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.
Metral 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 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.”
Trending on Xconomy
By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.