Track180 Builds iPad App to Bring More Context, Balance to Online News

2/21/13Follow @gthuang

The best entrepreneurs are an elusive mix of tech-business expert, clear-headed thinker, contrarian, psychologist, and elevator repairman. Because, really, if you know how to fix elevators, you can pretty much do anything.

That would apply to Drue Hontz, the founder and CEO of Track180, a startup in New Haven, CT, that’s trying to reinvent how people browse news and get information online. Track180 has been working on an iPad app that organizes articles by event or issue and presents different “vantage points” around that issue from selected outlets and writers. Clicking on different vantage points helps give readers a more balanced view and more context around global issues—that’s the idea, anyway. The app is slated for release in April or May.

The overarching theme here is how to combat information overload, media bias, and lack of context—three of the biggest problems facing Internet readers. (Another New England startup, Cloze, just released an app for managing e-mail and social overload; interestingly, it also strikes a balance between algorithms and human input—see below.)

Let’s back up a bit. From age 19, Hontz worked as an elevator service repairman and then eventually moved to the office side of things, working in sales. In 1997, he started his own elevator company out of his basement in Connecticut with $20,000. Over the years he built Hontz Elevator (motto: “old-fashioned service at a good price”) into a five-state, 120-person company before selling it to Schindler Elevator in 2005.

After two years of working for The Man, Hontz was itching for a new project. It was time to get out of elevators and, as it turns out, into the world of online media.

Like most people, Hontz (left) got most of his news from the Web, but he was fed up with the fact that “everything led to information overload.” You could read a dozen different accounts of a news event, but that was time-consuming and tiring. What’s more, every event had a ripple effect on other events that was hard to track in media reports. Whether you’re reading about conflicts in Afghanistan, environmental and economic effects of a cement maker moving to Canada, or the recent Indian rape trial, he says, “there are so many aspects, you can’t understand it.”

Hontz says he wanted to devise a “new way of rearranging information” online. This was 2007-08. So he sold his boat and, as he puts it, “walked away from sailing the Caribbean.”

Track180 is the result. The app and content management system is built, and Hontz’s team has been tuning the user interface with feedback from beta testers. The key challenge: making the experience truly engaging and useful on a tablet.

“Humans need a path of least resistance,” he says. “I started mapping that out and tried to figure out a better way to navigate the information.”

Of course, scores of companies have been developing news apps, content discovery platforms, and the like. Some are social, some are algorithmic, and others use humans to curate content. One example is News360, which tries to personalize news feeds to individuals’ hobbies and interests (in politics, sports, and entertainment, say).

Track180 is different in that it goes out of its way to present viewpoints that you might not be aware of. It’s the opposite of personalization, in a sense, as it tries to guard against subtle forms of confirmation bias—reading only ideas and authors you already agree with, for example.

In the app version I saw last month, different articles about a particular news topic show up as circles on the screen—a maximum of five of them. There’s no search feature; instead, Track180 gives you a choice of 21 issues that it considers important topics of the day. These show up as bubbles on the main navigation page, with headlines and images. You can browse the articles around each bubble and track the timeline of when related events happened, using an interactive toolbar on the side.

Another interesting feature: a “call to action” button that (in some cases) will let readers do things like sign a petition or donate money to a cause.

“The key thing is not to be the answer,” Hontz says. “This is about breaking the mold, creating a different option for the reader. It’s designed to be like a conversation.”

The app draws from some 1,200 news and media sources—papers, magazines, blogs, and so forth. It chooses which articles to surface using mainly human editors, though the team is “working on increasing the automation side,” Hontz says. “You have to create a hybrid.”

Track180 has an editorial staff of about a dozen, and its app development team is based in Barcelona. Hontz says the company has started talking with outside investors about raising money. (It’s still super early, of course, but if all goes well with the news app, you could imagine the same principles being applied to other content areas like travel, food, or sports.)

But back to the psychology aspect for a minute. The ultimate goal of Track180—as idealistic as it sounds—is to provide more balance and perspective around issues in the news; sometimes this will mean showing diametrically opposed accounts of the same event (think Republican and Democratic responses to President Obama’s state of the union speech).

“You can see the two points and make up your own mind,” Hontz says. “This is the first step of what I hope will be a shift in people understanding that compromise leads to good things.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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