Learning From I-Neighbors

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, ePlanning, History, Justice, Technology, University of Michigan, Urban Development | 2 Comments »

The story of I-Neighbors.org is important to anyone hoping to use technology to complement traditional forms of urban community. The website was created by Keith Hampton, a scholar interested in “the relationship between new information and communication technologies, social networks, and the urban environment.”

A trained sociologist, as a newly minted PhD Hampton taught at the MIT Urban Studies and Planning program from 2001 to 2005. Here he developed and launched I-Neighbors, a “social networking service that connects residents of geographic neighborhoods.” The website allows registered users to look up and join “neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood has a variety of default functions: email list, polls, business reviews, photos, documents, events, and a directory of other members. Originally it had a “GovLink” service allowing users to connect to local elected officials, but this has been shut down due to cost.

i-neighborsAlthough the website could use some design tweaks (fonts are too small, for one), the website is reasonably straightforward to use and clearly carefully thought out. I think I remember reading the site was accompanied with some offline training sessions in the Boston area.

Unfortunately, it’s taken off in relatively few neighborhoods. According to a 2006 paper, as of then 23.6% of website users hadn’t joined any neighborhood, and only 9 neighborhoods have over 50 users. These facts suggest it’s either not what they’re looking for, too complicated, or have another usability issue. When users look up a zip code, if another user has not created a neighborhood the systems says there “are currently no i-Neighborhoods in your area” asking, in smaller letters, if they want to create one. Creating new neighborhoods is simple enough, but I bet pre-creating any searched for neighborhood would get more users engaged in the system.

Individually, the tools are useful, and in fact sites have thrived performing almost all individually:

  • Business reviews – Yelp
  • Geocoded Photos – Flickr
  • Neighborhood listservs – Yahoo, Google, private lists
  • Neighborhood news – Variety of local news, blogs, neighborhood (offline) newsletters.

Why isn’t there greater use of these functions on the website? In marketing parlance, the ‘unique value proposition’ of social networking websites, is the content and the people, not the functionality. Thus in the fickle world of social networking, some have thrived while others have withered according to their relative popularity among users, not necessarily the sophistication of the functionality. I-Neighbors has struggled to take off in many communities.

Additionally, the content is carefully organized into neighborhood-specific stovepipes. This reduces the potential users able to see, say, the review of a local business. Additionally, urban residents have famously fluid conceptions of neighborhoods, suggesting perhaps the content should be organized in a less rigid way. Although functioning in some ways like a social networking websites, users don’t select which friends they will allow to see their profiles, instead all members of the neighborhood are thrown in together. Additionally, there’s no search functionality for users and users can only see other people in their networks, not across the system. These barriers to finding other people thwart one potential source of interest in the system.

A related conundrum for academic innovators is although they may be able to imagine possible new tools, they can rarely keep pace with the private sector in terms of usability, design, and functionality. However, the market may not produce the websites with precisely the sort of arrangement or functionality we’d like to see. I give Prof. Hampton credit for developing such a sophisticated tool, but it will have trouble to keep pace with private sector websites with dedicated staff making continual improvement.s

One approach to the success of a myriad of highly specialized sites for specific geographically specific information is the one taken by EveryBlock, which aggregates private and government data for every block (or zip code), including Yelp! reviews, geotagged Flickr photos, restaurant inspections, blog posts and crime reports.

A Success Story

One neighborhood, profiled in this academic paper, was particularly successful, resulting in a very vibrant email list. What can we learn from this case? This neighborhood was already well organized offline, is a physically distinct community with an association that adopted I-Neighbors as a platform for online collaboration. The group requires members to use their real names (something the e-democracy.org folks believe in). As an aside, the use of the site also shows the direct connection between neighborhood media to planning and policy, a early hot topics was a redevelopment plans, how the neighborhood corporation was investing revenue in the neighborhood.

This successful neighborhood benefited from several very active members. Although hyperactive participants can be a liability, overwhelming visitors or dominating conversations, a core of enthusiastic participants can benefit a forum because they create a public good – information and opinion – that others can read or react to. This relates to Noor Ali-Hasan’s blog study that argued active conversation starting blogs play an important role in a larger ecosystem of online communication.

