Povo Lets Residents Say What’s Best and Worst About Boston, Block by Block

Mix one cup of Wikipedia with one cup of Google Maps, add a generous dollop of MIT-bred geekdom, and bake for about 14 months. Serves 600,000.

The confection in question is Povo.com, a user-editable online community directory that debuted in Boston last week. A project of Boston-based Arts Alliance Labs, a combination venture capital firm and technology platform company led by MIT Media Lab alum Max Metral, Povo is essentially a giant, geographically organized blank slate: a template beckoning Boston residents to upload information, reviews, photos, and other content, block by city block.

It’s far from the first user-driven directory of geographically organized local information; other examples include Outside.in, Platial, and Wikimapia. Wikipedia itself has extensive user-generated and user-edited listings on places of interest (including a thorough article on Boston), and there are several services that make it easier to browse Wikipedia’s content by location, including Placeopedia and a new iPhone application called GeoPedia.

But Povo (the name is Portuguese for “people” or “folk”) is more stylish and inviting than a typical Wikipedia-style wiki. People who add information to Povo are recognized for their contributions on their profile pages, which could help encourage Bostonians to pitch in the free labor required to build the directory. (As with most user-generated sites, users aren’t paid for their material.) The site also has some unique features that may appeal to power users, including strangely beautiful “heat maps” that show the greatest concentrations of local resources such as brunch places or clubs with live music, and a simple Ruby-like scripting language that allows users to modify the functionality of the pages they create. And all of the site’s content is available under a Creative Commons license—meaning that heat maps and anything else you or others create on Povo can be embedded in outside blogs or other non-commercial sites.

Povo Boston LogoMetral says the idea for Povo was born when his colleague at Arts Alliance Labs, Hasty Granbery, was walking down a street in San Francisco looking for a dry cleaner that could clean a suit in an hour. “That’s not something you can find in a typical local search,” says Metral. “You might find a dry cleaner in the same zip code, but not something two blocks away. And the search results won’t have details about whether they can do it in an hour.” But that’s exactly the type of detail residents are likely to possess—and if Metral and Granbery can get them to feed it into Povo, it could eventually become much richer than a typical local search site such as Yahoo Local. “The big differentiator over time is going to be the user-generated content and functionality” Metral says.

Metral has a bit of experience with the wisdom of crowds: in 1996, with Media Lab professor (and Xconomist) Pattie Maes, he co-founded Firefly Network, a pioneer in the area of collaborative filtering algorithms that matched people with others with similar tastes and directed them to music content they might like. In a $40 million deal just two years later, Firefly became part of Microsoft, where the technology evolved into Microsoft Passport. Metral went on to become CTO at PeoplePC, which bundled brand-name PCs with dialup Internet service for a $24.95 monthly payment; Earthlink bought PeoplePC in 2002 for about $10 million.

Arts Alliance, Metral’s current gig, funds an electric range of interactive media startups. It was an investor in Spinner (now part of AOL) and Atom Entertainment (now part of Viacom), and its current portfolio includes viral TV clip service BlinkBox, European DVD rental service LOVEFiLM, and mobile games and video distributor Player X. Povo is the first platform the company has decided to develop on its own.

Metral and Granbery have seeded the site with information from sources such as Boston city park directories and Starbucks’ online store finder. But in the end, Metral says, the site will only become useful if … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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