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September 04 2012

13:13

LocalWiki Releases First API, Enabling Innovative Apps

We're excited to announce that the first version of the LocalWiki API has just been released!

What's this mean?

In June, folks in Raleigh, N.C., held their annual CityCamp event. CityCamp is a sort of "civic hackathon" for Raleigh. During one part of the event, people broke up into teams and came up with projects that used technology to help solve local, civic needs.

citycamp.jpg

What did almost every project pitched at CityCamp have in common? "Almost every final CityCamp idea had incorporated a stream of content from TriangleWiki," CityCamp and TriangleWiki organizer Reid Seroz said in an interview with Red Hat's Jason Hibbets.

The LocalWiki API makes it really easy for people to build applications and systems that push and pull information from a LocalWiki. In fact, the API has already been integrated into a few applications. LocalWiki is an effort to create community-owned, living information repositories that will provide much-needed context behind the people, places, and events that shape our communities.

The winning project at CityCamp Raleigh, RGreenway, is a mobile app that helps residents find local greenways. They plan to push/pull data from the TriangleWiki's extensive listing of greenways.

Another group in the Raleigh-Durham area, Wanderful, is developing a mobile application that teaches residents about their local history as they wander through town. They're using the LocalWiki API to pull pages and maps from the TriangleWiki.

Ultimately, we hope that LocalWiki can be thought of as an API for the city itself -- a bridge between local data and local knowledge, between the quantitative and the qualitative aspects of community life.

Using the API

You can read the API documentation to learn about the new API. You'll also want to make sure you check out some of the API examples to get a feel for things.

wanderful.jpg

We did a lot of work to integrate advanced geospatial support into the API, extending the underlying API library we were using -- and now everyone using it can effortlessly create an awesome geospatially aware API.

This is just the first version of the API, and there's a lot more we want to do! As we add more structured data to LocalWiki, the API will get more and more useful. And we hope to simplify and streamline the API as we see real-world usage.

Want to help? Share your examples for interacting with the API from a variety of environments -- jump in on the page on dev.localwiki.org or add examples/polish to the administrative documentation.

CityCamp photo courtesy of CityCamp Raleigh.

Philip Neustrom is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay area. He co-founded DavisWiki.org in 2004 and is currently co-directing the LocalWiki.org effort. For the past several years he has worked on a variety of non-profit efforts to engage everyday citizens. He oversaw the development of the popular VideoTheVote.org, the world's largest coordinated video documentation project, and was the lead developer at Citizen Engagement Laboratory, a non-profit focused on empowering traditionally underrepresented constituencies. He is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with a bachelor's in Mathematics.

August 07 2012

14:00

From Japan to Burning Man, LocalWiki Heats Up the Summer

We want to let you know about some really fantastic stuff that's happened in the LocalWiki world over the past month.

Tallahassee, Fla.

The folks spearheading the TallahasseeWiki project held their first two in-person CampWiki workshops. The idea behind the workshops is to introduce community members to the TallahasseeWiki, get them excited, answer questions and start building out the project.

Below are some photos of the CampWiki workshops:

campwiki_1.jpg

campwiki_2.jpg

campwiki_3.jpg

Their meetup even made the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat!

Olympia, Wash.

OlyWiki held its first little in-person meetup. Unfortunately, they didn't take any pictures, so here's a photo of Seth Vincent, the project leader, putting up some flyers around town:

olywiki.jpg

Oakland, Calif.

A group of really great folks have started laying the groundwork for an OaklandWiki project, and during the recent Code for Oakland hackathon there were around 30 people digging into OaklandWiki. The group was so large that it was broken into two rooms: one for helping with development/tech stuff and the other for content and planning.

Below are some images from the OakWiki workshop:

oakwiki_dev.jpg

oakwiki_workshop.jpg

Raleigh, N.C.

The Raleigh City Council has begun to investigate how to, in its official capacity, best work with the TriangleWiki project! Here's a clip from their recent meeting where council member Bonner Gaylord asks city staff to come up with a report on how to collaborate with the project:

Tokyo area, Japan

Thanks to the internationalization work done by Pedro Lima and Nuno Maltez in Portugal, there's been an increasing amount of international interest in starting LocalWiki projects. A couple of weeks ago, Shu Higashi gave a demo of a LocalWiki to a group of open data activists in Japan. The best part? He demoed his Japanese translation of LocalWiki!

Black Rock City (Burning Man)

openplaya_thumb.jpg

Some folks are starting up a LocalWiki project for Black Rock City/Burning Man!

It's literally just getting started, but it's such a cool idea we wanted to share it with you.

LocalWiki Organizers mailing list

Organizing a new LocalWiki project or wanting to get started? You should join the ultra-new LocalWiki-organizers mailing list! Be sure to send a little introduction to the list after you've joined.

Miscellaneous awesomeness

In no particular order, a few other interesting things that have happened over the past month:

Tallahassee photos courtesy Bob Howard. Oakland photos courtesy Eddie Tejeda.

February 28 2012

14:00

As TriangleWiki Gets Ready to Launch, LocalWiki Reflects on Its First Year

Hey friends!

Whew! A lot has happened since our last PBS Idea Lab blog update! Our first focus community, DentonWiki, has been doing great, and several of our other focus communities are close to launching.

triwikiday_editparty-300x225.jpg

Just recently, nearly 50 people came together in Raleigh, N.C., to join a massive in-person content-building sprint to build up the soon-to-be-launched TriangleWiki.org. Folks from all walks of life joined in -- two city council members and Raleigh's chief planning director even came by to help out. Read more about the event on our blog.

