2011: Shifting into 2nd Gear

Posted by – December 31, 2010

2010: Wow, what a year. 2011: We’re looking forward to meeting you!

Today is the last day of a fun, chaotic, and whirlwind year on 5 Blocks Out. We launched our beta release this year. We made many new friends, and leaned hard on our old ones. We learned a great deal. We consumed a lot of delicious coffee. And we worked hard almost every single day on improving and growing the service.

Throughout the year we received a ton of support from our member community, family, and friends. Thank you, everyone, for that. Starting something new is not easy, and it’s often lonely. We value every bit of encouragement, advice, and support.

5 Blocks Out is up and running, new members are joining steadily, and people are adding helpful tips. That said, we’ve really only just gotten started. When people ask us how it’s going we explain, “We’re shifting from 1st gear to 2nd gear”. It’s a good analogy: we know we have the horsepower to reach 2nd gear, but we aren’t quite there yet in terms of momentum. We need to grow the user community further so that people feel there’s a critical mass of friends and neighbours on board. We also need to make the service more valuable for people who already know their neighbourhoods well, e.g. by adding more info on what’s going on nearby. We’re working on both of these initiatives right now, and they’ll be our main focus for the next several months.

If you’d like to help us reach that second gear, here are some concrete things we’d love you to do:

And as always, we welcome your thoughts and proposals. Please send us feedback.

We’re looking forward to 2011. Onwards!

Katrin and Osh

Just Opened

Posted by – September 15, 2010

Did you ever wonder if there was an easy way to find out when new places open up in your ‘hood? Wonder no more, for 5 Blocks Out can tell you about it with the “Just Opened” feature.

Here you can see an excerpt from my latest email newsletter, showing places that recently opened in some of the neighbourhoods I’m following:

And below is a partial view of the 5 Blocks Out web page for the West Queen West neighbourhood, showing places that recently opened nearby. Every neighbourhood displays a list like this, provided there’s something new to show.

So how does this work? It’s community-powered (read: we need your help to make this work well). When adding a new place to the site you simply select “recently opened” to let people know it’s a brand new destination that just opened. In the example below, I’m adding a shop called “Knife“:

I click “yes” to indicate the place recently opened, and then “Save Changes”. Done. Now 5 Blocks Out can start telling people about it.

You can also select “recently opened” for places that other people have added to the site, provided it hasn’t been too long since they did so. Do this by clicking the edit button next to the place address.

We’ve currently set this up to show “just opened” places for about 90 days. Sound about right? Let us know what you think.

You can now “follow” missions

Posted by – August 19, 2010

If you haven’t seen missions on 5 Blocks Out yet then you should check them out. Missions help you build a list of places and tips with help from other people, and then vote on the results. In the “Queen of Poutine” example below Pam is looking for advice on great places to get poutine in Toronto. Anyone can add suggestions to her mission, write brief tips, and vote places up and down.

Until now the onus has been on mission contributors to check back on the site once in a while to see what’s changed. Remembering to do this is kind of a pain, so we’ve made it a little easier: you can now “follow” a mission, just as you can follow what other community members on 5 Blocks Out are up to.

Here’s how it works: First, find the mission you’re interested in, and open it up. Second, click the “Follow” button to start following. From then onwards, updates on things happening within the mission will show up on your My Stuff page and in your email newsletter.

Mission with follow button

Click the "Follow" button to start following activity in a mission

As the owner of a mission you’re already signed up to follow its activity stream. We also turn on following automatically for anyone who contributes to a mission by adding a tip, adding a place, or voting a place up or down. Lastly, whenever somebody new follows a mission we send a quick email notification to the mission’s owner. (You can control follower notifications via My Stuff > Preferences > Notifications.)

What do you think? Useful? What can we do better? Let us know.

How do you define Neighbourhoods?

Posted by – August 3, 2010

This is part 1 in a series of posts about designing 5BlocksOut.com around neighbourhoods. We describe the challenges we’ve encountered and the solutions we’ve come up with so far.

Neighbourhoods are central to the 5 Blocks Out user experience. They’re part of navigation, overall site structure, and our “following” feature that lets you subscribe to everything happening in a geographical area. We’ve hit many interesting design challenges along the way and we’d like to share a bit of that with you in this series.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Q: What is the list of Toronto’s neighbourhoods and where is each ‘hood located?

