Category Archives: HashBrum

Building a hyperlocal website: 5 things hyperlocal can do and be, times 5

I’ve been posting about my experience with the HashBrum project (Parts onetwo and three), a hyperlocal news project, with all the things that were and could have been. But what i haven’t discussed here in detail is why the hyperlocal news websites are so darn important. Are they just a fad? I don’t think so. But although i think they can’t substitute traditional media, they can do things traditional media can’t do, for several reasons, mostly structural and strategic. There is a gap in the local coverage that these websites and their creators can fill, and a need for this type of news.

I asked to Adam Westbrook, Adrian Holovaty, Josh Halliday, Rob Powell and William Perrin for five things hyperlocal websites can do (or do better) that mainstream news websites can’t. It is interesting to see there are a lot of common ideas, and a inherent philosophy and attitude to these projects.


Adrian Holovaty, EveryBlock


EveryBlock, New York edition

Adrian Holovaty is the mind behind chicagocrime.org and EveryBlock, the websites that set the standards for all things hyperlocal. He is also probably the most well known journalist/programmer of the 2.0 era, and most likely the first to find success. He was awarded with a Knight Foundation grant in 2007.  Adrian kindly accepted my challenge, and he wanted to make one thing clear:

I’m only qualified to talk about what EveryBlock does, as opposed to hyperlocal news sites in general, so here’s a list of five things EveryBlock does that mainstream media sites don’t do.”

Here’s Adrian’s list:

1. Geographic granularity. Give people a way to follow news around a particular block. This is the main focus of EveryBlock, where we give each city block its own Web page, its own RSS feed and its own e-mail alerts. Here’s an example, the 1030 block of W. Addison St. in Chicago: http://chicago.everyblock.com/streets/addison-st/1030-1063w/

2. Geographic customization. Give people a way to draw custom geographic boundaries to specify their area of interest. Our “custom locations” feature lets you draw an arbitrary area in your neighborhood that selects the streets you’re interested in following. Here’s a video that demonstrates the feature: http://www.everyblock.com/screencasts/customlocations/

3. Geographic messaging. Give people a way to post news to specific geographic areas. Our “Notify your neighbors” feature lets people post messages (news reports, classifieds, etc.) to their blocks, with a sophisticated level of targeting.

4. Subject matter granularity. Give people information that’s “too small” or otherwise not important enough for mainstream news sites, such as restaurant inspections (http://sf.everyblock.com/restaurant-inspections/), building permits (http://chicago.everyblock.com/building-permits/) and fire department dispatches (http://seattle.everyblock.com/fire-dispatch/).

5. Topic customization. Give people ways to control which types of information they get and how often they get it. For example, EveryBlock lets you choose which types of information you want to get daily, weekly or “as it happens”: http://seattle.everyblock.com/locations/neighborhoods/capitol-hill/alerts/

William Perrin, Talk About Local

A Will Perrin production

William Perrin is well known in the british hyperlocal scene, if we consider there’s one. He is a resident of Kings Cross, and one of the creators and contributors of kingscrossenvironment.com. Nowadays he is working on Talk About Local, “a project to give people in their communities a powerful online voice. “

I asked for five things, Will delivered six, just for you.

1. Live there, right in the thick of it. As papers migrate to regional production centers their connection with the community is often lost.
2. Respond rapidly in near real time to a situation on the ground. By virtue of being there in the first place and using simple web technology with no editorial processes.
3. More granularity. Dog shit outside my front door is of interest to my neighbours but, reasonably can’t be of interest to people on the other side of a newspapers patch.
4. Do it for free. People are inspired to do things for their community and contribute to hyperlocal sites as part of their local volunteering.  Local campaigning is mainly about communication – the web enables them to do that more effectively and using less precious time.
5. Show real passion and commitment. Creating a more genuine effective voice – this comes from all the above – see digbethisgood versus RDA promotional literature.

6. Follow stories that have no reall commerical value. ie you couldn’t sell advertising against them – such as excruciating detail of council meetings – see pitsnpots.

Josh Halliday, SR2blog.com

Sunderland's hyperlocal news website

I met Josh at the news:rewired event, and I didn’t know then he was the behind SR2, a “community-run neighbourhood news website, dedicated to the SR2 area of Sunderland.” When I imagined Hashbrum’s layout in my mind, it was exactly like his website is designed. So I like his work, and I think he has an excellent taste. And he is a smart an industrious young man.

