Track180 Builds iPad App to Bring More Context, Balance to Online News

The best entrepreneurs are an elusive mix of tech-business expert, clear-headed thinker, contrarian, psychologist, and elevator repairman. Because, really, if you know how to fix elevators, you can pretty much do anything.

That would apply to Drue Hontz, the founder and CEO of Track180, a startup in New Haven, CT, that’s trying to reinvent how people browse news and get information online. Track180 has been working on an iPad app that organizes articles by event or issue and presents different “vantage points” around that issue from selected outlets and writers. Clicking on different vantage points helps give readers a more balanced view and more context around global issues—that’s the idea, anyway. The app is slated for release in April or May.

The overarching theme here is how to combat information overload, media bias, and lack of context—three of the biggest problems facing Internet readers. (Another New England startup, Cloze, just released an app for managing e-mail and social overload; interestingly, it also strikes a balance between algorithms and human input—see below.)

Let’s back up a bit. From age 19, Hontz worked as an elevator service repairman and then eventually moved to the office side of things, working in sales. In 1997, he started his own elevator company out of his basement in Connecticut with $20,000. Over the years he built Hontz Elevator (motto: “old-fashioned service at a good price”) into a five-state, 120-person company before selling it to Schindler Elevator in 2005.

After two years of working for The Man, Hontz was itching for a new project. It was time to get out of elevators and, as it turns out, into the world of online media.

Like most people, Hontz (left) got most of his news from the Web, but he was fed up with the fact that “everything led to information overload.” You could read a dozen different accounts of a news event, but that was time-consuming and tiring. What’s more, every event had a ripple effect on other events that was hard to track in media reports. Whether you’re reading about conflicts in Afghanistan, environmental and economic effects of a cement maker moving to Canada, or the recent Indian rape trial, he says, “there are so many aspects, you can’t understand it.”

Hontz says he wanted to devise a “new way of rearranging information” online. This was 2007-08. So he sold his boat and, as he puts it, “walked away from sailing the Caribbean.”

Track180 is the result. The app and content management system is built, and Hontz’s team has been tuning the user interface with feedback from beta testers. The key challenge: making the experience truly engaging and useful on a tablet.

“Humans need a path of least resistance,” he says. “I started mapping that out and tried to figure out a better way to navigate the information.”

Of course, scores of companies have been developing news apps, content discovery platforms, and the like. Some are social, some are algorithmic, and others use humans to curate content. One example is News360, which tries to personalize news feeds to individuals’ hobbies and interests (in politics, sports, and entertainment, say).

Track180 is different in that it goes out of its way to … Next Page »

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