Adrian Holovaty is Changing How Local News is Covered

May 25, 2009

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As part of Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham, we're profiling local visionaries with an eye on our region's future. Adrian Holovaty is both computer programmer and journalist—a combination that's still rare. But his ability to turn data sets into the news happening on a given city block has won him accolades. It's also challenging our ideas about what local news can be.

Related: Holovaty's side project

ambi of street…voices cars

East Lakeview is a pretty typical neighborhood on Chicago's North Side. Along the main drag there's a mix of businesses - ice cream parlor, chain pharmacy, local dry cleaner's. There are condos and apartments and a steady stream of cars, buses and pedestrians. Nothing unusual, right? Well, let's take a closer look:

ADRIAN HOLOVATY: Want me to walk you through?
CUDDY: Yes!
HOLOVATY: Okay. The way it works is you click ‘use my current location' and it shows you everything that's happening right around where you're standing...

Adrian Holovaty is the founder of EveryBlock.com, a Website that provides local news for Chicago - and ten other cities. He's giving me a tour of the latest version, a free application for the iPhone. Thanks to the powers of GPS in just a few clicks we're able to see the neighborhood at what Holovaty considers the granular or microscopic level – the events that often fly below the radar of other news outlets.

HOLOVATY: There's a bunch of crimes that happened here.
ME: What kind of crimes?
HOLOVATY: Wow there's an armed robbery right on Briar. HOLOVATY: Someone reviewed the new cupcake place that just opened. What else is interesting – I can filter to foreclosures.

On the screen I can see there were six foreclosures filed on one day in April – a little glimpse into how the housing crisis is hitting this area. Tracking foreclosures may sound tedious, but it's precisely by sifting and sorting small pieces of data that EveryBlock is creating such excitement.

The site locates that data, on a given block, within the limits of a particular city, as fast as it becomes available. To Holovaty, any new information in the public realm- not just news stories but internet reviews, public records like crime stats and building per, or personal photographs-is news.

HOLOVATY: The reason I got into journalism is because I like information. I definitely see myself as a technologist in the world of journalism.

An obsessive technologist. EveryBlock works because it has such a density of data. You can explore your neighborhood by street address, zip code or ward. Then you can slice and dice the resulting data feeds almost endlessly.

HOLOVATY: I sort of had this obsessive compulsive wanting to get information and get every bit of something whether it's every building permit from the city or whether it's every basketball card back in the '90s when I was a big bulls fan and was collecting basketball cards. Happy balance in my brain when I get everything of something.

Getting everything is still a struggle. Holovaty and a crew of five work hard with a whole range of civic agencies that are more or less willing - and technologically able – to release their data. Their efforts are creating a lot of buzz.

Ambi crowd

Holovaty's a popular presence on the local news and social media circuit. Today he's talking to a gathering of people at Tribune Tower about online media design.

HOLOVATY: So, how does this all work? We have a very antiquated system...laughter

Multimedia journalist Brad Flora thinks EveryBlock is a whole new approach to journalism.

FLORA: I think they're making assumptions about the intelligence of audience that other news organizations don't do. That it doesn't have to be spelled out. You can let people explore the story in their own way, which is really cool.

Flora thinks Holovaty has already changed journalism. Web designer Jim Coudal sees the potential, but…

JIM COUDAL: I would say and maybe this is heresy but I would say the idea of EveryBlock has had much more impact than EveryBlock has.

Increasing their impact is the next step for EveryBlock. Holovaty will open source Everyblock's publishing code soon. And he's exploring how to allow users to add content to the sites.

He's also figuring out how to make EveryBlock a viable business. And like any journalist, he's got a big deadline. The grant money he's relied on to get this far runs out at the end of June.