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

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some significant fraction of users also contribute, by uploading their literal street smarts about Boston and the attractions and services that make the city worth living in.

And in that respect, Wikipedia isn’t a great model: while it’s used by millions of people every day, its content is generated and maintained by only a few thousand active contributors—people who have decided to brave not only the withering scrutiny of other Wikipedia editors but also the site’s somewhat quirky user interface and formatting conventions. Metral says Povo is doing everything it can to make that experience of contributing to a public wiki less scary.

“The biggest hurdle to people contributing to Povo is fear,” he says. “On Wikipedia there are people who know way more than me about almost every subject. But on Povo that’s not necessarily true. When it comes to the Appleton Cafe, for instance, no one knows more about that place than me, as far as I’m concerned. And with Wikipedia, I’d be afraid of breaking it. But with Povo you can’t break it. You just type into a box. In the worst case, somebody else will come along later and put your content into the form it needs to be in.” To make contributing even easier, Povo includes a feature called “Graffiti”—a box where users can, quite literally, type in something like the hours of a business and submit it for others to see with a single click.

To keep growing, Metral says Povo needs to convert at least 50 out of every 10,000 visitors into “graffiti artists” and eventually full contributors. To illustrate how the company hopes people will use the site, Povo has recruited Jed Hoyer, assistant general manager for the Red Sox, as its first “neighborhood ambassador” (also known as a “mini-mayor”). Hoyer, naturally, knows quite a lot about the neighborhood around Fenway Park, and he’s uploaded reviews of local eateries Temptations Cafe, Parish Cafe, Brasserie Joe, and Audobon Circle—not to mention the Sausage Guy, whose Lansdowne Street cart can be smelt “a mile away,” in Hoyer’s words. Povo is also currently exhorting users to upload information about “green” institutions in Boston, from places to buy locally grown food to the locations of Zipcar garages and dry cleaners that use nonpolluting solvents.

But as much as Povo is about Boston, it isn’t really about Boston; it’s a test platform for a bigger idea about how to organize user-generated local content. The site is “a collaborative platform for associating things with places and searching them,” Metral says. It will expand to other cities—probably starting with New York—and over time, Metral says, “it will fill up with whatever users feel should go there,” from properties for sale to classified ads to reviews of business, restaurants, and recreational opportunities. Or perhaps even poetry and photo albums and walking tours—every Povo user gets their own unlimited set of pages to use as they please.

But Metral says the creators of Povo will still be there to monitor and guide the site’s growth (and, of course, to monetize that growth: eventually the site will include paid advertisements). He doesn’t expect that people will take advantage of the platform’s openness to publish material that’s outright offensive or illegal; but if they do, automatic monitoring tools allow their actions to be quickly undone by other users. And if the history of Wikipedia is any guide, there will still be plenty of room left for disagreement, controversy, and plain old inaccuracies. “We have a role in making sure that the tenor of the community evolves in a certain way,” Metral says. “In a way that’s our big job now—to make sure that the snowball that we think a wiki is doesn’t have too much dirt in it.”

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Ok, so I spent a little lunch break playing with Povo today and first have to say that I think it’s really cool.

    I’ve only lived in the area for a few years and I’m always up for new places to try out- but my question: how does this compete with the vast database of UGC behind City Search? Povo has a much more Wiki-like feel to it, but beyond being more authoritatively focused than the already successful, user generated, CitySearch.com… what new value is added?

  • It may take quite a while before we compete with City Search on restaurants and bars. (I submit CS is not UGC, it’s editorial with reviews). CS is not parks, or pretty much any other not-strictly-for-profit entity (they have some, but very little depth). Additionally, Povo is not just UGC, it’s “UGF”(unctionality). So for example, here’s a search for parks on CitySearch:

    http://boston.citysearch.com/search?context=directory&query=park&cslink=cs_topbar_search&searchOpt=cs

    And on Povo:

    http://boston.povo.com/?search&tags=parks

    Or for parks with baseball fields:
    http://boston.povo.com/?search&tags=parks,baseball

    And on top of that, for places I can park for less than $15 for 2 hours in Boston:
    http://boston.povo.com/?search=&verb=search&search=&tags=parking&text=&addr=Boston&radius=Boston&SearchTemplates=Parking_Garage&Parking_Garage.ParkingTime=120&Parking_Garage.MaximumParkingRate=15&x=44&y=9

    And the main point of the last one is that the entire “engine” behind that search is under user control. Want to add a checkbox for SUVs? No Povo developer has to do a thing for that to work.

