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Everyblock's Dilemma: How Do You Open Source Your Entire Site and Survive?

This morning Adrian Holovaty announced that he will be open sourcing Everyblock. Everyblock is a site that crawls local data sources, aggregates the data, and then surfaces them geographically. For instance I get an email everyday that alerts me to news, fire department activity, health notices and flickr photos taken within blocks of my house.

Everyblock is available in Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington, DC. The data sources vary from town to town. Here are all of the news sources available for Seattle. Unfortunately, our police department only releases aggregated information so I have to learn about our rising crime via news coverage (as opposed to SF’s law enforcement agency). Wanting a clean map design the Everyblock team also invested the time in building their own maps using OpenLayers (case study) and Mapnik. I’ve embedded Adrian’s keynote from Where 2.0 2008 after the jump.

everyblock map

They’ve also used their data to develop mashups like this NYT sponsored one that shows coverage of elected officials (NYC only unfortunately).

everyblock political trends

Everyblock was funded through a Knight News Challenge Grant and they’ve come crossroads as Adrian explains:

But now we’ve reached an interesting point in our project’s growth: our grant ends on June 30, and, under the terms of our grant, we’re open-sourcing the EveryBlock publishing system so that anybody will be able to take the code to create similar sites. That’s a Good Thing, in that EveryBlock’s philosophies and tools will have the opportunity to spread around the world much faster than we could have done on our own, but it puts the six of us EveryBlockers in an odd spot. How do we sustain our project if our code is free to the world?

What do you think? How can they keep the project alive and perhaps even make it profitable if they are providing development resources to the competition? Personally, I do not think that competition will be a major concern for them. They have mind-share with many people interested in local, civic data.

I think that they should be more focused on revenue and building traffic than potential competition. In fact it seems that they could try to route around competitive sites by getting other people to bring Everyblock to other cities. The team could offer the ability for people to create their own hosted version of Everyblock for their community. Let people do the work for them. This could either be a pay service or an ad split (assuming that Everyblock decides to try advertising and there is revenue to go around).

Here’s Adrian’s keynote from Where 2.0 2008.

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  • http://renanivo.blogspot.com Renan Ivo

    WordPress is a example of success. The project is open source, but worpress.com can sustain the entire project.

  • http://www.memespring.co.uk Richard Pope

    I’m having the same dilemma with StreetWire.org, which is a UK project along the lines of EveryBlock.

    I’ve not been able to get funding from anyone, and can’t afford to keep working on it myself for much longer (I’ve done 6 months with it feeding my credit card).

    I could open source it and maybe get more help, but that might cut of any chances of getting funding later.

  • http://www.arjunram.com Arjun Ram

    If this a question of monetize their product, the best way to go about it is what outside.in is doing with their mobile app on iPhone.

    It is already top #3 paid app!

    http://blog.outside.in/2009/01/29/download-this/

    Mobile & local go hand in hand! Something to think about & explore!

  • http://www.webappwednesday.com Michael R. Bernstein

    It’s an interesting question. I think a large part of the answer is ‘AGPL’, and pursuing a dual-licensing strategy (ala MySQL et al) as well as a turnkey hosting service for the app (ala WordPress.com).

    This assumes that a large number of people would actually be interested in deploying and self-hosting the F/OSS version of their app as-is or with minor tweaks, creating markets for hosting services *and* a market for ‘escaping’ the requirements of the AGPL for their particular app.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    They should franchise – a bit like what Brady is suggesting.

    They have hackers, a news industry relations guy, a government relations guy, etc… they should add one more and become seven. The seventh guy is for “franchisee relations”.

    How can a city or town not already covered get covered? Well, *somehow* that city or town has to figure out how to monetize their site. In some cases, perhaps the local library can conjure up some money for it. In other cases, perhaps neighborhood groups or a local paper. In each local instance, the franchisee will evidently need their own (at least part time) person to work with local gov’t for data and their own (at least part time) person to work with local news resources and their IT. Let’s call that a minimum of 2.5 FTE staff, plus the cost of hosting, plus – I propose – a simple franchise fee to everyblock.com in exchange for use of the brand, software support, assistance in gov’t and news relations, walled-garden community with other cities to share ideas that work, etc.

    Every franchise can monetize itself however it likes and everyblock.com can share hints about what approaches are seen to work but ultimately everyblock.com wouldn’t care where the money comes from so long as they get their fee for the support services.

    Basically, everyblock.com would be working on a fee basis, not a profit-sharing basis, with the franchises who, indeed, would do the localized leg work.

    To do this, everyblock.com would have to do more than just release the code “open source”: they’ve got to lower the barriers to entry for local franchises and sell the idea. To earn their fees they then have to give good IT, political, and logistical support to the franchises. For example, an early step might be to make turn-key EC2 images for hosting at a known, stable, not *too* excessive rate.