Closing Questions

Considering the lessons this website provides, two questions arise. First, what is new? What new information was communicated, new relationships developed, or most importantly new outcomes resulted in the real world? It’s not clear how you could prove something like this, but it is the question of central importance evaluating the significance of a new community-building tool. The second but related question, how did the online intervention change existing relationships and arrangements? Did it reinforce them, alter them in another way? Answering these questions rigorously — about I-Neighbors or any other community building website — will help us understand the true potential for the Internet to affect local communities.

> I-Neighbors.org

The D.C. Urban Blogosphere Revisited

Posted: February 9th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, District of Columbia, Public Policy, Urbanism and Planning | 2 Comments »

Mount Vernon Triangle ConstructionSince my original post on the topic way back in 2006, the D.C. urban and real estate blogosphere has evolved somewhat. However, only recently were there enough changes to convince me the topic deserved to be revisited.

Read the rest of this entry »

Presentation Tomorrow

Posted: October 3rd, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, Technology | 1 Comment »

Tomorrow I’ll be participating in the Society of Professional Journalists Convention as part of J-Lab’s Citizen Media workshop here in Washington, D.C. at the Hyatt Regency hotel. I’ll be presenting about my experiences with Arborupdate, DCist, and Rethink College Park. The SPJ website has some more information about the speakers and program.

The organization sponsoring the session, J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, is a group at the University of Maryland that conducts research and gives grants in the area of experimental online journalism.

Shaw Loves Blogs

Posted: April 25th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, DC Shaw Neighborhood, District of Columbia, Gentrification, Urban Development | 3 Comments »

The neighborhood blog directory outside.in has announced Shaw has the second most active neighborhood blog community in the country. Although DCist had a short item I thought it was worth noting the news. They claim their rankings are based on “total number of posts, total number of local bloggers, number of comments and Technorati ranking for the bloggers.” The top neighborhood was Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. Interestingly, most of the top 10 are older urban neighborhoods experiencing revitalization, including neighborhoods in New York, Boston, Chicago, Portland (OR), San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I first described Shaw’s blogging renaissance in January, and several new blogs have popped up since then. The exciting blogging action has even inspired envy from other bloggers around town. Gallery Place Living pondered a second home in Shaw, and one well known blogger nearly in Columbia Heights claimed residency.

On that topic, what are the boundaries of Shaw? While there are never hard and fast rules about neighborhood boundaries, history provides some guidance. The Shaw neighborhood was first defined when planners used the boundaries of the Shaw Junior High School to define an urban renewal area for redevelopment efforts. Our very own Mari from In Shaw unearthed the map above, dated 1973. If anything, since then the boundaries have become restricted as other neighborhoods have developed identities.

Announcing Planetizen’s Interchange

Posted: February 26th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, District of Columbia, Government, Public Policy, Urban Development | 1 Comment »

All too often when I tell people I am studying urban planning, my statement is met by a blank stare. Some will mumble something about a city they’ve been to, or admit they don’t know much about it.

Urban planning’s lack of visibility extends to the web, where there is a depressing lack of good websites and blogs about the field. To a certain extent this should not be surprising, since the field is dominated by government officials generally limited to addressing local issues, and university professors who are either unable or uninterested in communicating to a wider public. However, I think the profession is more important than ever in today’s troubled and highly urbanized world, and writers like Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford have shown there exists a huge audience of people interested in building better cities.

Given that context, I have long been a fan of the website Planetizen. One of the web’s best websites on urban planning and development issues, their discussion forums, job listings, news features, and other sections provide an essential resource for the profession. Today they launched their newest feature — a new blog called Interchange, whose contributors include some of the the field’s best-known thinkers and writers. The list includes University of Pennsylvania Professor Eugenie Birch, Next American City editor-in-chief Adam Gordon, innovative scholar Joel Kotkin, and many others. They hope the blog will help provide exposure to new ideas and create discussions that bridge disciplines.

I’ve also been invited to participate. My first post was on the Washington, D.C. library system: “Public Library in Limbo in Washington, D.C.

