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The Digital Skeptic: Even Big Data-Driven News Needs People

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Wander around the Big Data block long enough and you'll run into some dead ends. Take EveryBlock, the Chicago-based hyperlocal data news service recently acquired by Comcast (CMCSA).

All my conversations about using data in news seem to lead to a kid named Adrian Holovaty. He's the University of Missouri journalism grad who created an easy-to-use, Web-friendly software framework called Django -- so easy that even I am breaking out my stat skills to create some Big Data models with the tool.

I know -- stand back! But the thing is, I'm not the only journalist inspired by Holovaty.

Back in 2007, a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) named Matthew Waite developed PolitiFact, an online database analysis tool that helped confirm what politicians actually said.

"The whole site is inspired by Adrian Holovaty's manifesto on the fundamental way newspaper websites need to change," Waite wrote on his blog back in 2007.

Not surprisingly, PolitiFact was money this election year. Online data tracker Quantcast said 2.3 million U.S. folks used the service since mid-September. It did not hurt that the service won a Pulitzer in 2009.

And not surprisingly, Holovaty snagged some media-biz love. He landed a $1.1 million Knight Foundation grant to ramp up his pet project, EveryBlock. Based on an earlier experiment called Chicagocrime.org, described by the Nieman Journalism Lab as a "map mashup," EveryBlock vacuums up police blotter events, real estate information and other open local data and renders it as news.

It's been owned by MSNBC since 2009. A professional CEO, Brian Addison, was brought in, and in March of this year he added a social media service, making it a sort of hyperlocal Twitter. The product rolled out to 19 cities and it seemed EveryBlock had PolitiFact written all over it -- a Big Data news property setting up on a nice piece of real estate here in Mediaville.

Problem is, my brief spin around the neighborhood tells me that not even geniuses such as Holovaty can code their way out of our digital media slum.

Not winning a Pulitzer Prize
After several months using this tool, it is clear turning news business hype into news business profits is still not well understood. Since my town of Harrison, N.Y., is not supported, I looked at the EveryBlock for where I was born: Hell's Kitchen. And honestly, the daily digest of hyperlocal, data driven, socially enabled news was barely that. Essentially news scraped from other media sources, geotagged Flickr pictures, Yelp reviews and lots -- and lots -- of real estate listings.

Any Web search engine or hashtag social search tool generates similar results.

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