    I’m not sure how they estimate the potential growth – how many “instances” they expect or how many staff they expect for each instance. Several thousand instances doesn’t seem unrealistic. Perhaps there’s an equilibrium point where everyblock.com grows to about 15 or so. (That’s just a hand-wavy guess, of course.)

    If they succeeded at getting lots of local franchises going they’d have enormous opportunity to expand services further. For example, everyblock.com central could concentrate on gathering national news and national data that is locally relevant. Such news and data can appear, via syndication through everyblock, on all of the franchisee sites and everyblock.com can provide IT infrastructure for “zooming out” and viewing a local area’s data in relation to a larger picture.

    In keeping with the spirit of the thing, everyblock should not seek monopoly rents here – they should expect and plan on being forked and competed against as the franchise granting org. They should plan for that by putting in place peering agreement offers for potential competing “hubs”.

    Financing a plan such as this is tricky. It’s not the classic 3-year VC equity-based play. There is some VC opportunity during the theoretical growth spurt that happens as they grow from 7 to 15 and then as the 15 grow into a syndication service but the activity of getting the franchises going in the first place doesn’t fit the VC model. Perhaps some angels could offer business loan guarantees, for a fee, in exchange for options for equity during growth periods.

    As a side show, to help absorb spare hours while patiently building the franchise network, perhaps they can solicit grants and/or fees for special projects work with any of the orgs currently working on government transparency issues.

    Finally, one of the beauties of making this “open source” is that, like Linus, they can collect all the good improvements make and integrate those into the “main release”. They should be thinking *early* about how to pay for such contributions upon integration in order to create authentic incentive for people to hack on and improve the system (which already looks quite good). Someone once wrote: “Innovation happens elsewhere.” Someone else is now writing: “And its in scarce supply.” So they should figure that into their plans.

    -t

  • Marcus Booster

    If I’m not mistaken I believe they got a pretty substantial grant to develop this site. Of which the terms were that it be released to the public.
    They may be looking to get creative for future revenue, but they have indeed already been paid.

  • brady forrest

    @Marcus — They were indeed paid to build it thus far, but that money will not be renewed and the company/project needs to find revenue to survive.

  • http://proxthink.com David Loughry

    I’ve developed a new business/growth model Everyblock might be able to adopt or adapt. There are different ways to implement it, and it can complement some other models. I think it could work for sites like Digg and Twitter, as well as some social networks. The link below is an intro.

    http://proxthink.com/brief/intro-growth-model.php

  • http://www.webappwednesday.com Michael R. Bernstein

    Not sure why my comment hasn’t appeared, so I’m reposting (albeit with some minor edits):

    It’s an interesting question. I think a large part of the answer could be ‘AGPL’, and pursuing a dual-licensing strategy (ala MySQL et al) as well as a turnkey hosting service for the app (ala WordPress.com).

    This assumes that a large number of people would actually be interested in deploying and self-hosting the F/OSS version of their app as-is or with minor tweaks, creating markets for hosting and customization services *and* a market for ‘escaping’ the requirements of the AGPL for their particular app.

    In any case, as long as there is some sort of sustainable answer to the question “How do I bring EveryBlock to my city/neighborhood?” I think the business can continue to grow and thrive.

  • http://blog.sanderhoogendoorn.org Sander Hoogendoorn

    I would definitely take a WordPress approach.

    Most people will not want to deploy EveryBlock themselves, although possible, but rather have EveryBlock host their site. This way they profit from new development by the EveryBlock team, so there will still be lots of traffic to profit from (in $).

    As a trade off the team will have to come up with new features from time to time. Possibly a good structure will be to allow people to write localized plugins, and manage these just like WordPress does. Would be great!

  • http://sellingprint.blogpsot.com MichaelJ

    Does anyone have any reaction to the idea that data from EveryBlock could be turned into an appropriately designed PDF and syndicated to Print newspapers to fill their news hole?

    I’m a Print evangelist who loves the tech, but suffers from the “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem.

  • http://www.netlog.gen.tr netlog

    hi Brady Forrest
    It wasn’t long, however, before savvy observers noted what was missing from this and other Obama videos: the chance for ordinary citizens to talk back. The campaign initially disabled the comment function on YouTube and prevented response videos from appearing alongside. A YouTube video without comments, some pundits groused, is more like a monologue than a chat, fireside or not. “I don’t see how one-way messages provide any more transparency for the work of the White House or government than the current old-style radio addresses,” blogged Ellen Miller, director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government-transparency watchdog group. “Is Obama ready,” challenged TechCrunch, “to be a two-way president?”
    netlog
    bayan
    mynet
    thak you Brady Forrest

  • Jeff

    How about selling the service to the cities for use as the official portal into the various city departments/activities? The city could make additional data available and everyblock could organize it and host it out. I know San Jose could sure use this. It is way too difficult to find information on the city site.

  • james corben

    Look at Novell, they have shifted their entore business model and they are actually doing ok as OS.