And our new software has been rapidly adopted by communities around the world. Since our last email, over 180 independent communities have installed our LocalWiki software, making us one of the most-installed Knight News Challenge projects ever!

Our first year, in review

We thought it'd be great to take some time to look back and reflect on our past year. We've put together this report highlighting some of what we've accomplished and where we're headed:

Check it out and share widely!

xo-
Philip & Mike

December 01 2011

15:20

LocalWiki Launches First Pilot, Announces Major Software Release

Hey friends! We've got two extremely exciting announcements for you. Our first focus community, serving Denton, Texas, has launched. And we're making the first major release of the new LocalWiki software today!

denton_cheers_small.jpg

The LocalWiki project is an ambitious effort to create community-owned, living information repositories that will provide much-needed context behind the people, places, and events that shape our communities. We were awarded a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant to create an entirely new sort of software to make our vision of massively collaborative local media a reality.

Launching our first pilot

The DentonWiki, serving the community of Denton, Texas, has officially launched to the public. Check it out.

texas_bound_email.jpg

Denton is a small, college-focused community in North Texas, about an hour from Dallas. Being a college town, it's easy to see parallels to Davis, Calif. But it's a radically different place than Davis, as anyone who's been to the Dallas area can attest.

Folks in Denton had been building up and playing around with their project for a few months. With the new LocalWiki software at a good point, and a solid amount of interesting pages on their project, I packed up and headed out to Denton for two weeks to help them get their project ready to launch.

We held several marathon editing/hang-out sessions while there, met with lots of local Denonites, got a feel for the community, and did a bunch of work to prep the site for launch.

editing_hangout.jpg

The Denton project has already seen a higher level of participation and usage than DavisWiki did in its early days. And we're really seeing our extreme focus on usability pay off -- I watched many non-technical people simply get handed a laptop and just immediately start creating great stuff without any guidance.

If you want to read more about DentonWiki and the launch process there, check out some information we're compiling on our guide site.

This first focus community launch -- the first of many -- is a huge milestone for the project.

LocalWiki software released

Today we are also excited to announce the first major release of the LocalWiki software! Check it out at localwiki.org. Make sure you watch the video.

screenshot.png

Starting today, any community can create a local wiki using our new software. The software is designed to be installed by someone who's somewhat technical -- someone who's had some experience working with Linux, for instance. We worked hard to make the software as easy to install as possible.

Most people will simply use the software -- not install it, though. We're hoping that over the coming months many technically-savvy community champions will set up LocalWiki for their communities. The localwiki.org site is currently focused on targeting these sort of technically minded folks.

There's a list of communities currently running LocalWiki here (and a map here). We'll let you know as more come online, develop and launch!

There's so much more we have planned for the LocalWiki software -- but this day marks a significant step toward realizing the dream of collaborative, community-run media in every local community.

xo-
Philip & Mike

A version of this post first appeared on the LocalWiki blog.

May 10 2011

15:23

May 05 2011

18:40

How Front Porch Forum Connects Neighbors in Real Life

An awful situation for any parent ... my wife suddenly needed to drive four hours to Boston Children's Hospital to shepherd our son through a medical emergency. He was already in Boston, but Valerie couldn't get out of the driveway. A freak blizzard had drifted four feet of snow across it. If she didn't get on the road soon, the childcare lined up for our younger kids would fall apart. I was out of state and no help at all. What to do?

FPF_homepage.jpg

One simple posting to Front Porch Forum and a dozen neighbors materialized. Wielding snow blowers and shovels, they blasted a path so my wife could begin her journey to the hospital. Her arrival sparked our little boy's turnaround, and now, gratefully, he's home and doing well.

So is this one heartwarming tale important? Well, I can tell you that the news of a neighborhood kid being hospitalized and his mother being kept from him by the big blizzard got top billing that day in our area. Not only did neighbors talk about this story (I'm still asked about it months later), most amazingly, about 2 percent of the neighborhood actually dropped what they were doing as soon as they heard, suited up, and headed out the door to pitch in.

Going local

"Local" is hot in the online universe (or "hyper-local," whatever that means!) -- and for good reason. My neighbors-to-the-rescue story is one of hundreds that we've seen on Front Porch Forum. Thousands more emanate from local blogs, mailing lists, neighborhood websites, and other town-specific Internet outposts. Millions more await the arrival of a successful local online platform.

My wife and I launched Front Porch Forum in 2006 across our metro region after running a precursor for just our own Burlington, Vt., neighborhood for six years. Now, as a 2010 Knight News Challenge award winner, we're rebuilding our platform to incorporate lessons learned, and expanding to new regions.

Over the past decade, I've learned from hundreds of local sites. Some, like Craigslist, have taken over a whole sector, while others, like Backfence.com, informed many, but ultimately failed. To make sense of this growing body of experience, I've examined local sites along dozens of dimensions.

Is Walmart local?

Many tech blogs spin themselves dizzy over the likes of GroupOn, FourSquare, LivingSocial, Patch, etc. They focus on the giant well-funded dot-coms that are national or global in reach. But how can something be "local" when it's coming from far away? As Baristanet's Debra Galant said recently to StreetFight, "Patch certainly rubs all of the independents the wrong way. Patch is part of AOL. (It is) like Walmart coming into main street."

