New feature: custom locations

Aug282009

Where does your neighborhood begin and end?

Does it stretch all the way to Rockwell St., or does it end at Western Ave.? Does it include the bordering cemetery? Does it stop at the railroad tracks, or continue north for a few blocks?

As a neighborhood news site, we try to maintain accurate lists of neighborhoods and their boundaries, but we’re inevitably incomplete. Neighborhoods change, areas get renamed and redeveloped, and even the most well-established districts can have ambiguous boundaries. (In fact, some argue that neighborhoods have no true boundaries, only centers, but a computer needs to be able to draw the line somewhere.)

More importantly, the boundaries of a neighborhood don’t necessarily correspond to the boundaries of the area you’re interested in. For example, your apartment might border multiple neighborhoods — or you might never set foot in a specific area, in which case you might not care much about what happens there. Neighborhood boundaries don’t always match up to emotional geographies.

After getting steady streams of feedback from users who say our boundaries are off or that we overlooked their particular neighborhood, we’ve decided to address this problem once and for all, and we’re incredibly excited about our new approach. Today, we’re launching a feature that puts the control of geographic boundaries in your own hands.

With our new custom locations tool, you can draw your own geographic area, however you’d like. You can draw simple rectangles, or you can be completely arbitrary, gerrymandering it to include or exclude specific streets, drawing oddly shaped polygons to your heart’s content. Once you’re done, we’ll give you a news feed for that specific area, no matter how oblong or oddly shaped it is.

When you create a custom location, you have the option of making it public or keeping it private. If you make it public, it’ll show up on the public list (example) for the benefit of your neighbors and anybody else who might find it useful.

The most interesting way to use it is to create a super-detailed map of your own area that includes only the specific streets you’re interested in. For example, I find myself walking down the same side streets and going to the same restaurants, so I made myself a highly customized, private custom location representing that specific part of Chicago:

Screenshot of custom location boundaries

This is similar to (but much more powerful than) the old “crimes along a route” feature of our predecessor site, chicagocrime.org.

As with any other area on EveryBlock (like blocks, neighborhoods or ZIP codes), you can sign up to get regular e-mail alerts or an RSS feed for news that happens in your custom locations. And our fine-grained customization applies, too, so, for example, you can elect to get notified only for photos, crime and local blog coverage, but not for building permits.

We think this is an interesting approach because we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that no list of neighborhoods will ever be 100% complete and accurate — so why push the boulder up that hill any longer? Of course, we still feature our legacy lists of neighborhoods (example), but over time, we’ll likely phase that out in favor of a hybrid approach mixing user-contributed custom locations and the neighborhoods we’ve obtained from various “official” sources.

Take a look at the new tool and let us know what you think by e-mailing feedback [at] everyblock.com.

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