Ruminations on the future of “local” content on the Web

I had cause to write up some thoughts on the future of local content on the Web. I thought it’d be good to get this out in the larger world and maybe get others’ take. This is very web-focused (because of my original reasons for writing it).

It’s not about the site

Very few sites are able to claim “destination” appeal. Banking on “http://yoursite.com/” to be *the business* is tragically short-sighted. The challenge is figuring out how to get that content to where the users are. I’m a fan of things like the integration of local content with http://city.ask.com. RSS feeds of frequently updated local information could also work (I access Chowhound.com and Upcoming,org solely through my feedreader).

Local == Mobile

If you’re truly seeking a next-gen experience, having a clear vision for mobile is crucial. Local information is most valuable in the moment, on the street. I can’t tell you how often I punch up Google Maps on my iPhone, or do Chowhound or Google searches when I’m out and about. As mobile devices evolve and increasingly embed themselves in people’s lives, local content must be available on the street.

Be a good web citizen

Content sites, particularly those that have been around for years, tend towards a publishing model that is more concerned with “stickiness” then with truly valuable customer experiences. Open up your content to others; receive content for other sources. Imagine Upcoming.org events and geotagged Flickr photos integrated with the local-business profile pages.

Assist decision support

This requires some research to understand more fully, but I suspect (based on my experience and what I’ve seen with others) that the biggest challenge facing local content sites is not the content itself, but is about helping people make decisions about what to do and where to go. Right now, none of these sites offer strong tools for decision support over time — apart from saving a business’ profile page. I’m talking about things like on-the-fly comparison charts; saving collections of items and share it with others; placing a selected set of choices on a map; and asking questions (think answers.com) for local-specific matters could all help users not just find information but figure out what to really do with it.

Quick Book Review: The Sushi Economy

I love to eat sushi. I’m intrigued by the mechanics of global capitalism, particularly the logistics of shipping stuff all around the world. I’m amused by cultural contact and integration, the fusion and braiding of different (and differing) societal mores. As such, Sasha Issenberg’g The Sushi Economy was just right for me.

It’s a good, not great, book. Mostly, it’s a solid piece of investigative journalism, wherein our intrepid reporter travels the world, uncovering the wherefores of the global sushi boom. The stories I most enjoyed were those of the original tuna import from Canada to Japan in the early 70s; the workings of Tsukiji fish market (which I observed a while ago); the history of pressing fish on rice; and the establishment of top-quality sushi in Austin, Texas. There were many chapters that didn’t interest me — I just skipped over them and it didn’t matter, as each chapter is pretty much self-contained.

Michael Wesch presents two new videos

As I mentioned earlier, my biggest revelation at the IDEA conference was Michael Wesch, and I was quite enamored of two new videos he showed. He’s now released them publicly.

A Vision of Students Today


This is perhaps my favorite video of the ones he’s done. I love that it came out of a collaborative project with his class. I am fascinated by how he uses the physical space of a classroom as a character in the piece.

Information R/evolution


This is for all the IAs in the house. Or anyone whose read David Weinberger’s book. Or anyone dealing with information. Which is everyone, I suppose.

IDEA 2007 Themes

For the last session at IDEA 2007, the entire conference delegation crowded around near the stage, and talked about what we’d heard over the two days. Essentially, we were all processing the event. I wrote down key themes as they were uttered. Blurrily, they are:

Themes from IDEA2007
Click for bigger

I think there was a stronger thematic pull this year than last. Apart from the general “designing complex information spaces of all kinds,” the only other intentional theme had to do with urbanism and, specifically, New York City. It was interesting how neither of those really cropped up at the end. There were two main thematic poles–Blurred Edges and Context–with a kind of secondary theme of Networks are Everything.

It’s hard to have a theme broader than Context, but I think we addressed it pretty specifically. One of the challenges that designers of information spaces have is recontextualizing the information they are providing access to. Interactive media are notoriously without context, in that they are very often simply flat screens with stuff on them. This is why so much of interactive media design involves providing context — navigation bars, breadcrumbs, “page 1 of n”, and the like.

There are many avenues for providing context (or, as the photo shows “recontextualization of disconnected media”). Some of it has to do with the theme Physical World/Physicality of Information. This came out most evidently in David’s discussion of ambience as an opportunity to communicate information in concrete ways (like, say, clocks), and Mike Kuniavsky’s presentation on WineM, which makes all the metadata about wines (varietal, vintage, region, vineyard) accessible through a wine rack.

Another opportunity for context is storytelling. Michael Wesch’s opening keynote impressed the importance of storytelling in the Papua New Guinea culture he studies, and how the imposition of bureaucratic means of census and other modes of classification have lead to strife because context had been removed. Or, in Jake’s work, narrative is an explicit tool for communicating information.

The other big theme, which I titled Blurred Edges (appropriate for that blurry snapshot) is more about practitioners trying to make sense of their roles. There was a great moment were someone brought up the challenge that information architects have long had defining themselves and their activities, and Michael Wesch, bringing his background in linguistic anthropology to bear, said that such confusion is actually a sign of Productive Disarray, which suggests a life and liveliness of a thriving profession. It has become our responsibility to Create New Roles and Careers, because this stuff hasn’t been defined, but someone has to do it. Folks like Sylvia (a self-described graphic designer), Rachel (who studied interaction design), or Jake have had to essentially make up what it is they do. Perhaps the most interesting in this regard was Chenda, who studied at the interactive media program ITP, and who is now, essentially, a bureaucrat, managing the systems behind the scenes at New York City’s 311. (And Chenda easily has the coolest bureaucrat job ever.)

As we make our way in this professional array, Networks Are Everything, introducing us to people who can support us as we try to Make Sense of the World. Similarly, networks drive the Connectedness that is bringing people together.

I’m realizing, as I write this, this is all still a little too abstract. I don’t have the energy right now to concretize it, and, frankly, I think doing so could easily fill up a book. Luckily, all the sessions were audio recorded, and you’ll be able to hear for yourself what transpired, and make your own connections.

IDEA 2007 Brief Report

Themes from IDEA2007
Click for larger image

This past Thursday and Friday I hosted IDEA 2007, a conference on the design of information spaces of all kinds. This photo captures the themes we identified in a conference-wide discussion at the very end of the event.

It was an awesome event. Thanks to the efforts of the IA Institute‘s many volunteers, I could focus on paying attention to the speakers, and they were, across the board, great.

My biggest revelation was our first speaker, Michael Wesch, professor of anthropology at Kansas State University. Michael is most famous for his The Machine is Us/ing Us video. I didn’t know what to expect from him — I invited him because of the video and his background in anthropology. I admit, I was concerned he’d bring The Discourse and get all academic on us. Instead, he was an excellent speaker, clear, bright, passionate, and clever. He’d be ideal for any event having to do with technology, education, or information, and I’m proud to have introduced him, personally, to a new audience. He showed off two new videos that he hasn’t yet released, both of which will make huge splashes.

There was so much other great stuff, too — Sylvia Harris sharing her case study of redesigning (or rather, simply *designing*) the wayfinding system of Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan; The Brad Paley Experience; Hasan Elahi’s on overwhelming the watchers; Chenda giving us a glimpse behind the scene of New York City’s 311… and I could go on.

In a second, and longer post, I will go into detail on the themes we captured, because they truly get at important characteristics of what it means to design in an information-drenched and uncertain world.

QUACK! On DUX07

The program for DUX07 (the “designing for user experience” conference) is nearly complete, and looks pretty good, and I don’t say that just because I’m the very first person on the main conference program.

And they’ve extended the early registration, so sign up soon to take advantage of the cheaper rate.

See you there!