Here’s what he has to say:

1. One of the fundamental advantages of independent hyperlocal news sites over ‘mainstream media’ local/regional websites is the bottom-up, reactive way they can implement the changes to the way their information is consumed. There’s no proprietorial template or organizational hierarchy they have to adhere to, there’s no middlemen based hundreds/thousands of miles away deciding the best way for visitors to use your site.

2. Quite a few (not all) local/regional newsrooms in the UK have found themselves in a situation where only a handful of people are trained to publish news online, either due to lack of resource (time and/or money) and/or a lack of digital strategy. Thus when news breaks post-4pm on a weekday or throughout the weekend there’s no one to get the information out there on any other platform than the newspaper. I found myself in that situation last month – news broke early on a Saturday, the local newspaper reported with two paragraphs but then missed the next 31+hours developments which SR2 Blog scooped up. [Full story at the link]

3. Hyperlocal news websites generally give a much better instantaneous picture of the relevant area than the website of the local/regional newspaper. Embedded maps, which have become something of a must-have for hyperlocal sites, have great potential for presenting trends and developing issues in an area – as EveryBlock perfectly demonstrates. These maps are something that proprietorial local news publishers have so far not pursued and even snorted at. Should I live in Villette Road, Sunderland SR2, I can find my street on the map and within seconds I can see that in the last few weeks on my streets and those within a couple of minutes walking distance, there have been three assaults, a murder and a Christmas day fight outside a pub. You’ll then make of that what you will.

4. Hyperlocal news websites, as with all niche offerings, can serve up a tightly-focused audience (and new opportunities) for advertisers. Addiply has made placing an advertisement online as easy and transparent (and more measurable) as placing a notice in the corner shop window – this is advantageous for both publisher and visitor.

5. Hyperlocal is (usually) built atop an open-source platform with dozens/hundreds/thousands of people building new add-ons, plug-ins and customisations all the time. This extends the development side of the workforce well outside proprietorial boundaries and means small-staffed independent start-ups often have more easily navigable, usable and useful websites than mainstream local news publishers.

Rob Powell, Hyperlocal.co.uk

Hyperlocal websites in a map

When I was looking for examples of hyperlocal websites, I came across with Hyperlocal.co.uk in one of my Google Reader feeds. It’s a map of most of the hyperlocal news websites in the UK, and a fantastic idea. I had to ask Rob about what he believes to be the top differences between hyperlocal, community based websites and the mainstream media. He went for something different, nonetheless, great.

“I tried to think of some stuff other than the obvious “cover street level news better than local press” (or regional press pretending to be local press) and I came up with 3!”

1. Respond quickly and “out of hours”. Because running a local website is often a labour of love, I can find myself putting stories up in the middle of the night. Competitor sites from the mainstream aren’t so hot out of normal office hours, and in at least one case I can think of, content doesn’t go on the website until its been in the printed paper which could be almost a week later.

2. Experiment and innovate. I find it easy to try out new layouts, widgets, plugins and tools because there’s no corporate bureaucracy involved. I can just try stuff out and see how it goes or ask the readers what they think.

3. Build relationships with other bloggers. My experience of traditional local press is they quite often pick up stories and rarely credit the source. They often have that mindset of pretending other news sources don’t exist. Whereas if I am following up on a story which I have seen on a blog, news site or Twitter, I will certainly link to it which gives a nice feeling of engaging with people and becoming more like part of a conversation.

Adam Westbrook, AdamWestbrook.wordpress.com


Buy the book

Last but not least, Adam Westbrook, another of the young bright minds that I have met recently. Adam recently wrote a book dedicated “to help all hyperlocal bloggers big or small, young or old, get the news that matters to their community” (you can get it here, and it’s worth the price).

1. Innovate & experiment. Although many newspapers might think differently, they (like all large companies) are terrible at innovation. It requires creativity, a chance of failure and a risk of losing money, all three of which are discouraged in a busy newsroom. And these are valid concerns. Small hyperlocals – sometimes only one person – are the antidote to this. They can afford to risk failure as they build their brand, especially if it becomes part of the brand itself. They are able to experiment with lower costs than the mainstream media. So my message to hyperlocals is: take advantage of this! Discard your first idea for covering a story and try to reinvent the wheel just a little every time you publish.