Increasingly, major companies like GroupOn and Patch are employing local sales and content staff in each area where they operate. This stands in stark contrast to the all-algorithm/no-people Google-type model. At the same time, it's more efficient than the traditional newspaper model. For example, Front Porch Forum reaches more households in Burlington than the local Gannett daily, and we employ three compared with its 300.

Aggregators vs. originators: What about the audience?

Several recent commentators divide local into two camps: aggregators and originators. Topix and AmericanTowns are two aggregators, while Datasphere is a network of originators. LocalWiki (another Knight News Challenge award winner) and iBrattleboro are examples of originators, too.

However, this view misses a crucial third source of content ... the locals! When you're talking about a story of interest to only several hundred nearby neighbors, then the community's contribution to the story is crucial. Many aggregators and originators have space for user comments, while other successful sites put the community first, ahead of the stories. For example, Front Porch Forum postings from our neighbors are picked up by local journalists and bloggers every week and spun into traditional news stories.

Who's creating the core content on these local sites: professionals, a few amateurs, or the crowd? Newspaper sites use professional journalists, one-off hyper-local bloggers often have one or more regular amateurs, and other sites, such as Front Porch Forum, get the content from the crowd. We found that half of one town subscribed to Front Porch Forum and an amazing three-quarters of them had posted ... the crowd speaks!

What about community conversation?

A growing list of services offer data aggregated by location, e.g., the innovative Everyblock (and fellow Knight News Challenge award winner). Other sites focus on reporting. Increasingly, these services are coming to realize the value of empowering community-level conversations among neighbors. Witness Everyblock's recent major upgrade to bring social into its mix.

Local secret sauce

chef_photo.jpg

So that's a taste of a few of the critical ingredients to consider when perusing the local online menu. In our decade of local online cooking, we've refined our secret sauce to make Front Porch Forum wildly successful in our pilot region. Half of Burlington subscribes to their neighborhood forums. Even more amazing, more than half of those members actively contribute. Most importantly, neighbor-helping-neighbor stories flow through Front Porch Forum daily, just like the one about the shovel-wielding neighbors who sent my wife on her way to the hospital.

These are but a few of the issues with which to grapple. Others include anonymity vs. pseudo-anonymity vs. real identities, scale, mobile, and lots more. We're currently hosting 150 online neighborhood forums, and our team learns something new every day. Local online is heating up! Stay tuned.

18:40

Design Decision for Local Online News: What's the Secret Sauce?

An awful situation for any parent ... my wife suddenly needed to drive four hours to Boston Children's Hospital to shepherd our son through a medical emergency. He was already in Boston, but Valerie couldn't get out of the driveway. A freak blizzard had drifted four feet of snow across it. If she didn't get on the road soon, the childcare lined up for our younger kids would fall apart. I was out of state and no help at all. What to do?

FPF_homepage.jpg

One simple posting to Front Porch Forum and a dozen neighbors materialized. Wielding snow blowers and shovels, they blasted a path so my wife could begin her journey to the hospital. Her arrival sparked our little boy's turnaround, and now, gratefully, he's home and doing well.

So is this one heartwarming tale important? Well, I can tell you that the news of a neighborhood kid being hospitalized and his mother being kept from him by the big blizzard got top billing that day in our area. Not only did neighbors talk about this story (I'm still asked about it months later), most amazingly, about 2 percent of the neighborhood actually dropped what they were doing as soon as they heard, suited up, and headed out the door to pitch in.

Going local

"Local" is hot in the online universe (or "hyper-local," whatever that means!) -- and for good reason. My neighbors-to-the-rescue story is one of hundreds that we've seen on Front Porch Forum. Thousands more emanate from local blogs, mailing lists, neighborhood websites, and other town-specific Internet outposts. Millions more await the arrival of a successful local online platform.

My wife and I launched Front Porch Forum in 2006 across our metro region after running a precursor for just our own Burlington, Vt., neighborhood for six years. Now, as a 2010 Knight News Challenge award winner, we're rebuilding our platform to incorporate lessons learned, and expanding to new regions.

Over the past decade, I've learned from hundreds of local sites. Some, like Craigslist, have taken over a whole sector, while others, like Backfence.com, informed many, but ultimately failed. To make sense of this growing body of experience, I've examined local sites along dozens of dimensions.

Is Walmart local?

Many tech blogs spin themselves dizzy over the likes of GroupOn, FourSquare, LivingSocial, Patch, etc. They focus on the giant well-funded dot-coms that are national or global in reach. But how can something be "local" when it's coming from far away? As Baristanet's Debra Galant said recently to StreetFight, "Patch certainly rubs all of the independents the wrong way. Patch is part of AOL. (It is) like Walmart coming into main street."

Increasingly, major companies like GroupOn and Patch are employing local sales and content staff in each area where they operate. This stands in stark contrast to the all-algorithm/no-people Google-type model. At the same time, it's more efficient than the traditional newspaper model. For example, Front Porch Forum reaches more households in Burlington than the local Gannett daily, and we employ three compared with its 300.

Aggregators vs. originators: What about the audience?

Several recent commentators divide local into two camps: aggregators and originators. Topix and AmericanTowns are two aggregators, while Datasphere is a network of originators. LocalWiki (another Knight News Challenge award winner) and iBrattleboro are examples of originators, too.

