So it's an exciting time around here at SBJ headquarters. Last week I launched Ghost Map, and today I'm launching the first major web site I've helped produce since Plastic and FEED. It's called outside.in, and I've been building it in stealth for the past five months, supported originally by my friends Andy Karsch and Mark Bailey, and then collaborating on the idea itself with the wonderful John Geraci, who has designed a number of influential location-based sites. Once John and I had the idea together, we found a brilliant lead developer, Cory Forsyth, who made the whole thing possible... Just recently, we've brought the legendary John Seely Brown in as a founding parter and adviser.
So what is outside.in? In a phrase, it's an attempt to collectively build the geographic Web, neighborhood by neighborhood. I wrote up a mini-essay describing the original inspiration for the site, and explaining some of our core principles, which I've included below. But you can also just go visit the site and explore...
For the handful of us who have been building outside.in over the past six months, the site is ultimately about a new kind of experience. You sit at a computer and type in a street address, or a neighborhood name, or a zip code -- perhaps for your own home area, perhaps for a place you're visiting or interested in -- and within seconds the screen gives you a glimpse of all the textured, real-world issues and conversations and news unfolding in the location you've entered. Not just restaurant reviews or upcoming concerts, but the broad, bustling range of information flowing through a lively neighborhood: complaints about the local school; rumors of a new bar opening up next week; a crime report for a mugging the night before; a promising open house this weekend. Up to now, only the most connected local experts in any neighborhood could keep up with all these evolving conversations. outside.in is designed to let you see it all in seconds.
We set out to create this experience for one overarching reason: to date, online neighborhood information has been a divided space. On the one hand, there is a great surplus of data out there: the hyperlocal bloggers, review sites like Yelp and Judysbook, city government sites, and traditional media. The problem is: there's no single place that unites all those different voices, that grounds them all in specific locations. With help from you -- suggesting and tagging neighborhood data, and suggesting ways that we can better organize the web geographically -- we think outside.in can help unify the divided space of hyperlocal content. And in doing so, hopefully we can make our neighborhoods even more interesting places than they already are.
To that end, our design has followed a few core principles:
1. The natives know best. Part of our inspiration at outside.in was the amazing rise of hyperlocal bloggers -- sometimes called placebloggers -- writing about their own communities. (Brooklyn, where we all happen to live, may well be the placeblogger capital of the world.) And so we've seeded outside.in with a list of about 500 placebloggers from the top 25 metro areas in the US.
2. The post's location is more important than the blogger's location. People have been creating maps of blogger locations for years now. (The NYC subway blogger map is one of our favorites.) But from our perspective, we're less interested in the location of the blogger than we are the location of what the blogger is writing about. So in our system, each item (a blogger post, or a link submitted by a user) can be associated with its own specific point in space.
3. Neighborhoods are more important that maps. We love the neo-geo movement as much as anyone, and continue to marvel at the amazing work being done with Google map mash-ups. But maps can often overwhelm with too much specificity. Most of the time when you're thinking about local issues, you don't actually need specific geo-coordinates or street addresses. You just want to know roughly what's happening around you. That's why we've made the navigational unit for outside.in the neighborhood. And if the neighborhood is too specific, you can always zoom out on the navigational map and see a broader view.
4. Geo-tags are only the beginning. Neighborhood content needs to be location-aware for it to be useful, but that can't be the whole story. It's just as important to know when something is happening, as it is to know where it's happening. So we've creating a simple tagging architecture for all our posts: what/where/when. This lets you create powerful filters for viewing all of outside.in's data: you can see recent crime reports within two miles of your neighborhood, real estate openings in your zip code coming up this weekend, poetry readings city-wide.
5. Local news often has a long-shelf life. One thing both blogs and traditional newspapers share is that they are organized around time, with the latest news given priority. But a lot of neighborhood information is news that stays news: a parent's comment about the science program at a local school is just as relevant six months after it was posted; a guide to gay-friendly bars could be useful for years. That's why outside.in is designed not just as a "latest headlines" service; it's also an evolving neighborhood encyclopedia, capturing all the things that have been said about specific places. Click on the tag for, say, Atlantic Yards (a controversial development here in Brooklyn) and you can track the whole history of the debate over the project, not just the latest buzz.
Those are our principles. No doubt there are ways that the site could be improved to better live up to them, and no doubt there are other principles out there we should be following as well. So take some time, explore your outside.in neighborhood -- and let us know what you discover.