Wednesday, July 1, 2015

WhereToGo: A Local Info Civic Hack

One way for civic hackers to use their 21st century toolkit to improve life for themselves and for fellow residents of the city, county or region is to create a digital tool for easily finding where to go for fun or interesting experiences in their area.

The stealth-mode code name for this ‘local info’ project is WhereToGo, or WTG.

I’ve been lobbying for people in NE Wisconsin to pick a civic hack project of high interest to them and to start working on their chosen project. In “Seed Projects For Civic Hackathons” I pointed out  the benefits of having a couple civic hacks in the early stages so interested people can see something tangible to work on.

If a civic hackathon participant is offered the choice of working on (1) an existing civic hack, (2) a suggested civic hack idea that no one at the hackathon has worked on, or (3) a totally different idea that the participant has come up with, some civic hackers prefer Door Number 1. They can see what the hack is supposed to do, and it might be easier for them to visualize how they can contribute to an existing hack than to a project that consists simply of a few words on paper or in cyberspace or an idea in their head.

The reason I’m promoting WTG for a NE Wisconsin seed hack is that several people at the DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 on June 6 talked about the need for an easier way to find out where to go when you have free time and want to have fun. A second reason to promote a local info civic hack is because people in other cities are interested in and working on the same type of project. The final reason is because I’d like to use that civic hack myself to find places and activities of interest to me.

I googled  ‘where to go in Appleton WI’  and  ‘what’s happening in Appleton WI’  and found a bunch of potential sources for event and ‘interesting places’ to put on WTG. (Googling for info sources for a non-Appleton WTG would be done the same way, although smaller cities might need to broaden their search terms.) Here are a few of my search results:

Responsive design for websites
One takeaway from my WTG searching is that there doesn’t seem to be a primary site for finding out where to go and what’s happening in the Appleton area. Although I didn’t spend much time verifying it, another probable takeaway is that WTG-type sites didn’t seem to focus on responsive site design and didn’t clearly highlight a mobile app for people to use on their smartphone or tablet. It appears the majority of NE Wisconsin sites offering info about how and where to spend your leisure time are still designed for the laptop or desktop experience. People who are out and about will want to use their smartphones to find this type of information, so there's a definite market need in this space.

My ‘civic hack takeaway’ from the above searching is that it seems highly worthwhile to build a WTG website with responsive design that’s optimized for smartphone usage. An enterprising team of NE Wisconsin civic hackers, with a reasonable amount of work, could definitely build a better WTG tool than anything I could find out in cyberspace.

A starting point for a NE Wisconsin WTG hack could be one of the existing civic hacks done elsewhere. A few are listed below, but a WTG team will no doubt find more examples with a couple hours of searching.

  • “Trying to combat the sentiment that there aren't enough things to do in Wichita, this project aims to provide one unified place to see a tagged list of events from venues all around the city.” 
  • Orlando Events: A web tool that would scrape both local websites (City of Orlando, Amway Center) and nationwide platforms (Ticketmaster, Eventbrite) to gather data on all events taken place with the goal to make it accessible in a single API.” 
  • “2015 Code for Hillsborough’s top award winner was the Multi-cultural Visitor's Guide team. Developed a multicultural visitor guide from basically a jpeg image and a brochure.” 
  • WikiKC is available to the public for updates as well as a source of information.  A central location for Kansas Citians to tell about the great lunch they enjoyed in Brookside, or tell how exciting the Kansas City Kite Festival will be this year (don’t forget your chairs!).” 
  • "A second honorable mention went to Eventy...The iPhone app locates community events near the user, informing them where and when the events are and can even assist with directions. The app scans the web to find hyper-local events and makes them easily viewable to attract more visitors for events happening at nearby community centers, businesses, museums, and more, and lists them in one convenient location for the user to find a variety of event opportunities in the Tech Valley."

Humboldt Redwoods
As an instigator of civic hacks, my suggestion is for someone highly interested in WTG to (1) form a team with two or three other people, (2) review the civic hacks above and google for other ideas based on what the team is most interested in, (3) have an in-person meetup for the team to define what WTG will look like, and (4) start building the WTG minimum viable product (MVP). If someone launches a WTG project, please let me know (email Bob Waldron; bwaldron [at] gmail {dott} com). I’d love to write a post about a NE Wisconsin “Where To Go” civic hack.

As a sort of random-but-relevant comment, the northern California region where I lived last year had a WTG-type product called “101 Things To Do in Humboldt County.” At a minimum, civic hackers might consider creating a “101 Things To Do in Northeast Wisconsin” website. Or maybe we should create a searchable repository of activities and places scraped from sites like “101 things to do this summer: A Fox Valley guide,” GoValleyKids’ “101 Things to Do this Summer,” “TravelWisconsin - Northeast Region,” and “WiscOnline Attractions.”

The alternative to someone building a better WTG mousetrap is for us to continue searching many websites and spending too much time to get good ideas for where to go and what to do this coming weekend.

I know lots of people will “help me eat this bread.”

“Who will help me plant this wheat?”


As a footnote, back in July 2008 when hyperlocal websites were a hot topic, I developed a proposal to build, a hyperlocal site for the greater Appleton area. The concept of FoxValleyPlaza was to recreate the digital version of a village square or town plaza, where you could find out pretty much anything you wanted to know about your city and the surrounding area. Because I couldn’t bring together a team with the needed skills, and because I can personally only build very basic websites, we didn’t get very far on the project. We didn’t have the necessary combination of interest, skill, time and financial support to develop and launch the website. Maybe WTG will provide a lot of what FoxValleyPlaza was designed to have…

As many people’s experiences over the past ten years have proven, a sustainable business model is extremely challenging to create for hyperlocal sites. For background on that issue, read “21 Things I Learned Running Hyperlocal News Sites,”  “Why hyperlocal websites like New Raleigh can't make money online,” "Life After Patch," and Columbia Journalism Review’s posts about hyperlocal sites.

In spite of the business model issue, I’d still like to be part of a team building a hyperlocal site for Appleton / The Fox Valley / Northeast Wisconsin. It could be a WTG-type site, a FoxValleyPlaza-type site, or a TIME community site (Tech, Innovators, Makers, Entrepreneurs) along the lines of LiveWork Portland, Baltimore Tech, or one of the other TIME sites other communities have built. If you start a project like that, please let me know (bwaldron [at] gmail {dott} com).

If you want to build a hyperlocal site, we can talk with Maureen Wallenfang, Jeff Lindsay, Djuanna Hugdahl and similar people highly knowledgeable about what's going on in our area. If we build a team of 8 to 12 members with well-connected people, knowledgeable website developers and civic hackers skilled at scraping, we'd have a civic hack that thousands of people in NE Wisconsin would love using.


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