> Check out Planetizen Interchange

Blogging for Engagement in College Park

Posted: January 31st, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, College Park, Maryland, Urban Development | Comments Off

Can a blog help bring new participants to the planning process? We’re not sure, but we’re trying. Two recent articles describe the progress we’ve made since launching Rethink College Park six months ago. The first is from today’s edition of The Diamondback, the campus student newspaper.

When then-graduate student Brian Carroll defended his thesis on redeveloping the Knox Box area last month, he never expected the debate to travel beyond a committee of professors.

But once the local development blog Rethink College Park got wind of his work, posting Carroll’s drawings and ideas to revamp the aging neighborhood populated with students, the comment section came alive with interest. The attention highlighted the push for student housing development downtown and the propensity online forums have for facilitating discussion, but Carroll expressed surprise at the reaction.

“I think the thing that they did was pull it all together,” Carroll said of the Rethink College Park editors. “I could’ve completed my thesis and put it on the shelf in the library, but that got it some publicity.”[…]

But if the interest in Carroll’s work once posted on the Internet and the exchange of ideas since the blog’s launch are any indication, Internet discussions could be the future of public discourse here. That doesn’t mean city council meetings will ever cease, but council member Bob Catlin said with his constituents becoming increasingly busy, communicating with them electronically has become a major convenience.

> Diamondback: “City officials, students take talks to the Web

Second, this article co-authored with the site’s other editor, David Daddio, recently appeared on the website Campus Progress. It offers a good overview of the project and the context here on campus.

” … Our single-minded focus on helping transform College Park into a great college town has led to discussions on the site about a host of progressive issues … With many institutions interested in building or expanding college towns near their campuses, students are in a unique role to ensure the development agenda includes what they value, whether it is sustainable design, affordable housing, socio-economic diversity, or the protection of small businesses. We believe students should be actively engaged in the design of their campuses and towns, and a website can be an effective tool to build a group of like-minded students and share knowledge about what is happening in your community. … “

> CampusProgress.org: “From Parking Lot to College Town?

Shaw Blogosphere Review

Posted: January 19th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, DC Shaw Neighborhood, District of Columbia, Government | 4 Comments »

Over the past several months there has been a small blogging renaissance in Shaw. Any discussion of the Shaw blogosphere has to start with the the long-running (almost 4 years) and thoughtful In Shaw. However, the recent renaissance seemed to start some time last summer when Life in Mount Vernon Square (which, despite the name discusses quite a bit of Shaw news) got started in earnest after launching in April, and the informed Shaw blog Fifth and Oh first made its appearance in July.

By October, it was clear things were heating up online in the neighborhood. Kevin Chapple was running a web-saavy campaign in an ultimately successful bid to unseat longtime ANC commissioner Leroy Thorpe. Inspired partly by the ANC politics the author of the defunct blog UrbanPioneer decided to launch a new site, Off Seventh, an opinionated and informed look at neighborhood politics. In November, the development-oriented remaking le slum historique launched, dedicated to covering “development of all kinds in Shaw.” After his election, Chapple launched a fully featured website including a blog about neighborhood news and a variety of information about the local ANC and the neighborhood.

The result of so many civic-oriented blogs has been an unprecedented online attention to the local ANC. (For background see Alex Padro’s What is an ANC? or my post from October on ANC2C) The January ANC 2C meeting, the first without Leroy Thorpe as chair, was covered by no less than four seperate Shaw blogs. The coverage by Off Seventh was particularly thorough, including even video from the meeting. The extensive coverage prompted In Shaw’s Mari to comment ” … you guys over there in 2C have done a lot to keep your neighbors informed and I applaud you. With the strokes from your keyboards you have brought down a tyrant, brought together neighbors, highlighted businesses and events for our little corner of the city.” Sadly there was little constructive news to report from the meeting because the ANC was deadlocked on most votes (with Thorpe in attendance whispering in the ear of his allies), however the consensus seems to be the body is moving in the right direction.

With so many new sites I have no doubt this will be an interesting year. If I missed you in my list I apologize, and invite you to leave a comment. Is anyone interested in a happy hour for Shaw bloggers and readers — perhaps at the Old Dominion Brewhouse or Vegetate?

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