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.

Povo Boston LogoMetral 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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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8 responses to “Povo Lets Residents Say What’s Best and Worst About Boston, Block by Block”

  1. Zach says:

    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?

  2. Max Metral says:

    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:


    And on Povo:


    Or for parks with baseball fields:

    And on top of that, for places I can park for less than $15 for 2 hours in Boston:

    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. :)

  3. Zach says:

    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.

  4. Zach says:

    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.

  5. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    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.

  6. Max Metral says:

    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.

  7. Max Metral says:

    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.