2. React quickly to new technology. On a similar note, the mainstream media struggles to pick up new technology quickly. We’ve all seen how long it took them to bring in blogs, podcasts and introduce social media. Many haven’t even managed that yet. So how quickly will they react when the next big thing comes along? Almost certainly at a snails pace again. Hyperlocals websites on the other hand should put themselves on the frontline and try new software, new plugins and even new kit. Be the ones showing everyone else how it can be done.

3. Dig the dirt.Even though they are much smaller, hyperlocal blogs do have a newsgathering advantage over mainstream alternatives. Sure, many newspapers are very good at covering the council/city hall beat. But if you’re a hardpressed reporter, with two deadlines in the next hour, and that police chief still hasn’t called you back, how long are you really going to spend reading through that Licensing Committee meeting agenda? The hyperlocal blog – with no formal deadline needs – can afford to spend time really leafing through the tomes which enable democracy to work – and afford to spend time getting it to print before anyone else.

4. Build a community. I don’t just mean an online community, because many newspapers do that well. The hyperlocal blog has the advantage of covering a much smaller area, and can build not just an online community of readers and contributors, but a real-world community as well. Don’t just be a website with your town’s name at the top – be part of your town’s beating heart! Fundraising pub quiz nights and regular contributor coffee mornings are just two examples I just came up with.

5. Collaborate & outsource. And newspapers, like all large traditional companies, have to go through a lot of red tape to collaborate with outside bodies. Normally if you work with them you’re a full time employee, freelancer or sub contracted. That limits the opportunities newspapers have to work with really talented journalists and creatives. Not a problem for hyperlocal bloggers though, who can find and work with excellent investigators in the next town or great designers in Tokyo.

I guess you have enough food for thought for now. I’ll sum this up and finish this hyperlocal series in the next post. Leave your own ideas in the comment box.

Building a hyperlocal news website: a short story on #Brum – part 3

This is the third part of a series about the development of Hashbrum, the hyperlocal news project that me and some of my colleagues at the MA Online Journalism worked on for the last few months. If you haven’t already, read Part 1 and Part 2.

The HashBrum Stories

We tried to find stories that mattered to Birmingham’s communities. We had two successful running feature stories, one about Birmingham’s swimming pools, and another project still developing about cycling in the city,  too many concert reviews, and a few one time stories using multimedia. Another interesting project was Marathon Guy, but it has been discontinued.

The most promising story for me in the beginning was the Swimming Pools investigation, conducted by Andrew Brightwell. The goal was to assess the state and conditions of the public pools of Birmingham, how they were fit to serve the local communities. It had a lot of multimedia and community potential: i thought about creating a map with Andrew with the location and history of each facility, create a space for the swimmers to have a say, and after the Moseley Road Baths tour, create a multimedia package. It didn’t happen, and it’s a shame the story got lost along the way.

Dan Davies has recently put a great effort in a investigation about the existing conditions for cyclists in Birmingham. If you know cyclists, you know they’re a good crowd to work a story with, and Dan has invested in a lot of video and map mashups, which he has been testing and developing, and that seem to be working quite well for the story.

The odd project, but one that took a lot of my time in production was Marathon Guy, a fun idea by Mikel Plana, that was a mix between a reality online show, a crowdsourced/crowdfunding enterprise, and a journalistic account about the communities of runners in the city. Unfortunately, Mikel is not taking the project further, but i think you can tell from the videos i had some fun with this project.

Other notable items in the HashBrum archive are Caroline Beavon’s liveblogging experiments, and a crowdsourced map, that she put together quite quickly.

And if in perspective it looks like a lot of work, i personally feel that we could have done much more, especially when it comes to interactive and multimedia narratives. Like i said before, HashBrum was supposed to be a canvas for total experimentation but  then we got a lot of pics and text. But the moments i like the best are the ones when we go beyond that, and present information in a more relevant and compelling way. The traditional formats are traditional because they work, but if can break the rules and do something different just for the heck of it, why shouldn’t we?

