Like it or not, hyperlocal is one of the buzzphrases in online news these days, and the site of the moment is EveryBlock.com. Founded two years ago, it was sold last week to MSNBC Interactive. Unlike other sites that provide their own local news, EveryBlock, which operates in 15 U.S. cities, automatically aggregates information from a wide list of municipal sources (e.g. 911 dispatches and land-use records) as well as news sites.
It strives to better answer the question: “What’s happening in my neighborhood?” But does it? In the wake of the sale, I decided to give the site a run-through to see whether I could rely on it as a primary source of news about my neighborhood, Capitol Hill in Seattle. Visitors to EveryBlock are asked to select their city and then to type in their neighborhood or ZIP code. They are then greeted with a long list of updates ostensibly from their neighborhood, grouped in categories, such as locations mentioned in the media, 911 dispatches, restaurant inspections, and even photos uploaded on Flickr. There’s also a spiffy map to visualize where the entries have taken place.
But during my week of testing, I found that EveryBlock had some real gaps. Often the biggest problem was that important information was either not on the site or else was presented incompletely.
For example, a top item on EveryBlock earlier this week was a piece of news pulled from the Seattle Times with the headline, “Civic Leader Frederic Danz Dies at 91.” But the only apparent connection to my neighborhood was that the funeral was taking place at a nearby funeral home.
Meanwhile, news that a nearby bar’s opening had been delayed never even made it onto the site — even though another neighborhood blog had a story about it.
Same situation with the local primary election here last week even after results were broken down by district.
There’s a reason why readers are left with these frustratingly nonexistent or incomplete pieces of information. Presumably, the only reason that Mr. Danz’s death made my page is because EveryBlock scans addresses in news articles to choose the updates it surfaces rather than paying much attention to the events themselves, which, of course, is difficult for any automated system to do.
Similarly, with the nearby bar’s opening, it may not have made the site because the original blog post only mentioned the name of the street and didn’t include an intersection or specific address.
As for the omission of the local election results they may have been too broad for EveryBlock, since a district encompasses several neighborhoods.
Updates from public data sources, meanwhile, are often devoid of context. EveryBlock prominently lists nearby 911 calls—potentially helpful information. But because the entries are dependent on the automated information that the city provides, there are no details on what actually ended up happening at a certain location — and no way to sift through which ones are actually important. An example: “Alarm bell. Engine 25 dispatched at 8:56 am on Aug. 23 at 1728 E. Madison.” Now what?
Other public updates, like recent “land use” changes, mention that a “decision” has, in fact, been made about a building plan but don’t say what that decision was.
In a blog post when it announced the sale to MSNBC Interactive, EveryBlock conceded that it is still a work in progress. It said its “current incarnation is only about 5 percent of what we want to do with it.” And it’s obviously not easy to provide complete neighborhood news without reporters on the ground or even editors sifting through the updates that are automatically generated.
But the bottom line is that in its current state, EveryBlock works better as an add-on — a place I might want to turn to if I’ve already seen the local headlines for my neighborhood. Perhaps that’s why the MSNBC Interactive acquisition is so important, since the company has indicated that it will couple EveryBlock updates with the local sections of MSNBC.com.
Have you used EveryBlock? What do you think?