Local Data vs. Information

matrix2.jpgWhile discussing EveryBlock with a colleague, he said that he was somewhat less than enamored with the site (and some others like it) because it really just provides data. He said that he doesn’t simply want data, but he wants to know what it means and why he should care. By way of a related example, he pointed to Consumer Reports which certainly gives its subscribers data, but through its rating system it also tells them what it means and why they should care. Consumer Reports, of course, is one of the few web sites that can charge for consumer content.

Consumer Reports is a nice success story for paid content, but it also has some pretty unique content. A lot of time and effort and money is put into creating objective ratings of products, ratings which can’t be replicated through simple consumer reviews. Interestingly, objectivity is a trait CR shares with news companies. While both claim to be objective, however, CR’s objectivity ends once the analysis is done. The value is created because CR takes a stand on the products it reviews. News companies, on the other hand, try to maintain their objectivity throughout all of their reporting. Could it be that value would be added if they more frequently took positions on subjects they cover? The popularity of blogs, talk radio, and certain newspapers and cable networks with points of view suggest some movement in that direction.

Perhaps more important, though, is that Consumer Reports’ content is actionable. A consumer typically reads a review orcrratings-sample.gif checks ratings when she is ready to buy, and CR’s reviews and ratings help prepare her to act. So much of what we find on the web is nice to know, interesting, and makes me feel smart and part of my community, but ends there. CR data helps me save money, make the best purchase decision, or keeps me from making a mistake. For that, people pay.

So, back to EveryBlock data. EveryBlock data is not particularly actionable, even though it may have some information I’d like to take into account when, say, buying a house. I certainly agree that this data would be more valuable if I was provided with some context and helped to understand what it tells me, but I still do find some of it useful. Take, for example, zoning agenda items or liquor license status changes. I suppose if I were renting an apartment and not particularly invested in my neighborhood, I wouldn’t be too interested in that data. If, on the other hand, I owned a home and planned to stay there for a while, I’d really be interested in that stuff. In fact, when I used to receive township newsletters, I turned first to zoning changes and then development plans. And I’d surely want to know if a business near my home was applying for a liquor license. Ultimately, the value of this data depends on your own personal circumstances.

As for the complaint that EveryBlock kind of sites simply give you data without analysis or meaning, I’d argue that that’s exactly what users could provide. Just as open source code applications can be enhanced through community trouble shooting and development, so can this kind of neighborhood data be enhanced through community analysis. The user who notices that an increase in a neighborhood’s liquor licenses coincides with an increase in DUIs and crime can do his own analysis to highlight what he sees as a cause and effect. If the data is out there with more eyes looking it over, more relationships and other information are likely to be found. Yes, good journalism can provide this kind of analysis and add lots of value to a local site, but good journalism can’t be everywhere and putting the data out there for the entire community to see doesn’t preclude analysis by news organizations. It just might, however, allow a user to unearth some important information on his own. In this world, value comes from supplying data, providing a platform for users to comment and analyze, and from journalists learning from and following up on what users unearth.

3 thoughts on “Local Data vs. Information

  1. I have a question for your friend who’s less enamored with EveryBlock because “it really just provides data”: given the choice, would he rather have data, or no data at all? Does he realize what an accomplishment it is just to make the data public in the first place, given that much of EveryBlock’s public-record data has never seen the light of day (or at least seen usable interfaces)? Or would he rather the data stayed buried in the depths of government?

    It’s like winning a shopping spree and complaining that the store doesn’t carry anything you like.

    I should also mention our site isn’t even a week old, and we’ve got much more up our sleeves in the areas of analysis, trending and context. 🙂

    Thanks for the writeup —
    Adrian @ EveryBlock

  2. Adrian,

    I am the colleague Mark is referring to in this post. And I think there is a misunderstanding about what is being discussed here.

    You appear to be approaching this with a great familiarity with the back end efforts. From a technical or programmatic effort EveryBlock is praiseworthy. From an information delivery stand point it is praiseworthy. And for what its worth, whether it is journalism or not isn’t entering the discussion for me at this point. And no one suggested the data shouldn’t have been culled from the bowels of government.

    I am approaching things from the front end. What Mark and I have been discussing is the market value of data. And how data driven apps generated from journalistic efforts may have more usefullness and opportunity if not always or solely put into the context of journalism but of product development. Or if they even should be. So I am entering the discussion and thinking or theorizing at this point.

    It is certainly a valid assessment that some data has more value to a larger audience than others. And this is where Mark and I have been discussing things. It certainly is where many people in the newspaper industry are discussing things. Not only from a revenue stand point, but from a journalistic stand point.

    Keller at NYT said once, we have to balance giving our readers vegetables with the dessert. Which is to say, we need to be recorders of history and write about the unsexy things of life like urban planning policy issues, but we can also do the sexy things that people are water-cooling about — American Idol or the death of Heath Ledger. And then how do we do this take make enough money that we can continue to do it. And databasing is included in this discussion.

    Now specifically about EveryBlock. Its is a good information foundation to start from. It provides raw data. It would either be up to me as a general user to find patterns in that data or relationships from one data set to another or it would have to be done by someone else using your data. There is certainly more opportunity that will be explored by you and others with this data or site.

    But to be totally transparent, EveryBlock has some interestings things in it, but it doesn’t interest me on the whole. I’ll choose other sites to fill my information needs before I choose this one…for now. 🙂
    And by the way, if I enter a drawing for a shopping spree I certainly am pulling for Home Dept over Linens n Things.

  3. Last year Time called “you” the person of the year….showed a glossy mirror image as if you were looking into your computer screen. The future is satisfying user needs, not necessarily the technical “everest” that was achieved. I didn’t really get it. It doesn’t seem to be scalable (in its current version). It’s not user generated, it doesn’t yet distribute, have affiliate links, there are no areas for people to comment, vote, rank, etc. And these are just the regular ideas…being done already by others. To be honest Adrian, I think you went out a bit early, big plans or not. I love the concept….I know what you did to aggregate was very difficult. I’d suggest creating a searchable API do get your data distributed and brand established, no doubt these items are up your sleeves. Good luck.

    Keep going…I’ll keep an eye on things.

    –David

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