This is where small hyperlocal websites are taking the lead from traditional media:  they invest in new ways to tell the stories, in a cheap, fast way, without having to wait for slow IT departments to implement a damn widget on the front page, after having to wait for  budget clearance; they rely in the power of the community, that they consider as their peers; they value the stories that mainstream media doesn’t care about, and can’t care about, because of the relevance for their reader’s universe and lack of staff; and they don’t have any problems in confronting the established powers, because the community’s problem are their problems too.

Hyperlocal is here to stay, and if you doubt that, just take a look at the map of hyperlocal websites in the UK, and see what others are doing. There’s a lot to be learned from there. I know I learned a lot from ours.

Building a hyperlocal news website: a short story on #Brum – Part 2

This is the second part of the story surrounding the creation and development of HashBrum (first part here). This bit will be more technical – not too much, though – and more interesting for those who want to create their own local news websites. I can tell you something: it’s not that hard, it’s not expensive, it’s never finished, and it will give you trouble. But if you are familiarized with your CMS of choice, then it won’t be that difficult.

Building the website

After spending a lot of time discussing what we should or should not do, we decided to build a website with some of the basic features we planned, and start from there, adapting and changing it along the way to better suit our needs, and see how the technology available would work for us.

I was in charge of the website construction, so most of the technical decisions were left to my consideration, although we agreed to use WordPress as a CMS, in a self hosted version. I offered server space that i already owned, and started working on the first version of the website. Don’t be surprised about WordPress, it’s a powerful platform, and i wonder why there aren’t more small newspapers investing in WP-powered websites. With a small investment they would benefit from a good platform. The other CMS that i used before for news websites was Joomla. If you know how to work with them, then you know that there’s a lot that can be done.

In a 16 hour straight site building marathon, I set the basic structure, design and main features for HashBrum. I went for a free template that I thought it would be easily customizable called Scarlett[i], and changed some CSS settings, and PHP. It already brought some plugins and original features that made me choose this specific template: the thumbnail carousel, editable areas for advertising that for me meant blank HTML fields, and a cascade on the right side. The possibility of placing a video next to the main content in the right column helped me to go for this theme. The main customization was the inclusion of a map on the upper part of the ‘body’ section, generated by the WPGeo plugin[ii] , that I learned about at Mindy MacAdams blog [iii].

Scarlett Template Options

We can never be thankful enough for the work some designers and coder make available for free. From the basic template to all of the plugins we didn’t have to spend a cent/penny. Just bought the domain and used some room on an already paid for server. I wish i could pay these guys for their work, since most are really enthusiastic about their projects, and some respond to your doubts quite fast. Kudos!

Now the blog had a content area and a map where we could pinpoint the news stories, and navigate to them. It wasn’t the most powerful interface but it was built overnight and it was simple to use, and we already had a place to put our stories up.

From the plugins that I added I’d like to highlight a few that provided extra features to the original structure (a longer list with links is available after the jump):

– ICS Calendar: this was a late addition to the site but it proved to be quite helpful and interesting. It presents a Google Calendar in a page, and the possibilities that we have if we make calendar open to user contribution are immense.

– Intense Debate: this is the most powerful commenting plugin available, it’s a shame we don’t get that many comments to take it to its fullest potential.

– Live Blogging (a Caroline Beavon’s request): since we were planning to cover some events live, I looked for a live blogging plugin. This one seemed to be the best one.

– Sociable: a social bookmarking plugin, for content sharing.

– SoJ Soundslides: to upload and embed Soundslides in posts.

There are other back office plugins, for security purposes in particular, like Akismet, Bad Behavior and Broken Link Checker. The most important part was that the website was ready to publish content; we just had to create it.

Decide with your team what will be the menu structure and categories needed. This is really important and if you don’t have a starting point you’ll have problems in the future trying to create a navigable website.

Major problems and some advice

The worst part is teaching others how to use the specificities of the template: how to place pics in the carousel, in the cascade, how to resize the video in the front page…so if you’re planning to do something like this, have someone to stay in control of the backend of the website, and someone else to substitute that person if not available. And people will mess up with the website when you are not looking.

The other part i find difficult is design. I’m not a designer, i wish i was good enough to do such a cool logo like we have. Another thing that failed has been the connection between the website and social networks, but that would mean a stronger effort from our part to manage an online community around HashBrum and its stories. Overall, the website has been working fine, i broke the CSS code once, that rendered the website unreadable, and had to spend a while to fix it (advice: backup every major change or group of changes you make).