However, this view misses a crucial third source of content ... the locals! When you're talking about a story of interest to only several hundred nearby neighbors, then the community's contribution to the story is crucial. Many aggregators and originators have space for user comments, while other successful sites put the community first, ahead of the stories. For example, Front Porch Forum postings from our neighbors are picked up by local journalists and bloggers every week and spun into traditional news stories.

Who's creating the core content on these local sites: professionals, a few amateurs, or the crowd? Newspaper sites use professional journalists, one-off hyper-local bloggers often have one or more regular amateurs, and other sites, such as Front Porch Forum, get the content from the crowd. We found that half of one town subscribed to Front Porch Forum and an amazing three-quarters of them had posted ... the crowd speaks!

What about community conversation?

A growing list of services offer data aggregated by location, e.g., the innovative Everyblock (and fellow Knight News Challenge award winner). Other sites focus on reporting. Increasingly, these services are coming to realize the value of empowering community-level conversations among neighbors. Witness Everyblock's recent major upgrade to bring social into its mix.

Local secret sauce

chef_photo small.jpg

So that's a taste of a few of the critical ingredients to consider when perusing the local online menu. In our decade of local online cooking, we've refined our secret sauce to make Front Porch Forum wildly successful in our pilot region. Half of Burlington subscribes to their neighborhood forums. Even more amazing, more than half of those members actively contribute. Most importantly, neighbor-helping-neighbor stories flow through Front Porch Forum daily, just like the one about the shovel-wielding neighbors who sent my wife on her way to the hospital.

These are but a few of the issues with which to grapple. Others include anonymity vs. pseudo-anonymity vs. real identities, scale, mobile, and lots more. We're currently hosting 150 online neighborhood forums, and our team learns something new every day. Local online is heating up! Stay tuned.

April 04 2011

13:30

LocalWiki Codes, Talks, Searches for Pilot Community

Here's a summary of what we've been up to for the past month or so at LocalWiki: coding, coding, coding, coding, talking, coding, talking, talking, coding, coding, coding. Occasionally we take breaks for sleep and nutritional intake purposes. Want more detail? Read on!


Code, code, code, code & milestone


We've been hard at work on the software side of the project. In the past month, we've:

  • begun serious work on our collaborative mapping system;
  • made the basic functions of our page editor work better;
  • and come up with a way to allow for plug-ins and dynamic content inside pages.

We're aiming to have something that our first pilot community can use to begin building content by May 1. It won't be pretty or complete. Our goal is to allow our first pilot to start experimenting and providing feedback while using the software to start building something great in their community. This milestone will also be a good point for interested developers to jump in, as we'll have something a little more polished and cohesive than we do now.


Talk, talk, talk


This month, we had a panel at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, titled "Too Small, Too Open: Correcting Wikipedia's Local Failure." It went really well, despite being at 9:30 am on a Saturday! I was joined by Phoebe Ayers of the Wikimedia Foundation and Michael Trice of the University of Leeds Centre for Digital Citizenship.

In February, we were part of a roundtable at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, to discuss the unveiling of a paper they wrote with the Knight Foundation about local community information hubs. Their report praises the model we are developing. "Davis Wiki site offers almost everything the authors of the Informing Communities report hoped for when they drew up the seven key ingredients for any local online hub," the authors wrote.

A few weeks before that, we gave a talk at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism's Knight Digital Media Center on the Davis Wiki and a bit about our work on the LocalWiki project.


Choosing our first pilot community


Assuming all goes according to plan, we'll choose our first pilot community to work with in six weeks. But we need your help. We're looking for some particular characteristics for our first pilot community:

  • willingness to work with incomplete software;
  • ability to work fairly autonomously, at least at first;
  • preferably, a community where the media landscape is not already crowded;
  • patience and commitment -- it will take time and effort;
  • and enthusiasm, curiosity and wonder!

Know of some great people in a place that fits what we're looking for? If so, please recommend a pilot community. We'll be in contact with potential candidates for our first pilot in five weeks or so. Expect an Idea Lab update around that time.

February 17 2011

16:10

LocalWiki Tries "Open-From-The-Start" Development Process

It's time for another project update. We've been hard at work on the core of the software that will power LocalWiki. We've also been spending time running around meeting people passionate about local media and planning out many things to come.

Basic groundwork laid

whiteboard_small.jpg

Many of you know about the Davis Wiki, but what you may not know is that we developed the custom software that powers it ourselves. Back in 2004, there was just nothing else that could do everything you see on the Davis Wiki while being easy enough for most people to use. Developing the custom software was well worth the effort, but the more we learned along the way, the more we wished we could change some of the choices we had made early on and build on a better foundation.

When we got the opportunity to embark on the LocalWiki project, we knew this was our chance to take another look at the core of wiki software and rebuild it using today's technology and the lessons we learned from years of experience and analyzing our other wiki engines' code. At the most basic level, one of the things we learned was that providing even simple wiki features like editing and versioning pages was difficult and cumbersome. What's worse, if done wrong these things make it downright painful for developers to add more complex features. For instance, while there may have been lots of code to help save and track versions of pages, that code couldn't be used to help someone save and track versions of map points.

By laying a solid foundation for the LocalWiki software, we'll not only make it easier for others to create basic wiki-like systems but that code will also allow us to go farther with our vision of making the best software for local communities to collaborate on information. In the past couple of months we've written an extensive versioning system for the Django framework that will allow us to simplify later development; explored and refined ways to show changes between different objects, especially rendered HTML pages; began the work on our graphic editor interface; and did lots and lots of research on different technologies.

