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Hyper-Local News Opens Up
Posted On June 24, 2010

Are you tired of reading the same old Associated Press reports in your local newspaper? Not interested in online news from half a world away or celebrity gossip? OpenPlans and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are teaming up to solve just that problem, through a new project called OpenBlock.

The story begins, though, with, a $1 million experiment in online journalism, funded by the Knight Foundation that offers geographically relevant news feeds. The site aggregates news feeds on public records, news articles, and other web content for every block in 16 cities and makes the news available through a simple ZIP code search on its site. These field tests proved that hyper-local civic data can be successfully aggregated by attracting hundreds of thousands of citizens wanting to better understand their neighborhoods by seeing everything from crime reports to restaurant inspections on easy-to-read maps. When the Knight funding ran out last year, open sourced its code and was promptly bought by MSNBC.

Enter OpenPlans, a New York-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit with a team of 60 software engineers, designers, analysts, educators, and journalists that was founded in 1999. The company's open source projects are designed to eventually pay for the cost of their development through product and consulting services. Now, through three interrelated Knight-funded projects, OpenPlans is, according to Nick Grossman, the company's director of civic works, aiming to "take the source code, and make it better and easier to use, so that other online news organizations can build similar sites in their towns." They are calling the new tool OpenBlock.

Specifically, OpenPlans is getting a $235,000 grant over 2 years to streamline and extend the code base and build a community of open source software developers and newspapers who can use and improve the software. Building that community will begin with two other Knight-funded projects.

A $90,500 contract will be issued to install and test OpenBlock at The Columbia Daily Tribune and to add new features in the context of a smaller newspaper. In this case, OpenPlans will help build a website similar to in the context of the much smaller Columbia community. "The data and news feeds we'll be able to present on the web with OpenBlock will be of enormous benefit to our readers. This is something we've wanted to do for a long time," says Andy Waters, vice president for interactive media at The Columbia Daily Tribune. "Now we'll have the tools available to follow through."

At The Boston Globe there will be a $133,125 contract to install and test the project, and to add new features in the context of a larger newspaper. "Our digital audience increasingly expects more precise and very local news and information from us," says Bob Kempf, vice president, digital at The Boston Globe. "Our participation in the OpenBlock project supports our mission to provide essential local news and information to our users in a sustainable way." The Globe, however already has its own hyper-local news project called Your Town, and will simply use parts of the code to install targeted widgets on its existing pages.

"We funded these projects because they are new models for bringing news and information to communities in the digital age," says Jose Zamora, program associate in the foundation's journalism program. "They are new models to meeting the information needs of communities in a democracy. We believe that citizens with digital tools have a political, social and economic advantage; we are trying to bring those tools to everyone and to lower the barriers to using them."

Much of the leg work has already been done. Not only did EveryBlock generate the source code, they went out to cities across the country and convinced the town halls, police departments, building officials, and more to make the information available. "They forged these relationships and helped explain why this was relevant and interesting," says Grossman.

Knight Foundation's media innovation projects have so far resulted in new tools being used by hundreds of news organizations and more than 200 community news experiments in the U.S. and abroad. A series of contests, including the Knight News Challenge and the Knight Community Information Challenge, are providing many of the new ideas driving this work. Zamora says, "We don't think we can change the media landscape, but we think we can help citizens and media organizations innovate and find the best and most interesting models to sustain good quality local news. We have supported the most promising models with the goal of finding the best way to provide quality news and information to local communities."

"The economy and the state of the media industry have led to less local coverage. At Knight Foundation we believe that in a democracy, information is a core community need. Local communities need to be places where the information meets peoples' personal and civic information needs," says Zamora. "This means people have the news and information they need to have the best possible quality of life, to participate fully in their local community life, to hold their governments accountable and to be heard, that is to be able to participate in the decision making process."

It will be roughly 9 months before either the Boston or Columbia projects are up and running. In the meantime, OpenPlans will be working to achieve its ultimate goal of, as Grossman says, "creating a suite of open city software."

Theresa Cramer is editor, EContent and Intranets.

Email Theresa Cramer

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