And, of course, it’s not that powerful. We are restrained to the natural limits of the template options and plugin features. There’s nothing you can do about it, but there’s a lot you can do with it. Just keep trying. You can go for a different CMS, like Drupal or Joomla, that your problems will be the same – unless you’re a hard coder. Try to cope with your own and the platform’s  limitations.

Recently i found a good list of  WordPress plugins that would have come in handy when i was putting the site together. Check it out.

Before  you start doing anything, be sure of what you want. You can always revert the process, you can always start again, and you will be learning in the process, but sometimes it’s just time wasted. It’s hard to have the responsibility to do something like this for a team of people, especially when you have to step in because the developer who was supposed to do the thing wasn’t available. And the worst part was i devoted so much time to the website i neglected the content creation, and i didn’t sign up to become a webmaster. Still, i’m proud of what was accomplished, and it’s good to see some of my colleagues taking the most of the features that i managed to enable for the, and for creating a space where we could all experiment, and for coming up with solutions when they were needed. And it’s what this type of work is all about.


[i] Scarlett Theme demo http://tinyurl.com/yejcxyf .

[ii] http://www.wpgeo.com/

[iii] Playing with dynamic mapping http://tinyurl.com/ylrkokd

Continue reading Building a hyperlocal news website: a short story on #Brum – Part 2

Building a hyperlocal news website: a short story on #Brum – Part 1

Birmingham's experimental hyperlocal news website

One of the major efforts i developed in the last three months of 2009 was the construction and development of Hashbrum, a group project created by me some of my colleagues of the MA Online Journalism at Birmingham City University. I have meant to discuss here the different aspects of planning and developing a hyperlocal news website, not only adressing the technical issues, but also conceptual matters. We never stayed on the same ground for too long, and we weren’t 100% focused on the project, and this was one of the main reasons we didn’t take the extra step to make HashBrum a more cohesive and truly original. Besides, the main purpose was to build a platform for experimentation for our own works for the MA. But it all went as follows.

What is HashBrum?

HashBrum[i] is a hyperlocal news experimental project, that covers the main Birmingham area. The team was composed by part of the students enrolled in the MA Online Journalism of Birmingham City University. When we started discussing the project, there were many ideas about how to present the news, but the main goal was to create as much interactive and multimedia content as possible.

We were inspired by hyperlocal projects like EveryBlock [ii], Patch.com[iii] or VillageSoup[iv], that used maps as main interfaces, and/or covered specific geographic areas and small communities, on a neighborhood level.

When considering how the layout of the website should lead the users into that type of content, we too thought about using a map that would take most of the immediately visible space. The stories would be embedded in the map, and the users could navigate from story to story using the placemarks.

The agenda would be based in long feature, investigative reporting, using different types of media to create truly multimedia stories. There is audio available of our first three meetings as a team[v], where we discuss a embrionary version of HashBrum and its basic principles and goals, in which we debate some of the ideas I presented before. We wanted to reach out to the community even before we had something to show, and carry that spirit into the content creation phase. Or that was my perspective on what the project was meant to be.

The importance of being Hyperlocal – concepts and business model

What is going on with this hyperlocal thing? We keep hearing about this over and over, like if it was the Great Online Hope. It is in some ways. It is based in a long-tailed, low resourced, small-scale, community based, social networked, geotagged, backyard stories-type of approach.  This means more valuable information for specific groups of people, that connect more closely to it. This is also an upgraded echo of the work developed by the lone bloggers that typed away the problems that affect them and their neighbors. Some of that upgrade was provoked by some bloggers themselves, that found a market an audience at their doorstep (or backyard, whatever you prefer).

Reading the (magnificent) lecture by Alan Rusbridge, we come across the case of Will Perrin – who seems to have taken a personal interest in Hashbrum – author and owner of a hyperlocal news website (though he doesn’t call it journalism) covering the King’s Cross area in London, we understand another important factor regarding hyperlocal projects: engagement. Most hyperlocal websites are truly concerned about the quality of life on the places they cover, and are willing to expose, question and fight whoever and whatever stands in the way of that quality of life. It’s journalism not for the common good, beyond that, for the LOCAL good, if you get my drift.