Opening up our development process

We want the LocalWiki project to have an open-from-the-start development process. As such, while the code isn't ready for casual contributors quite yet, we are fully opening our development process. While we have experience working in the open-source world, one thing we're new at is working full-time alongside other folks. We'll probably make some mistakes, but we want to get this right.

Are you an experienced developer who wants to get involved? Please sign up for our developer mailing list. We'll be sending out a super-geeky developer update in the next day or two.

A (tiny) space to call our own

philip_painting_small.jpg

A little over a week ago, we moved into a little hole-in-the-wall office space. After working out of a coworking space for the first two months, we felt we could be more productive without the distractions that come with sharing a space with so many (admittedly, incredibly nice and professional) people. The space in San Francisco's Mission District is tiny and barely fits two desks, but it's quiet, it's convenient, and we can stay here late into the night working. After spending a weekend furnishing it, the new space has made a huge difference in our comfort, communication, and ability to work for hours on end without interruptions. It also turns out to be cheaper than the coworking setup, which is a nice bonus.

What about the Kickstarter funds?

Several months ago, we faced a serious issue: The Knight Foundation committed funding to the software development aspects of the LocalWiki project, but essential outreach and education aspects were unfunded. With your help, we raised an absolutely essential fund through Kickstarter.com to support outreach and education in pilot communities.

Our plan for the Kickstarter fund is to hold on to it until we begin the outreach and education phase of the project, which will happen shortly after the first pilot community is selected.

January 06 2011

19:06

LocalWiki: Laying the Groundwork

A few of you have been wondering what we've been up to since our Kickstarter pledge drive ended, so we want to give you a quick update on our Knight-funded project, LocalWiki. For those of you who are more technically inclined, we hope to also provide an insight into these early stages of our process.

To follow our updates in the future, please sign up with your email address at http://localwiki.org, follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/localwiki, or follow our blog directly. Or if you're a huge geek, join us on IRC in Freenode's #localwiki.

Right now, we are ramping up development of the wiki software that will provide the platform for all of our pilot projects. Starting in October, my partner Mike Ivanov and I have been working out of our awesome coworking office in San Francisco (shout out to NextSpace) and laying the groundwork for this new platform.


Making software that lasts

This may not make much sense unless you're a techie, but here are some details about what's going on:

Our initial focus at this stage is to build a set of reusable Django apps that will provide the core functionality of an extensible and easy-to-use wiki software, which include making it straightforward to edit a page, to track and work with revisions of pages and other objects, and to let people compare those revisions to see what's been changed. We will then use these components to build the first functional iteration of our wiki software. The benefits of this approach are that it helps us focus on each aspect separately, will help developers in the Django community to understand and contribute to our code, and makes it possible for other projects and organizations to use only the parts they might find useful. Software only survives if many people actively use it, and we want to ensure our software a long and happy life.

Next Few Months, Roughly Speaking

Until February: Core software. We will create the central components of the wiki software and put them together into something that will enable folks to start creating awesome content. We unfortunately have to work out some legal issues around licensing before we can easily accept outside code contributions.

As soon as our licensing issues are resolved, we'll send out an update with information about how to get involved with the development process. We hope the licensing issues will be resolved in the next couple of weeks. Nevertheless, it may be difficult for outside developers to get involved at this point because core bits and pieces will be moving and changing at a rapid rate.

February-April: Focus on features. We will push heavily to involve more outside developers to help make our software awesome and get some initial user feedback. If you are a developer interested in helping, this will be the best time for you to get involved because we will have somewhat solidified our development processes and underlying, core software. We will also need help with and feedback about the software from a higher level (e.g. feature requests).

April and beyond: Pilot communities, educational materials, community outreach. With the wiki platform largely built, we can start new pilot projects and educating potential users about building successful local projects. At this stage we will need all the help we can get from you to select pilots, write helpful guides, submit bug reports, and develop a model for communities to follow.

19:06

Laying the Groundwork For a Community Wiki

A few of you have been wondering what we've been up to since our Kickstarter pledge drive ended, so we want to give you a quick update on our Knight-funded project, LocalWiki. For those of you who are more technically inclined, we hope to also provide an insight into these early stages of our process.

To follow our updates in the future, please sign up with your email address at http://localwiki.org, follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/localwiki, or follow our blog directly. Or if you're a huge geek, join us on IRC in Freenode's #localwiki.

Right now, we are ramping up development of the wiki software that will provide the platform for all of our pilot projects. Starting in October, my partner Mike Ivanov and I have been working out of our awesome coworking office in San Francisco (shout out to NextSpace) and laying the groundwork for this new platform.


Making software that lasts

This may not make much sense unless you're a techie, but here are some details about what's going on:

Our initial focus at this stage is to build a set of reusable Django apps that will provide the core functionality of an extensible and easy-to-use wiki software, which include making it straightforward to edit a page, to track and work with revisions of pages and other objects, and to let people compare those revisions to see what's been changed. We will then use these components to build the first functional iteration of our wiki software. The benefits of this approach are that it helps us focus on each aspect separately, will help developers in the Django community to understand and contribute to our code, and makes it possible for other projects and organizations to use only the parts they might find useful. Software only survives if many people actively use it, and we want to ensure our software a long and happy life.

Next Few Months, Roughly Speaking

Until February: Core software. We will create the central components of the wiki software and put them together into something that will enable folks to start creating awesome content. We unfortunately have to work out some legal issues around licensing before we can easily accept outside code contributions.

