Locu opens its local business data trove to devs with API

Locu, a startup born out of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s lab at MIT, has been working hard to create a vast database on local business information, using a combination of a web crawlers and human editors to gather menu, pricing and service data. Now, it’s opening up its data to developers and publishers with a new API that could help power more local search and information sites and apps, providing detailed real-time information that is currently hard to get at.

The move will further pit Locu against SinglePlatform, a New York-company recently bought by Constant Contact that helps businesses get their menu and business information on line. Locu started off helping businesses keep their menus current on various sites online using its MenuPlatform product. SinglePlatform also provides menu information for free on 500,000 storefronts using its free API.

But the larger goal for Locu has been to build a repository of local data that goes beyond menus to all kinds of local information. The idea is to get very detailed information about dishes and services, providing more information on descriptions and options. With that data, an app, for instance, could provide dietary information on a specific dish or could show all the customization options available for a specific product.

Locu, local dataThat requires Locu to make sense of a lot of unstructured data and organize it. To do that, Locu uses web crawlers to find information online and pairs that with machine learning algorithms to help classify and structure the data. But Locu also adds trained crowd-sourced workers to untangle the really difficult data sets and clean them up. It’s this approach that will allow Locu to offer a deeper set of real-time local data and that in turn will help power a lot more interesting apps and services, said Marc Piette, COO and co-founder of Locu.

“Application developers have great tools and cloud-based infrastructure but what they’re missing is data. There’s a lot of that data available online but it’s very hard to reach and extract,” Piette told me.

Locu is still building out its local database and has about half a million points of interest right now with almost that many price listings. Though it began with restaurants, Locu is adding more data on other local services businesses. The API will be free for developers up to a certain limit and then Locu will set up licensing agreements for heavy users.

Locu has raised about $4.6 million to date from General Catalyst Partners, Lowercase Capital, Lightbank and SV Angel. It has about 15 employees between Boston and San Francisco.

It will be interesting to see how developers and publishers take to Locu’s data. There’s a lot of information already available and search engines and local apps have been gathering this data themselves. But if Locu can deliver even more detailed stuff, it would be a nice addition to have for services like Yelp (s yelp), Google (s goog) or Foursquare. They can keep users engaged more by offering additional data without sending them to another service. And it can improve our local search experience by helping people find businesses around them that can fulfill specific needs. Locu’s data can also give rise to new apps and services that want to get creative with more granular information.