While 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 or 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.