A: There isn’t an official answer to this question. Many older cities have put this debate to rest, but Toronto’s neighbourhoods are still a topic of discussion and occasional flux. That’s in part because Toronto is still changing fast: new ‘hoods like Junction Triangle pop up from time to time as people move in and demand recognition. It’s also because our municipal government has remained fairly quiet on the topic, although not entirely mute.*

When we first started researching Toronto’s neighbourhoods we went direct to the City, where we discovered a lovely hand-crafted neighbourhoods map that corresponded pretty well to how real Torontonians talk about their neighbourhoods. “Paydirt!”, we thought. Then we spoke with the city employee who originally put it together, and realized it wouldn’t work for us. The map was no longer being maintained because of the high volume of feedback and complaints it received. Furthermore, the City explicitly didn’t want to become the arbiter of neighbourhood boundaries. Sadly, the map appears to have been retired, as we can no longer find it on the city web site. A trip to the archives awaits.

What you’ll currently find on the City of Toronto website is a set of neighbourhood profiles and a list and map of neighbourhoods with demographic info. It’s a valuable resource, especially if you want to do statistical analysis, because it was created for that purpose using Statistics Canada census tracts. Unfortunately for us, census tracts don’t correspond to the way people commonly talk about neighbourhoods — “Hey, wanna meet at that new pub in CMA Tract 0039.00 tonight?”. Not practical as a starting point for 5 Blocks Out.

The Toronto Real Estate board and various real estate-related companies all have their own lists and maps, of course. These maps tend to correspond to MLS regions, which is nice if you’re a real estate salesperson, but again, not useful for 5 Blocks Out’s purposes.

Google recently added neighbourhood names to its Toronto map to make wayfinding easier… zoom in far enough and you’ll see them. Unfortunately Google doesn’t offer a corresponding list of these ‘hoods, at least none that we’re aware of.

The Toronto Star published a nice neighbourhoods map in March 2009 and improved it subsequently with feedback from readers. The Star map is also available in KML format for Google Earth. This is probably the closest thing to what we were looking for, but it didn’t exist when we began our design process. We’ll definitely pay attention as it evolves further.

Then there’s CoachHouse Books, which published our favourite Toronto maps e-vah in their visionary uTOpia. The book includes two beautiful city maps, a realistic map by Alfred Duggan and another, more fanciful and aspirational map by Marlena Zuber.** These arguably do the best job of helping one understand the cultural fabric of the city.

Last but not least, Wikipedia has a wealth of information on Toronto’s neighbourhoods. In the end we went with Wikipedia as our primary source of data for 5 Blocks Out, since it has not only a great list of neighbourhoods that match closely how everyday people talk about Toronto, but also a few hundred detailed articles, one for each neighbourhood, and a little bit of high-level history as well.

We derived over 170 ‘hoods from Wikipedia, and we put these all on the 5 Blocks Out Toronto neighbourhoods map, using descriptions in the neighbourhood-specific articles to take a best guess at a geographic center. (We haven’t dared define boundaries yet; more on that in part 2.) Wikipedia really is a great source for this kind of thing, especially if you want the “citizen’s view”.

One major learning for us was that defining a list of neighbourhoods in a city like Toronto is an editorial exercise: you need to set policies about which neighbourhoods will be included in your list, and you’ll often run into gray zones where the answer is unclear. For instance, “The Pocket” is a great little neighbourhood on Toronto’s east side, south of the Danforth, and people who live there definitely know it as such, but you won’t find it on the City of Toronto neighbourhood list. For 5 Blocks Out we generally err towards inclusivity and defer to the views of real people who live in the area. So The Pocket is in, as far as we’re concerned: voila.

Stay tuned for part 2: “What are the neighbourhood boundaries, and does it matter?”

Footnotes:
* Unlike, say, New York, where the city government has an official list of neighbourhood names and a boundary map
** Marlena has published many more maps since then

First Six Days: Awesome

Posted by – July 13, 2010

First six days: awesome. We’re thrilled about how it’s going so far — the number of new visitors, the number of sign-ups and invitations, the new tips and missions people are contributing, and the fact that our web server hasn’t tipped over yet under the weight of all this traffic. (I know, I know… tempting fate. Be nice to the website, please!)

Here are some examples of what people are up to:

Juliette S added a tip about the Belljar Cafe in Roncesvalles:

Ok finally made it here while it was open. Great place to work – especially on dark, broody, rainy days when you feel like you can spy on the world. Good cheap grilled sandwiches. Awesome music selection.

