Localmind Aspires to Answer Questions Around the Globe

Last weekend, Localmind founders Lenny Rachitsky and Beau Haugh took their location-driven question-and-answer app back to South by Southwest, where it first launched a year ago.

This time, they put every party at the hip tech conference on the app’s map, so that SXSW users could ask which parties to go to, which had the best food, and what kind of drinks were where.

They also partnered with mobile karaoke bar {RV}IP, tracking the party bus by transponder as it moved around Austin so that wanna-be singers could find it.

But while navigating the Austin party scene is exactly the kind of problem they originally conceived the app to solve, Localmind has grown well beyond this special case. In its first iteration, the app was mainly meant to help users figure which bars and restaurants are hopping at any given time. People on the couch at home could send along a question—how crowded is the bar, what’s the male to female ratio—and bar hoppers checked in on Foursquare or other services could respond. Simple. But soon, Rachitsky says, people wanted more.

Answers nearby on Localmind

Users started asking bigger questions and Localmind was funneling queries like “Are some areas of Sacramento safer to live in that others?” “Know any stores that would give me a job now?” And “Where is a great restaurant to go for a first date?”

“It happened a lot more than I thought,” Rachitsky says. “We recognized that this is tied to what’s happening in the world. Unemployment in general is a big problem-people are going to be asking about this stuff.”

After five months of tinkering and tweaking, Localmind launched the 2.0 version of its app in February, building on the feedback the company gotten from users and the kinds of questions that popped up.

“People have bigger problems than what’s happening at a bar right now,” he says. “But no one is tapping into that knowledge on demand.”

The startup adjusted the app to address a gamut of questions. Rachitsky describes it as a real-time Yelp or Quora that sends queries directly to the people best able to answer them: those who live in a given area. If you live in the East Bay, for example, you’re probably able to say which local hikes are most family-friendly. If you live in Egypt, you can say whether it’s safe to take a certain road at night. (That’s a real discussion that has popped up.) In the wake of the tsunami in Japan, people even sent questions to locals about what they could do to help.

The 2.0 version also got a new back end, as the founders reconfigured their algorithms, rethinking how many people they should send a question to, how often they should send questions to a given user, and which people were the best experts for which topics. They gave their users scores for reputation and expertise, figured out often they were willing to answer, then “put it all in a bucket and gave them a score,” Rachitsky says.

To protect against untrustworthy responses from users, the company put in a ‘like’ button so that people could show who was giving helpful responses, and who wasn’t.

Two and half years ago, Rachitsky was working as a manager in a San Diego engineering company that was swallowed by a bigger one. At the same time, Foursquare released its API, which allowed outside developers to tie their apps into the location-based social network. “It was the first time anyone shared people’s location data, and data about where they’d been, where they like to go and where they are now. I thought, ‘what the heck can we do with this?'”

The answer? An app called Assisted Serendipity, which notified a user when the male-to-female ratio tipped in his or her favor at a bar or restaurant. Fun and silly, but it made Rachitsky see … Next Page »

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