My living room window looks directly onto a lovely air shaft – and onto our neighbors' living room, less than ten feet away. They don't have curtains. We do, but sometimes we leave them open for the light, which means we can see them, and they can see us.
Clinging to our notions of politeness and privacy, we all pretend we can't see each other and speedily avert our eyes if contact is made. It's a respectful exchange, but honestly, not a very neighborly one. But when I heard about Blockboard last week, I felt the urge to hang with the strangers across the chute, not avoid them.
Blockboard bridges the neighbor gap. It's an SF-based iPhone app where people who live in the same 'hood share info about hyper-local stuff like impromptu yard sales, street lights that need fixing, missing bikes, and favorite sushi spots.
The startup that built the app was recently acquired by SF-based Klout, so we thought this was a good time to check in with Blockboard's co-founder Dave Baggeroer to learn about the company's beginnings and to find out what's next for the app.
The Bold Italic: How did Blockboard get started?
Dave: It began with the observation that many people don’t know their neighbors anymore. My co-founders and I realized that we could use concepts from social networking and apply them to neighborhoods. But since “neighbors” often aren’t the same as “friends”, we would have to approach the problem differently than Facebook or Twitter had done. Out of these ideas came Blockboard – an app that uses your smartphone to connect you with your neighbors, on your own terms.
TBI: What's the coolest discovery you've made through the app?
Dave: The coolest discovery we made was that many neighbors do want to meet each other; they just need a little help. When we first created Blockboard, that wasn’t necessarily obvious. We hoped the app would help “break the ice” between neighbors, and it was a thrill to see it work in neighborhoods across the city. The impact became clear when we started hosting neighborhood happy hours to bring our users together. Hundreds of neighbors showed up and we found that many already knew each other through Blockboard!
We also discovered that privacy is a complex issue in neighborhoods, especially in big cities. About half of Blockboard users share their real name while the other half remain pseudo-anonymous. We made sure to design the product to accommodate both ends of the privacy spectrum and let people define their neighborhood identity on their terms.
Finally, we were surprised at the popularity of our local Q&A category. It has become a great repository of local neighborhood knowledge.
TBI: What about the weirdest?
Dave: One of the more popular features in Blockboard is our integration with the city of San Francisco’s 311 system. Imagine using your phone to snap a photo of a pothole, broken street light or anything else needing repair and seeing it fixed within days. It’s magic. This is how our 311 integration works. Now imagine seeing all these requests across the entire city. We’ve seen some weird things: a dead chicken on the sidewalk, a dead goat in the street, hypodermic needles on someones front steps, art reported as graffiti... you name it, SF’s 311 system has probably seen it.
You can read more about our experiences with 311 on the Blockboard blog.
TBI: Know of anyone who's found their cat, sold all their lemons, or discovered who burned the palm tree at 21st and Folsom?
Dave: There have been a bunch of what I’d call success stories – cases where someone posted something to Blockboard and got results. Hundreds of 311 requests were serviced as mentioned above in our blog post. We also saw a few people find some running partners in the neighborhood and even a successful doggie play-date (a cute little Yorkshire Terrier). We also found that safety was a common topic for discussion, with many people using Blockboard as a kind of “mobile neighborhood watch.” One neighbor reported a set of cars smashed on the same street by a stolen car, another an overturned car and a fleeing drunk driver. Some of last year’s Mission District shootings were reported immediately after hearing the gunshots. There was never a shortage of stolen bicycles reported, sometimes from within closed garages.
TBI: What's next for Blockboard now that it's been acquired by Klout?
Dave: One of the big things we’ve learned with Blockboard is that people often rely on influence to build relationships with those around them. Just like in the online world, our local communities are filled with influential people who know the answers to our questions, who have opinions that we value, and who give advice that we follow.
Klout is all about understanding influence on the Web, and now they want to expand that system into local communities, mobile devices, and other new contexts. Blockboard will play a major role in achieving those goals!
TBI: What other San Francisco startups are you excited about?
Dave: I think the most exciting thing about San Francisco startups is that the city is quickly becoming the Bay Area’s startup hub. We started Blockboard in SOMA (right next to AT&T park) and now we’re at Klout a few blocks away. This entire area is packed with startups, incubators and all sorts of tech events. The next big crop of Bay Area tech companies are probably going to emerge from SOMA, not Palo Alto.
TBI: What's next for tech in SF?
Dave: I mentioned San Francisco’s 311 service earlier. The service is actually part of a larger open government initiative called Open311 that is being adopted by cities across the country. I think the combination of open data initiatives like Open311 with the incredibly fast adoption of smartphones and cheap sensors everywhere will connect SF and its citizens in amazing new ways.