    Our hope is that the “efficiency” of contribution to value creation in Povo is just in a different league from the monolithic, centralized development and editorial of something like CitySearch. But maybe I’m underestimating their ilk, and certainly the key is for us to be able to take someone like you who clearly spent time with Povo and knows what they’re talking about and make it painfully obvious how it’s different.

    Suggestions appreciated. :)

  • Ok, I expected numerous responses to my comment… but seeing as how there are none and I hate to see a great local company only have one negative comment… I’m going to go ahead and have a conversation with myself.

    I spent a little more time on Povo last night and have a rebuttal: UI and information management.

    The layout and design of Povo makes sense to me and I’ve found it incredibly easy to find the information I’m looking for.

    First – UI
    The more wiki-like layout puts a lot of information on one page, but keeps in well managed. I know where to click – and find the drill-down search feature very convenient. Plus, it just looks clean.

    Information Management
    The problem I run into with CitySearch is that its localized content isn’t localized enough. Sometimes it gives me a five mile radius (which isn’t good enough anyway) and sometimes it’s like I’m searching all of Boston metro. For someone without a car- this is a pretty important feature. The way Povo breaks down the city by neighborhood, which works very well for Boston, it’s possible to search on a heavily localized basis. I have already found more accurate local listings than CitySearch.

    What I still haven’t found is the depth of content, which sadly can only come with a large user-base and time. Once Povo gains both of these- I think we’ll have a highly useful site that could easily steal some thunder from its competition.

  • @Max
    Didn’t see your comment when I posted my follow up… not sure what happened there…

    But first, I’ll indeed contend that CS is more of an editorially based site. I’ll also admit that I hadn’t searched for parks, only restaurants- but in all fairness- when I searched for a good place to find pub food and good beer near my home- I found one of my two favorite places. I think I’ll have to make sure it finds the other one too.

    Now that I’ve delved through the pages more, what I’m seeing is more a goal of becoming the authority on localized information; wiki styled content management; and an almost organic growth potential. All of this as opposed to the social network styled CitySearch give Povo the potential to hit very well in Boston.

    And I should admit that I had originally underestimated the user generated functionality- this has potential to be really, really cool. What I had already picked up to be my favorite feature (the advanced drill-down capabilities within searches)- you pointed out that with user created functions- this becomes unlimitedly useful. I look forward to seeing what is built.

  • @Zach,
    Sometimes, comments that include lots of links (like Max’s) get caught in WordPress’s moderation queue. I just approved his comment a little while ago, which is why it appears before your second comment in the sequence didn’t get published until after yours. Sorry about that.

  • Yeah, the “UGF” (please, please, help me find a better name) is tough to convince or even explain on first visit, but it is the core reason why Povo is different than the rest (whether it’s sufficient is a separate question). As an example, and for some fun, today I got the Red Sox schedule a a CSV. I created a template with all the games in them that “returns” whether there’s a game today or not, and the details about it. Then made another template to show on the front page “There’s a game today against X at [Home/Away]”. I think this is cool. But what’s more important is that now, when somebody decides to add “event parking prices” to the parking garages around Fenway, they can use my template to figure out if that pricing applies when I’m searching, and then someone can modify the search template to ask “are you looking for parking during an upcoming Red Sox game?” or better, “when are you looking to park, so I can make sure they’re not going to crush your soul when you’re just trying to go to the movie theater?”

    Go Sox.

  • Oh, forgot to mention, we integrated Google Street View today so you can click on any listing and see the street level view. And in keeping with the wiki style and the reality that street view coordinates aren’t always right, if you find a better view, you can click a button to make that the default view for that listing.