As soon as our licensing issues are resolved, we'll send out an update with information about how to get involved with the development process. We hope the licensing issues will be resolved in the next couple of weeks. Nevertheless, it may be difficult for outside developers to get involved at this point because core bits and pieces will be moving and changing at a rapid rate.

February-April: Focus on features. We will push heavily to involve more outside developers to help make our software awesome and get some initial user feedback. If you are a developer interested in helping, this will be the best time for you to get involved because we will have somewhat solidified our development processes and underlying, core software. We will also need help with and feedback about the software from a higher level (e.g. feature requests).

April and beyond: Pilot communities, educational materials, community outreach. With the wiki platform largely built, we can start new pilot projects and educating potential users about building successful local projects. At this stage we will need all the help we can get from you to select pilots, write helpful guides, submit bug reports, and develop a model for communities to follow.

November 15 2010

14:06

The Pros and Cons of Using Kickstarter to Fundraise

We recently ended our first big fundraising drive for the LocalWiki project and wanted to take a moment to step back and reflect.

In particular, we'd like to talk about the funding platform we used, Kickstarter, and its advantages and disadvantages. While we already had a grant from the Knight Foundation to develop the LocalWiki software, we need to raise more money to go beyond just the software and help us do community outreach, coordination and education to ensure our project's success.

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter describes itself as "a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors." It works like this:
  1. You post a project description on Kickstarter. You make a pitch video. The video isn't a strict requirement, but almost all funded projects have a video. You come up with a set of "rewards" for different pledge levels on the site. You set a funding goal and a time frame for your project.
  2. Kickstarter staff look at your proposed project and provide feedback. Then they (hopefully) approve your project and it's posted on the site.
  3. Your project goes live.
  4. If you don't hit your funding goal in the specified time frame, no one's cards get charged and you don't receive any of the funds.

Sounds simple enough, right?

An almost remarkable percentage of Kickstarter projects reach their funding goal. How's this possible? There are a few reasons why Kickstarter appears to be such a successful fundraising platform.

1. Staff Filtering

As mentioned before, the Kickstarter staff review postings before they appear on the site. In our case, it took a few days of back-and-forth with Kickstarter staff for our project to get a green light.

In our case, Kickstarter staff were concerned with our initial reward selections. Kickstarter wants you to have a rich selection of rewards that provide a lot of value to pledgers. For instance, something that seems like it ought to be worth $50 should be priced as close to market value as possible in the reward selection. We almost gave up on using Kickstarter because the approval process appeared to be pushing us toward a reward selection that would really cut into our real, post-reward funds.

That raises another important point: Kickstarter staff wants your project to succeed. Their filtering process helps Kickstarter ensure high quality (lots of successful projects!) and also lets them push project creators to maximize their chances of success (well priced rewards!). The main reason Kickstarter staff wants your project to succeed, though, is because Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of your funds.

So, in our case, we ended up paying Kickstarter $1,316. That's fairly significant, but it may be worth it.

2. The Kickstarter "Mold"

Launching a Kickstarter project means you're going to have to do certain things if you want to meet your funding goal:
  • Produce a video about why you want to raise money. This helps you focus your message into a couple minutes. This helps you fundraise.
  • Write about, and provide updates, why you want to raise money. Again, this forces you to focus your message.
  • Widely publicize your project. This is magnified by the next point ("All-or-nothing").
Your project will also be sitting alongside lots of other interesting projects, so just "hanging out" on Kickstarter may help your fundraising effort seem more legitimate. However, you may not get many pledges from traffic originating from Kickstarter.com -- this really depends on what type of project you have. In our case, probably 90 percent of our pledges came directly from folks browsing Davis Wiki.

Having to fit into this mold means you're going to have to do the kinds of things that organizations that fundraise successfully do. Which is great, because you might not have done all these things otherwise.

3. User Interface

When we decided to launch our outreach/education fundraiser we didn't have a lot of time to prepare a fancy fundraising site. We knew the Knight Foundation grant announcement would generate a fair amount of press and we wanted to capitalize on that excitement and energy. We had a couple days before we had to be in Boston for the announcement and most of our time was spent making our fundraising video. So having a pre-built, well designed fundraising site like Kickstarter really helped us.

Here's what you see when you click the usual Paypal "Donate" button on our site:


and here's what you see when you click "Pledge" on Kickstarter:


While we could have crafted our own pledge drive interface on top of a payment gateway, using Kickstarter saved us a lot of time.

4. All Or Nothing

Kickstarter pledge drives are "all or nothing," meaning that if the goal isn't met by the specified time then no one's credit cards are charged and the project doesn't get any of the pledged funds.
 

Surprisingly, the all-or-nothing nature of Kickstarter is its greatest asset in ensuring projects hit their funding goal. Once a project has reached a certain threshold of funding, the project creators (and pledgers!) feel an intense desire to "unlock" the money. In fact, word has it that something around 90 percent of projects that reach 25 percent of their funding goal are eventually fully unded.

Having projects be all-or-nothing was probably a decision made by Kickstarter to support projects that need to meet a concrete goal, such as printing the first major run of a new book. These are, by and large, the sort of projects Kickstarter excels at funding -- projects where, if a certain amount of money isn't raised, the project simply isn't possible, or isn't worth it.