This opens a whole new advertising market. If you check the VillageSoup model, you see that they have room for personalized daily adverts, for a low price, but from dozens of advertisers. Their profit margin is safer and more steady than if they relied solely in two or three big advertisers. Besides, there’s the direct contact, the element of trust, and an organic relationship, established with the  local businesses and costumers, the real people, and not a faceless brand. And this is all what being hyperlocal encompasses.

Now, the concept still has somewhat of rogue, and independent, since these projects work better, or at least are more honest, when they come from the users to the media, and not from the media to the users. Even though there are experiments promoted  by large media groups in the hyperlocal business, what separates these projects are three specific characteristics:

-proximity to a real, live, community;

-concern for that community;

-a specific agenda adressing the habits, problems and issues of the community;

And this last point is of huge importance: no longer the stories of the community are forgotten, or swept under the rug by the limited space and resources of general news outlets. So when in the description of the website it was written Hashbrum was all about the neglected stories of Birmingham, it felt like we struck gold.

But we needed a place to tell those stories. How it was done stays for the second post of this series.


[i] http://hashbrum.co.uk/

[ii] http://www.everyblock.com/

[iii] http://patch.com

[iv] http://villagesoup.com

[v] Audio from the meetings

1st Meeting – http://tinyurl.com/yd9doq8

2nd Meeting – http://tinyurl.com/ydbx5wx

3rd meeting – http://tinyurl.com/yczmvhp

news:rewired – how to make money

James Fryer, from SoGlos.com
This is  post number four on the news:rewired conference. You can read the posts one, two and three too.

The final session of news:rewired was dedicated to the ugly side of the future of journalism: how to make money, why journalists are not making money, law and copyright, audiences and advertising. This was stuff journos never had to think about, but that they should consider in their everyday practice, so they can make it financially sustainable. But the trick to be successful is the same as before: be one of the best.

The first speaker of the panel was James Fryer, one of the founding editors of SoGlos.com, the hyperlocal online magazine for Gloucestershire. I had already met James and his associate Michelle Byrne when they sat next to me during the morning sessions, and we got to talk about we should be networking more during the breaks. They we’re really nice, and as someone who developed an experimental hyperlocal website, i was interested in what they had to say.

Fryer gave us the top do’s and don’ts for a hyperlocal venture, and i’d like to highlight a few of his ideas.  He was one of the people who pointed out the obvious characteristic for any successful endeavor: be great. Without being great you’ll never stand out, and gain trust and respect from your audience and your advertisers. Besides that basic principle, you must know where you stand commercially, what is your market and it’s needs, and who could be your allies. But don’t forget to remain true to your starting idea, keep your editorial integrity. I’d like to see some of the major news outlets following some of these principles…

SoGlos was victim of some plagiarism, and the next speaker talked about just that. Caroline Kean is a lawyer, and she adressed some of the problems that affect online journalism, like copyright and privacy. She debunked the myth that if it’s on the web it’s free, and that companies should be careful about the misuse of costumers data. These are relevant questions that would suffice to organize a conference on it’s own. She was followed by Ben Heald,  “CEO of Sift Media, a leading business-to-business publisher specialising in online, interactive professional communities.” What i got from Heald’s speech was that pay walls will fail, and that money will come from niche communities that will pay for specific contents. I remember i liked his presentation, but i don’t have many notes about it. Probably it’s because he was stating something that was obvious for me, but that still hasn’t reached some minds.

Maybe me forgetting about Ben Heald’s presentation was Greg Hadfield‘s fault. The man has an incredible life story, and recent events in his professional course still put him in the game changers group. He delivered this simple yet powerful idea: journalists must act as entrepreneurs. This involves passion and vision, and one activity can’t be separated from the other. He said that when he was a journalist he never thought about advertising, it was “the stuff that made your article shorter”. Now it’s time to be entrepreneurial, since the face of the industry has changed forever. Adam Tinworth sums up some of Hadfield’s ideas here.

I must confess i was awfully tired by then, and a bit frustrated because i was looking around and recognizing some people from my twitter timeline and hadn’t networked with them live. Besides, wifi didn’t work for me and i had to sit offline the whole day, which put me in a state of deprivation close to a certified addict. But after this we had the End of Conference Drinks! More about that in the next post.