Open source brings new meaning to user-generated content

A project supported by the Knight Foundation could spark a revolution in local journalism - not only in content, but also in community involvement.

With almost half a million dollars, an open source project hopes to revolutionize local journalism.

The three grants announced today by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation combine to total $458,625 and represent the next stage in a previous project funded by the foundation.

The new project, the OpenBlock Initiative is based on the open source code from EveryBlock.com, which covers 16 cities at this point (some sites are still in beta). EveryBlock aggregates public records and news articles on such a hyper-local level that you can type in your address and find out how your local restaurant fared in its latest inspection and what crimes have occurred on your street - as well as what your elected representatives are up to and how long it will take to repave the next street over.

OpenBlock is the open source software powering the project and is being developed by the nonprofit group OpenPlans. They're partnering with The Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri and The Boston Globe on two separate, but similar, projects.

The site at the Tribune will stand on its own as a hyper-local site powered by the newspaper. At the Globe, the tools offered by OpenBlock will be integrated throughout the newspaper's site via widgets.

The interesting thing about the project being open source is that readers and users of the sites who can code will be able to add to and upgrade the software and also create mashups of data that answer questions that didn't even occur to the original developers or the news organizations.

The grant breakdown:

  • OpenPlans:  a $235,000 grant over two years to streamline and extend the EveryBlock.com code base and build a community of open source software developers and newspapers who can use and improve the software.
  • The Columbia Daily Tribune: a $90,500 contract to install and test at The Tribune and to add new features in the context of a smaller newspaper.
  • The Boston Globe: a $133,125 contract to install and test at The Boston Globe, and to add new features in the context of a larger newspaper.

One of the things I found interesting here was that OpenPlans' primary business isn't journalism, but it's developed some successful hyper-local platforms already, among them GothamSchools.org and StreetsBlog.org - the former of which covers New York City schools exclusively and the latter of which employs the only full-time transportation reporter on Capitol Hill. OpenGeo Suite, a "complete open-source web-mapping suite."

Mark Gorton had a background in technology and business when he founded the nonprofit in 1999; it now employs 60 people and strives to use open records to make bureaucracy transparent. And the company just released

In this era of user-generated content and crowdsourcing, building new, hyperlocal sites and widgets and aggregators using open source software makes tremendous sense. It's another way to involve your audience in your publication, and one that can only benefit everyone on both sides of the equation.

Another nice thing about hyperlocal content is that the same processes that slice and dice the news according to address can also serve up ads appropriate to the location. Mom and pop businesses can find cost-effective online platforms for advertising. If a news organization covers a county of 1 million people and more than 400 square miles, for example, it might not make sense for a restaurant at far eastern reaches of the county to advertise to the entire readership. But serving those ads up according to zip code or even specific blocks? You've just made that cost-effective.

The platform also makes the news organizations extremely useful to tourists as well - a bigger issue in Boston than in Columbia, admittedly - who might want to use local data on crime, street construction or mass transit options to decide which hotel to stay in and what restaurants to frequent.

Again, all the uses for the data can only be imagined at this point - and as more become apparent, technologically capable readers will start building apps and adding to the code to address those uses.

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