But what about projects that deviate from this format? Projects that need to fundraise money but aren't goal-or-doesn't-matter? For more general fundraising projects, the all-or-nothing property has an interesting effect: It functions as a sort of "matching donation" multipler. In traditional fundraising, matching donations -- where an individual or organization pledges to donation $X but only if $X is raised independently -- are a common and successful way to drum up contributions. With Kickstarter, a donation of $50 with a $10K goal can be thought of as being "matched" by 199 other $50 contributions!

The all-or-nothing characteristic is a way to create a big "matching donation" pool and helps drive pledges even for projects that could make do with less than their goal amount.

Drawbacks

It's not all milk and honey, though. There are some hidden drawbacks and costs to using Kickstarter.
 

Fees

Kickstarter takes a 5 percent cut of your pledges and Amazon will take an additional amount (around 2 percent) on top of that. If your margins are slim, this could be significant.

You should think about it like this: I'm paying Kickstarter 5 percent of my pledge goal if we make it. Is the Kickstarter service worth the 5 percent? In particular, you should think about 1) The pre-built platform you get with Kickstarter; 2) the publicity of being on Kickstarter; 3) the "mold" that Kickstarter forces you into and the value of that.

#1 is worth it if you don't have a lot of time or resources to build something yourself. We certainly didn't.

In some cases, #2 is really valuable. Obscure, quirky projects can get amazing press just by being a part of Kickstarter. But if you're doing something more like a traditional community-based fundraiser you probably won't get much from #2. For us, the publicity of being on Kickstarter didn't drive a lot of pledges, but it did give us some valuable exposure.

I think everyone can benefit from #3 unless you're a large organization with a track record of successful fundraisers. In that case you've already got methodology, fundraising materials, and probably a big existing donor base.

It's hard to take Kickstarter fundraising offline

We held a couple of offline events during our pledge drive (a bar night and a silent auction). Unfortunately, it's pretty difficult to move offline funds back onto Kickstarter. You're not permitted to "pledge" toward your own project, which means you need to find a trustworthy third party to agree to pledge any offline funds. This also means the offline donors won't be noted on Kickstarter.

For local community-based fundraising efforts this can be problematic.

The all-or-nothing system is a bit confusing

Unfortunately, the all-or-nothing pledge system can be a bit confusing. Many folks we talked to thought they had already given us money before we hit our funding deadline.

Our fundraising period was 90 days -- the longest allowed by Kickstarter -- and so there were lots of people who'd simply forgotten they'd pledged by the time their cards were charged. Thankfully, Kickstarter is astonishingly good at collecting funds (they pester pledgers with an email every day for a week if their card is declined), and we only saw a few pledges that never came through.

Many successful projects are basically product sales

Despite the perception of Kickstarter as a fundraising site, a large number of high profile Kickstarter projects are, at their core, product sales. What do I mean by product sales?

Well, all Kickstarter projects have rewards. And unless you get remarkably lucky, you're going to have some cost associated with acquiring, shipping, and dealing with that reward. For folks in the non-profit world, we're all very familiar with the standard tax-deductability formula that's on donation receipts:

(Amount contributed) - (Value of goods or services given to donor) = Deductible amount

This isn't just some tax mumbo-jumbo -- it tells that the donor intended to give at least the deductible amount to the organization or project itself. But this formula doesn't tell us everything. After all, oftentimes we get goods or services donated to us and then, in turn, give them away. We're still bringing in money, either way. So the important missing part here is the cost to us of those goods or services, right?

(Amount contributed) - (Cost to us of goods or services given to donor) = Our profit

The first formula is still useful for differentiating these "I'm basically selling something" Kickstarter projects from "I'm doing something amazing, help us!" projects. So let's call the first formula the "Donation amount" and the second formula the "Profit amount."

How do projects measure up?

Methodology: I calculated Profit and Donation amount by using my best guess of production cost and resell value of the rewards (to an interested party). For instance, a T-shirt is counted as having little or no value (unless the project is all about T-shirts). This is roughly how the IRS counts things.

I also subtracted estimated Kickstarter and Amazon fees from total profit. I also factored in over-pledging and "no reward" choices.

The following are projects I've heard about recently, either because they got widespread press or because they touched my social circle in some way:

  • Vuvuzelas for BP: Raised $6,846 with a pledge goal of $2,000. Estimated Profit: $5,437. Estimated Donations: $6,846. Profit percentage: 79%. Donation percentage: 100%.
  • NIMBY - Industrial Art and DIY Space: Raised $17,897 with a pledge goal of $17,255. Estimated Profit: $16,161. Estimated Donation: $17,823. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 100%.
  • Hollaback!: Raised $13,560 with a pledge goal of $12,500. Estimated Profit: $12,241. Estimated Donation: $13,466. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 99%.
  • Decentralize the web with Diaspora: Raised $200,641 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $135,905. Estimated Donation: $180,051. Profit percentage: 67%. Donation percentage: 90%.
  • Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America: Raised $12,568 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $11,397. Estimated Donation: $10,848. Profit percentage: 90%. Donation percentage: 86%.
  • Punk Mathematics: Raised $28,701 with a pledge goal of $2,400. Estimated Profit: $20,224. Estimated Donation: $17,225. Profit percentage: 70%. Donation percentage: 60%.
  • Power Laces: Raised $25,024 with a pledge goal of $25,000. Estimated Profit: $12,429. Estimated Donation: $12,904. Profit percentage: 50%. Donation percentage: 51%.
  • Designing Obama: Raised $84,613 with a pledge goal of $65,000. Estimated Profit: $24,717. Estimated Donation: $30,010. Profit percentage: 29%. Donation percentage: 35%.
  • Coming and Crying: Real stories about sex from the other side of the bed: Raised $17,242 with a pledge goal of $3,000. Estimated Profit: $10,773. Estimated Donation: $6,144. Profit percentage: 62%. Donation percentage: 35%.
  • Glif - iPhone 4 Tripod Mount & Stand: Raised $137,417 with a pledge goal of $10,000. Estimated Profit: $98,950. Estimated Donation: $15,467. Profit ratio: 72%. Donation ratio: 11%.
  • Lockpicks by Open Locksport: Raised $87,407 with a pledge goal of $6,000. Estimated Profit: $64,043. Estimated Donation: $4,922. Profit percentage: 73%. Donation percentage: 6%.

