; and not just the internet savvy, but anybody with internet access and the facility to do a Google search. In Chicago the sudden shuttering may have been felt a little more deeply; Everyblock was one of the gems of Chicago’s new media/open data start-up community.

Outside of that parochialism, Everyblock was unique because its principals recognized one of the impossible contradictions of contemporary media: the World is at our fingertips, with the exception of our particular neighborhood. It smacks of the old poem by G.K. Chesterton, which pointed out the tension between lofty ideals and the material necessity and hard work of living in the real world:

This compromise has long been known,
This scheme of partial pardons,
In ethical societies
And small suburban gardens–

The villas and the chapels where
I learned with little labour
The way to love my fellow-man
And hate my next-door neighbour.

“Hyperlocal” reporting is hard; because each individual piece of information, considered on its own, is valuable to so small a subset of the population, the labor-time necessary to discover and communicate that piece of information has a low market value. So there aren’t many options for efficiently communicating hyperlocal information: mechanically, (i.e., through a process that doesn’t require human effort in each instance), voluntarily (i.e., through unpaid labor), or appropriately scaled (i.e., a very small number of people unearthing and communicating huge amounts of information across many hyperlocal communities). Everyblock seemed to have solved this problem, at least provisionally, by working with local governments to make a baseline set of data–for example, criminal reports–mechanically available, thus drawing visitors and users, who would in turn voluntarily contribute information about neighborhood events and goings-on, gossip, and establishment reviews.

Thus drawn into the site, communities sprang up for various purposes. Information about particular neighborhoods were easily available to people curious about the community they lived in, wanted to move to, were studying, or were governing. It was, in other words, invaluable.

But it was also, apparently, unprofitable, at least according to NBC executive Vivian Schiller (and assuming the phrase “wasn’t a strategic fit with our growth model” means “not profitable.”) Everyblock co-founder Adrian Holovaty had a pithy reaction to this appraisal on Twitter:

and Daniel X. O’Neill offered this characteristically tough and optimistic reaction:

We won the open data movement. Now we have to win the municipal products movement. There is so much more work to do. Most of this data sits on digital shelves, waiting for people to make businesses and serve residents of cities. We still struggle to find ways to make popular products out of this stuff. Last Friday Smart Chicago launched a project devoted to engaging with Chicago residents to test out new civic apps. Let’s keep working. We’re not done yet.

One thing we know for certain: if Everyblock was making NBC-Universal money, it would still exist. This gets to the challenge hyperlocal reporting, and the “open data movement” to which such reporting is inextricably tied, faces. So long as the open data/transparency “movement” rests on entrepreneurial models, it will not be a movement, as much as it will be a profit opportunity, and as a profit opportunity, its transformative power as a movement will face important limitations.

As Dan Sinker, who heads the Knight Foundation’s Open News partnership with Mozilla, discusses in this piece, Everyblock tore down walls of opacity that have changed attitudes towards openness of data. But that communities have lost a resource as precious as Everyblock because of a lack of profitability to a megacorporation is a lesson the Open Data Movement needs to take very seriously: palatability to underwriters is not your model. Movements that empower the powerless rarely do so by partnering with the powerful.

Tom Grubisch of StreetFight argues that Everyblock couldn’t figure out how to transform information into knowledge, a process otherwise known as synthesis, which requires human beings. But so long as the value of that information is determined by a market, the very nature of hyperlocal information and knowledge will keep that value too low. It will likely never be commensurate with the labor-time value necessary to transform information into knowledge.

The entrepreneurial model may therefore be inherently deficient for the open data movement; or at least, for the open data movement considered as a discrete movement. There is already great nascent tradition, particularly in Chicago, of bringing coders together to voluntarily develop civic applications to make information available. But this is still essentially an elite project; data needs to be synthesized into something with utility–knowledge–and that utility is best determined not by elites at foundations or media corporations, but by the citizenry. Not consumers, but citizens.

Citizens will contribute the labor-time necessary to transform local data into useful knowledge, identifying patterns, reaching conclusions and inferences, and acting on data to change material conditions, if they are meaningfully connected to the unearthing and distribution of data and information. That wedding of opening data to mass movements may be an alternative to the entrepreneurial models currently favored, perhaps only by default, by the open data movement.

Whatever the future of hyperlocal reporting and the open data movement, the creation, distribution, and ultimate untimely demise of Everyblock will be a guidepost. Undoubtedly, advocates of the civic religion of participatory democracy owe Everyblock and its founders recognition, if not gratitude.


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