Melanie R says, of Sanagan’s Meat Locker near Baldwin Village:

This is a fantastic butcher shop, with a focus on locally-sourced meats.

Renée M likes the High Park & Roncesvalles Mom’s Group:

I’m a member of this group and have met my best mom friends and my son’s playmates through the meetup: High Park – Roncesvalles mom’s group.

People are starting missions, too. Mike T started “Where can you get a good beer?” with answers such as Caffe Volo, C’est What, Duggan’s Brewery, and Sin and Redemption topping the list. Pamela S is seeking the “Queen of Poutine“.  Mike B is looking for leads on a great plumber so he can complete his home reno. And Paula M is looking for prenatal and postnatal yoga. Help them out!

Lots of people seem fascinated by our neighbourhoods map, which shows the 181 neighbourhoods we know about in Toronto. You can navigate by entering a street address or intersection, or by just dragging the map. And you can click the zoom buttons to zoom in/out, or double-click on the map. (One of our members tells us the zoom buttons don’t show up on IE8. Anyone else seeing that?)

Of course, moreso than the map, people really love their specific neighbourhoods. So far Brockton Village, The Junction, and Roncesvalles are getting the lion’s share of views. Once you’re signed up you can follow neighbourhoods, Twitter-style, to find out what’s happening there. We’ll dig up some stats on that a little further down the road.

The Bird Nest, our community-powered hub for parents, is also getting lots of visits. Here you can see folks exchanging tips that help parents with little kids, e.g. finding kid-friendly places to go, places with activities for kids, and good places to buy family-related stuff. As a parent of a toddler I’m particularly delighted to see the Bird Nest coming to fruition.

And last but not least, so many people have emailed us and tweeted about 5 Blocks Out. Thank you, all of you, for your kind words, and for helping spread the news. We really appreciate it, and your encouragement means a great deal to us.

We’re happy.  Hooray!

Announcing the Public Beta Release of 5 Blocks Out

Posted by – July 7, 2010

We are delighted to announce the Public Beta release of 5 Blocks Out [http://5blocksout.com/?utm_source=5boblog&utm_medium=blog&utm_campaign=5bobeta]. This officially wraps up our “limited preview” phase during which hundreds of friends and family members helped get the site ready for prime time. 5 Blocks Out is now open for everyone to use. Hooray!
For those of you who are new, 5 Blocks Out makes it fun and easy for friends, neighbours, and parents to share helpful tips on local living. If you spend time in Toronto and love neighbourhoods, enjoy walking and biking to local stuff, have kids, or like supporting green and locally owned businesses, then 5 Blocks Out has something for you. Check it out here [http://5blocksout.com/?utm_source=5boblog&utm_medium=blog&utm_campaign=5bobeta] and see the tour [http://5blocksout.com/about/tour?utm_source=5boblog&utm_medium=blog&utm_campaign=5bobeta] to learn more.
For those of you who are not new, you can now do things you couldn’t do before. You can use the site without signing in — though of course it’s much more fun and helpful if you do. Over the last few months we’ve also made added a main “Explore” page [http://5blocksout.com/?utm_source=5boblog&utm_medium=blog&utm_campaign=5bobeta] that shows an overview of what’s going on site-wide, added a community-powered collection of tips for parents with young kids called the “Bird Nest” [http://5blocksout.com/bird-nest/?utm_source=5boblog&utm_medium=blog&utm_campaign=5bobeta], and made hundreds of other improvements to the neighbourhood pages, destination pages, missions, and member profiles. We’ve been busy.
We currently support Toronto’s core metro area neighbourhoods (see map) [http://5blocksout.com/c/2-toronto/neighborhoods_map?utm_source=5boblog&utm_medium=blog&utm_campaign=5bobeta]. We live here, we love this city, and we think it’s a great place to start. We’ll expand to new geographies over time, based on feedback.
There’s more to come, of course. “Beta” means “work in progress”, and we have a long list of things to improve. Your feedback will help us prioritize what to do next.
A huge thank you to all of the 5 Blocks Out Insiders who’ve helped us learn and grow. Your feedback, encouragement, and inspiration has been vital, and we very much appreciate your help.
Game on!
Katrin Lepik and Oshoma Momoh

We are delighted to announce the Public Beta release of 5 Blocks Out! This officially wraps up our “limited preview” phase during which hundreds of friends and family members helped us test and improve the site. 5 Blocks Out is now open for everyone to use. Hooray!

