Microlocal Going Mainstream: EveryBlock and MSNBC, Patch and AOL, and Your Mapper

by yourmapper on August 18, 2009

Four years after the first geographic, microlocal websites appeared, some have started to be acquired by larger companies in the hopes of improving local news and data coverage.  Yesterday, EveryBlock was purchased by MSNBC.com for undisclosed millions of dollars, and in June AOL acquired both Patch for local news and Going for local music for about $10 million each.  Theses sites all gather local information and present it to the public in local-sized chunks, and their acquisitions represent these concepts going mainstream.

EveryBlock Acquired

EveryBlock’s predecessor ChicagoCrime.org was launched in 2005, a few months before Your Mapper‘s predecessor Metro Mapper was launched.  Our sites became possible with the release of the Google Maps API earlier that year, allowing the intuitive display of information on a map down to the street level for the first time.  Adrian Holovaty, founder of ChicagoCrime, moved on to found EveryBlock after winning a million dollar grant from the Knight Foundation.  This helped propel his 5 employee site across 14+ large US cities (including Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle and Washington, D.C.), and released the site’s source code in June as part of the grant rules.  EveryBlock’s acquisition by MSNBC.com is the current culmination of that effort, and shows how important microlocal journalism is becoming.

Washington DC Crime on EveryBlock

Washington DC Crime on EveryBlock

EveryBlock and Your Mapper are both in the microlocal (Please, don’t use hyperlocal anymore, says Holovaty. Besides, the term is trademarked by HelloMetro) space, mapping crime, building permits, restaurant health reviews, property values, and home sales.  There are differences in coverage (EveryBlock focuses on large cities, while Your Mapper covers all city sizes, state-wide areas, and nation-wide data too) and in the content (EveryBlock has news items, while Your Mapper has environmental, safety, sex offender, historic and political data), but the end result is the same: get government data online now in a way local people can use it.

A few major feature differences between our services include Your Mapper’s ability to embed any of the maps in other websites, ratings and comments, a mobile browser version to get at all the data on-the-go, a fully open and robust programming API, and data export services in XML, JSON, KML, and CSV format for use in other places.  This purchase by MSNBC.com might enable EveryBlock to expand their services into some of these essential areas in the future.

Washington DC Crime on Your Mapper

Washington DC Crime on Your Mapper

With the backing of MSNBC.com, EveryBlock should hopefully be able to grow in coverage, content, and features, with its scraped and partnered information showing up on many Microsoft owned sites. This is great news for everyone who wants to see governments embrace open data standards, get their data online, and participate more fully with government agencies in their local communities.

Update: Since this post in the morning, the blogs have lit up with lots of stories about the acquisition.  Some very interesting questions have been raised about if derviative works by MSNBC.com of the open source code of EveryBlock (GPLv3 under the terms of the Knight Foundation grant) will remain public.  The terms of the license state that “…if you distribute any changes, you must make them available under the same open-source license.”

But at least 2 things might prevent that, according to James Vasile at Hacker Visions. 1) The owners have the right to change the license at any time. In this case, the owners are now EveryBlock and/or MSNBC.com.  2) Most importantly “since Everyblock is a web service, MSNBC.com can use it on its own servers and never distribute it at all. GPLv3 only protects access to source code when software is distributed.” If true, that would mean that *anybody* who grabs the source code to use on their own site does not have to publish their changes.  They just can’t package and sell it.  So this effectively takes the teeth out of any sort of effective open-sourced intentions that the Knight Foundation grant intended.  Maybe even Your Mapper will use the screen scraping code to add news and new information to our services.

The folks at Journalism School and Interprete go into detail about this, and suggest the Knight Foundation should keep the copyright themselves, publish under AGPL instead, and/or release the code under a BSD.  And it seems that Knight might make some changes in the future and learn from this experience.  For now, this means that likely any improvements to the code will, unfortunately, stay private.

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