Coral reefs for local information

Every so often, I have one of those runs where I listen to a super inspirational podcast and come back with more ideas than I have the time to write them down. Tonight was one of those nights.

Dave Winer and Jay Rosen in the 12th edition of Rebooting the News explore a concept Dave refers to as a “coral reef” for local information. The importance of a coral reef in the sea is that it is a habitat for many other species to prosper. His argument for starting In Berkeley, what he thinks is the first local blog for Berkley, is that it might provide a coral reef for a lot of tremendous local data to grow from. Given the right formats for information storage, it can become a repository for community knowledge that everyone within the community can both contribute to and benefit from. What got me thinking, though, was what these formats might be.

The obvious one is the article slash blog post. There really isn’t any distinction. The blog post is the big bucket in which you can drop any sort of community data. The unfortunate thing about the generic blog post, however, is that the data you put in the post generally isn’t structured in such a way that the aggregate of the posts offer value too. If I report on a crime, lost dog, or house for sale with a given location, a given time, and other common values, the information is presented to me as readable, but not enhanced.

A local blog as a coral reef, or many different types of data sets for information to hangout around, would offer a vibrant, growing, and evolving habitat for a community’s collective knowledge. For instance, an article about rent prices going up, something I used to be concerned about as a student, would be closely related to a database of community-contributed rent rates. This information would be a part of a larger, community-created housing data set that included rating of landlords, whether utilities were included or not, etc. The rental rates mashed with location, however, could generate a interactive heat map that offers timeless value.

I think the key point I’d like to make, however, is that the data shouldn’t get lost within its framework. In a blog post, there’s much information that, if presented in a hybrid structured/readable format, could be be useful as an aggregate as well. Projects like OpenCalais do this by taking a brute force approach to deriving data and relationships from unstructured, block text. Posts could be published as semi-structured information however, in a manner I’ll write about when the idea is better fleshed out.

Building off this coral reef concept, Dave and Jay started talking about the virtual assignment desk for the NY Times hyperlocal blogging experiments. It’s a blog post and an email address right now, nothing better than what could’ve been done, had newspapers been this forward-thinking, with GeoCities in the 90’s.

We’ve started a project called Edit Flow [PDF because the wiki is currently down] under the CoPress umbrella that might create a nice intersection between the coral reef of information and distributed assignment desk. The goal the project is to enhance the editorial workflow capabilities of WordPress in five stages: custom post statuses, meta data for posts, workflows and user groups, a pitch system, and then windows for visualizing the aggregate of the information. Each stage provides a nice foundation for the next. The pitch system is how you’d enter all of the information, or assignments, into the system, and it would be just as easy to build a public interface to that data as it would a private one. In fact, easier because you’d be free of the WordPress admin. It’s a coral reef because it’s a whole bunch of editorial hooks you can hang information from, and it’s an assignment desk because, well, that’s exactly what we intend to build.

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