For those of you who are new, 5 Blocks Out makes it fun and easy for friends, neighbours, and parents to share helpful tips on local living. If you spend time in Toronto and love neighbourhoods, enjoy walking and biking to local stuff, have kids, or like supporting green and locally owned businesses, then 5 Blocks Out has something for you. Check it out here and see the tour to learn more.

For those of you who are not new, you can now do things you couldn’t do before. You can use the site without signing in, though of course it’s much more fun and helpful if you’re logged in. Over the last few months we’ve also added the Explore page, which shows an overview of what’s going on site-wide, the Bird Nest, which offers community-authored tips for parents with young kids, and hundreds of other improvements to the neighbourhood pages, destination pages, missions, and member profiles. We’ve been busy.

We currently support core metro area neighbourhoods in Toronto (see map). We live here, we love this city, and we think it’s a great place to start. We’ll expand to new geographies over time, based on feedback.

There’s more to come, of course. “Beta” means “work in progress”, and we have a long list of things to improve. Your feedback will help us prioritize what to do next.

A huge thank you to all of the 5 Blocks Out Insiders who’ve helped us learn and grow. Your feedback, encouragement, and inspiration has been vital, and we very much appreciate your help.

Game on!

Katrin and Osh

5 Blocks Out DemoCamp Video Is Up

Posted by – December 17, 2009

We had fun presenting 5 Blocks Out to folks at Toronto DemoCamp #24 a few weeks ago. Geoffrey Wiseman kindly recorded video of the presentations, so thanks to Geoffrey you can now watch the 5 Blocks Out demo online. It’s about 6 minutes end to end. You can also access the demo and Q&A directly on YouTube if you like.

A big thanks to everyone who helped us prepare for the demo, and to all who signed up afterwards and shared such great feedback and suggestions.

Onwards!

5 Blocks Out at DemoCamp #24 on Dec 3

Posted by – November 26, 2009

We’ve been accepted to present 5 Blocks Out at Toronto DemoCamp #24.  Hooray!

It should be a good opportunity to show what we’ve done so far on 5 Blocks Out, and to get feedback and engagement from a broader set of folks in Toronto’s tech community.

If seeing interesting slices of  Toronto’s tech activity sounds good to you, check out DemoCamp, and in a similar vein and spirit, Ignite Toronto.

announcing the bird nest press

Posted by – November 15, 2009

The Bird Nest Press
We launched a fun local e-newsletter this week called the Bird Nest Press. Hurray!

It’s geared at parents with young kids. The newsletter will explore local places, resources and tips to make parenting even more enjoyable.

Check out the first issue here. And subscribe to the Bird Nest Press here. We plan to publish every 3 – 4 weeks.

The first issue has a very useful presentation on H1N1 vaccinations. Forwarding it to new moms will be appreciated…believe you me.

Yumm, We Love Open Data

Posted by – November 3, 2009

One of the things the massive 5 Blocks Out product team (ahem… all two of us) does is slurp up lots of city-related data into 5BlocksOut.com. We’ve built a list of Toronto neighbourhoods, for instance — there are a few hundred — and we’re compiling lists of thousands of named places within the city. This all takes a lot of time, even with the help of our community members, so we’ve been pretty excited about the “Open Data” initiative that the city is putting together. If the city provides some of the data that we currently gather manually it should allow us to focus more on improving the “application” part of 5 Blocks Out, instead of toiling away on invisible-yet-necessary “plumbing”. This is a big deal, not just for 5 Blocks Out and other software projects, but for our 50-some thousand city staff and, ultimately, millions of citizens.

Toronto Open Data kicked off in earnest yesterday and today at the Toronto Innovation Showcase event. I attended the Open Data Lab on day 1, and took part in a panel discussion hosted by Mark Kuznicki with David Crow, Jay Goldman, and Greg Wilson on day 2 (today). It was a lot of fun, and the buzz and positive energy was palpable. See the Twitter backchannels here and here. I was particularly inspired to meet so many smart and can-do city employees.

If you’d like to get involved in requesting and using open data related to the city, check out DataTO.org, where you can put your wish lists. I put ours (place name location data) on the site, so go vote for it now!

The panel webcast will be archived at some point on toronto.ca/toshowcase, so check back there if you’re interested.