This is hardly a proper random sample, and all of these projects were successfully funded. Many projects on Kickstarter never reach their funding goal. Unfortunately, it's difficult to search Kickstarter for unsuccessful projects for more data points.

Additionally, there are other costs associated with shipping rewards and time spent drumming up pledges, processing shipments, etc. Theses costs weren't included, but some costs (like time) are very real.

Conclusion

So, is Kickstarter good for running fundraising drives? Well, let's take a look at this graph:

That big spike is the Diaspora project, which had a few extraordinary factors working in its favor -- perfect timing, massive public backlash against Facebook, and a huge NYT piece. Ignoring that spike, it's clear that the projects which have the highest Kickstarter totals are those that are actually getting the least amount in donation-like pledges.

So while Kickstarter has many high-profile, successful pledge drives under their belt, the campaigns that raise the most cash tend to not look much like traditional donation drives.

All-in-all, we're happy we used Kickstarter. It helped us raise significantly more than we would have otherwise. It has drawbacks, though, particularly for non-profit organizations wanting to run somewhat traditional fundraising drives.

October 05 2010

16:04

LocalWiki to Create Collaborative, Community-Owned Local Media

So much of the unique knowledge and experiences we acquire through years of living in a community gets spread only by word of mouth, or worse it just stays "locked up" in our heads. But this is great stuff, valuable expert knowledge that can benefit everyone. After all, when it comes to the communities where we live, we are all experts!

What if everyone could share and collaborate on what they know about their local community? What would local media look like if everyone in the community was creating it?

The LocalWiki project is an ambitious effort to create community-owned, living information repositories that will provide much-needed context behind the people, places, and events that shape our communities. We were awarded a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant to create an entirely new sort of software to make our vision of massively collaborative local media a reality.

Here's the Knight foundation video about our project:

Knight News Challenge: Local Wiki from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Background

In 2004 we started the Davis Wiki, an experimental project to collect and share interesting information about the town of Davis, California. The site is editable by anyone and it soon became the world's largest and most vibrant community wiki.

Today the residents of Davis use it for everything from learning about local news and local history, to helping return lost pets to their owners. It's become the largest, most used media source in the city. On any given week, nearly half of residents use the Davis wiki; Nearly everyone uses it on a monthly basis. And 1 in 7 residents contribute material to the Davis Wiki.

The Davis Wiki is maintained, at almost every level, by the community at large. Here's a short video clip about the Davis Wiki:

What About Local Blogs?

In 2007, when the Knight News Challenge began, local blogs were the hot new thing. The Knight Foundation was awarding grants to a variety of great local blog projects.

In 2010, blogs are a widespread, tested model for disseminating information about local happenings. A local blog -- a time-based series of updates on a particular topic -- is in many ways an extension of the time-based model of newspapers. While a local blog may sit on an easily accessible website with lots of comments and frequent updates, it is fundamentally a stream of new facts and new bits of information, day after day.

This bit-by-bit, time-based approach to providing information clearly has its origins in the printing and circulation process of newspapers. And our communities benefit from having strong, thriving local blogs and newspapers. But with the instant, always-on access afforded by the Internet we can build a new form of local media that is constantly updated, provides the full context around local issues, and is maintained by the entire community.

Local Media, By Everyone

Another limitation of blogs is that they are written by at most a handful of people. With a local blog, a few people write and everyone else reads (and maybe leaves comments).

Here's how that looks: local_blog.png

People can interact and share through comments and Twitter, etc., but this doesn't allow the community to command the full publishing power of the resource. And as new facts (often provided by commenters or via Twitter) arrive, the editorial team has to update their post (if we're lucky!) to reflect what's new. Or perhaps publish another post, leading to more information fragmentation.

With our local wiki projects, the entire community will not only read, but also contribute to and maintain the resource:

local_wiki.png

A High-Quality Online Hub For Every Community

How do you find out more information about a particular topic in your community? With only local blogs and newspapers to depend on, you'll quickly find yourself sorting through a scattered web of posts and news tidbits going back years. Wouldn't it be great to have an information hub with the full context behind these important local topics?

This is the final recommendation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy report:

infoneeds1.jpg

It's also a central objective of the LocalWiki project. We hope that our local wiki projects will offer a workable, sustainable model for building and maintaining amazing local information hubs.

We're just getting started on the LocalWiki project and we couldn't be more excited! If you'd like to get more information, or help out with the project, fill out the "Help out & get more info" box at localwiki.org.

We also need your help finding pilot communities for the project! If you know of a great place -- or great people! -- for us to work with, please fill out the pilot recommendation form.

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